Why does the Maxim Institute Hate Democracy?

Earlier this month, the Maxim Institute, a far-right think tank based in Auckland published an article about the urban/rural divide in New Zealand.The institute has done some “research” that indicates that there are differences in lifestyles and attitudes between regions in New Zealand. They forecast that a greater proportion of the population will live in urban centres (70% in 30 years time). Strangely the institute chooses to frame this as a problem:

That’s a lot of urban voters, and it’s going to be very tempting for politicians to focus more and more on urban interests in order to win those votes, possibly at the expense of the rest of the country.

It could also make it easier for urban voters to ignore or mock the interests of voters living in very different communities.

I don’t see the problem. If the vast majority of the population lives in urban areas, then it is only right that politicians focus on urban interests. That’s democracy in action. It’s also assuming that policy development is a zero-sum game. This is not strictly true, a policy designed to help urban dwellers does not necessarily harm rural dwellers.

Let’s also keep in mind that the opposite situation exists at present. Politicians already prioritise property owners and corporations at the expense of ordinary people. Policies such as irrigation schemes and the dilution of water quality standards are designed to benefit rural voters while harming the interests of the wider public. Why doesn’t the Maxim Institute write about these issues instead of this one that they made up?

It’s worth mentioning that the urban-rural divide is a cornerstone of political analysis in USA, where it plays a massive factor in elections. Donald Trump can credit the urban/rural divide with handing him the presidency that he didn’t deserve. The electorate is divided into a series of winner-take-all states where the number of electors is not proportional to the state populations. Narrow victories in swing states and the over-representation of small rural states turned a 2.7 million vote deficit into a 77 vote surplus in the electoral college. By preserving and accentuating a bias in favour of rural areas, the American right-wing have been able to engineer electoral victories in the face of popular defeats.

When we keep this in mind, the motives behind the Maxim Institute’s article become much more sinister. They don’t say it, but it is implicit that they think that the electoral system should be redesigned. I imagine they would want something less proportional, like FPP that favours rural constituencies. Never mind that FPP has been rejected by the public twice during the past two and a half decades.  While they may cry crocodile tears about their contrived decline in rural areas, this is all about securing right-wing power over New Zealand for years to come.

As things stand NZ has a very proportional voting system. There is no reason for this to ever change. If the increase in the numbers of urban voters is a problem for the political right, the problem is with them, not with the voters and not with the electoral system. If this is typical of the standard of work that the Maxim Institute is producing, urbanisation should be the least of their worries.

Blasphemy in New Zealand: Scrap the Law Now!

Like many the world over, I have enjoyed the wit of Stephen Fry in great shows such as Blackadder and QI to name just two. Moreover, I enjoy much of Fry’s socio-political commentary, such as his famous interview with RTÈ in 2015. Here, he raised a concept that many atheists have considered: the idea that if God were real, then he/she/they are irredeemably cruel for either enabling or failing to prevent the misery experienced by people throughout space and time (see problem of evil). Christian apologetics such as “blessings in disguise” , “free will”, “original sin”, or “punishment for things” are unconvincing and churlish.

In the 2015 RTÈ interview, Fry described God as “capricious, mean-minded and stupid” and “a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish”. Well put. It turns out that Fry was reported to the police for blasphemy and an investigation is to be conducted. Much outrage has ensued, including in the Guardian comment section, where my alter ego earned 299 upvotes (a new record, beating my last record where I called for a coup d’etat in Turkey). In an era where free-speech whingers are becoming louder and louder, such an uproar was to be expected. Blasphemy is an absurd concept. It assumes that there is a universal standard for what is acceptable speech and that deviation from this standard warrants punishment. Neither of those things are true. Blasphemy laws serve no purpose other than to suppress the opponents of state power and the leaders of the majority religion, entrenching the privileges that the rich and powerful enjoy.

The constitution of the Irish Republic (1937) mandates that blasphemy must be a criminal offence (pg 160 of the convenient online PDF version). The Defamation Act of 2009 gave a statutory definition for blasphemy. In order to strike the law from the constitution, a referendum must be held. You may remember that a successful referendum to amend constitution was held in May 2015 to introduce same-sex marriage. The same needs to be done to remove the blasphemy law.

While many are still worried about faux-populist retrogrades derailing the removal of blasphemy (e.g. like voting for Brexit or Trump), a law which allows the religious to claim offence on the basis of hurt feelings should be even less controversial than same-sex marriage. Luckily the Fine Gael minority government has plans to introduce such a referendum. I’m confident the Irish voters will get this one right too.

Meanwhile in New Zealand: The corporate media and some ignorant politicians were shocked to discover that NZ has its own blasphemy law. All they had to do was look it up on Wikipedia! It originated from English common law (thanks British colonialism!) and was then added to the Crimes Act of 1961, where only the Attorney General may push for a prosecution. Only one prosecution has ever taken place, which failed. Since free speech is protected in the Bill of Rights Act 1990, Attorneys General decline to engage in blasphemy prosecutions.

One might wonder what’s the harm? That’s not good enough. We should not assume that Attorneys General will always act with decency and pragmatism. The BORA would be one of the first targets that a hypothetical far-right government would seek to remove (my guess would be that the BORA would be framed as “PC gone mad”). Then there is scope to tie opposing voices up in blasphemy cases, allowing for the government to cement it’s grip on power. In the same way that we do not leave matches lying around for children and arsonists to set things in fire, we should not leave bad laws around for those with ill intent to terrorise us.

To his credit, Prime Minister Bill English (the Valtteri Bottas of NZ politics*) does not think we should have a blasphemy law. That’s pretty good coming from someone who is generally addled by Catholic doctrine. The Herald ran an article where English was disappointingly lax about the repeal, saying it would be part of an omnibus bill getting rid of lots of nonsense laws in one go. The perpetual contrarian Winston Peters played the “I’ll focus on things that matter” card. Labour leader Andrew Little called himslef a “free speech extremist” (rather understandably). Libertarian welfare recipient David Seymour did his best to get a repeal ASAP. The end of the article was interesting, suggesting that the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 could be misused as a blasphemy law. It’s already been used to harass left wing blogs, so I guess we’ll have to watch this space.

Blasphemy has no place in a secular, civilised society (sorry about the tautology). Even having a currently toothless law puts us at risk should a band of fanatical zealots ever take office. Now is the time to strike while public attention is at its peak. Remove the law so that we may continue without fear to expose conservative religion for the dangerous, hateful fraud that it is.

*Following on from my John Key/Nico Rosberg analogy. I wish to extend my apologies to Bottas for comparing him with English. We know that Bottas can win, while English hasn’t.

Children at Protest Marches? No Problem

This weekend saw people all over the world participate in the March for Science. The march was originally created in response to the alarming anti-science attitudes of US President, Donald Trump and his cabinet of billionaire brigands. In an act of solidarity with scientists in the USA, marches have been organised in many places, including main centres in NZ. There are supplementary issues specific to NZ such as the dismissal of scientific evidence, or the backlash that scientists experience when they speak out in an area that is perceived to be too politicial (see Mike Joy for an example).

I wasn’t able to make it to the march since the nearest one was a few dozen kilometers away and car travel would expose me to criticisms of hypocrisy given the closeness of the march to climate change issues. While reading the Stuff.co.nz report of the march, I was annoyed by some of the commenters who expressed outrage at parents taking their children to the march. Apparently, it’s disgusting to politicise children like that.

Let’s consider a different issue: parents letting children attend religious education in schools. The common line opponents to religion in schools make is: “keep it out of schools. If parents want to raise their children into a religion, then they can do it at home”. One way or another, it is a widely held view that parents are free to raise their children into their religion*, one that I suspect that the commenters would hold.

Given that one accepts that viewpoint, then it is only logically consistent then that parents should also be free to take their children along to participate in a protest march as well. If anything, a protest march is better since it is a one-off event that the children will likely forget about when they are older, while religious indoctrination is persistent.

So ignorant Stuff.co.nz  commenters, do you take you children to church? Or have you not removed them from RE in school? If you have said yes to either of those questions, then according to your own reasoning, you are just as bad, if not worse than the protest marchers that you were so quick to criticise. Good on the people who attended the March for Science, future generations will appreciate that you gave a damn about their future.

*I don’t actually agree that parents are free to raise children into a religion, but that’s for another blog post.

My Opinion on the Andrew Little Defamation Trial

On Monday, news broke that the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Little has been partially cleared of defaming the owners of a hotel chain. This verdict makes writing the post easier as I know that some of Little’s statements were not defamatory and can report on them with less fear of negative consequences. Having read up on online defamation, I should be OK if I stick to verifiable facts and genuine statements of opinion. Of course that’s no guarantee. As Little has found out, you can be sued for defamation even when what you said wasn’t defamatory. The comments about the case on social media and other blogs were probably more defamatory than anything Little ever said. But I guess suing an internet random doesn’t have the same gravitas does it?

How did this all begin? The founder of the Scenic Hotel Group hotel chain donated $101,000 to the governing National Party prior to the last election. One month later, Scenic Hotel Group was awarded a government contract to run the Matavai Resort in Niue. That these two events occurred is beyond doubt, the issue is a matter of optics as to whether there is any connection between the events.

I think the timing could be described as “interesting”, or “unfortunate” as a cynical mind can’t help but wander, especially since there is history with National Party donors and unfortunately timed government contracts such as Beemer-gate. In that case, the dealer saw sense and didn’t sue anyone. With the hotel incident, Little made some comments where he alleged corruption. The Hagamans sued him for defamation prior to an investigation by the Auditor-General. Once the Auditor-General got involved and gave the process the all-clear,  Little apologised to the Hagamans.

From the reports of proceedings in the trial, Lani Hagaman said that she wanted a suitable public apology. I think that the statement on the Labour Party website was sufficient. They should not have expected an apology before the AG investigation when they sued him, why should Little apologise when the facts are yet to be determined? I found that Little was being sued for $2.3 million inconsistent with the claim that Hagaman just wanted an apology. I am unconvinced by the excuse that it is to restore Earl Hagaman’s reputation. Ironically, my opinion of Hagaman is diminished by the fact that Lani Hagaman thinks that his reputation can be restored by an amount of money that would bankrupt Little. If they didn’t want me to think poorly of them, then they shouldn’t have donated money to the National Party in the first place.

I am also concerned about the political motivations that could have been involved. National Party donors and presumably supporters suing a Labour Party politician unsettles me. Will suing for defamation under unconvincing circumstances become a tactic for the wealthy and powerful to censor dissenting voices? The integrity of our democracy is more important than the feelings of greedy multi-millionaires whose own actions do more to harm their reputation than anything Andrew Little could say. Fortunately, one of the findings of this case was that Little has qualified privilege as Leader of the Opposition to draw attention to potentially murky dealings. As noted by Antony Robins, this is good for democracy.

Unfortunately, it may not be over yet. Lani Hagaman looks to be seeking a retrial over the inability of the jury to decide whether Little had defamed Earl Hagaman. She also does not believe that Little is not protected by qualified privilege. Little has washed his hands of the issue as has the corporate media, who have moved on to other things.  By donating to the National party, companies are making a statement that they view their customers and New Zealand with contempt. However, contempt goes both ways so I will not be purchasing goods and services from Scenic Hotel Group in the forseeable future.

Dear Paul Moon, Free Speech at University is Doing Fine

The world seems to be in hysterics these days about universities being left-wing hiveminds that suppress the “free speech” of individuals or groups who hold viewpoints seen as “politically incorrect”. Much of this stems from the ignorance of the general public, who aren’t exactly familiar with universities and have no idea what they are talking about when they say “political correctness”. This hysteria is largely pushed by the political Right, who are upset that they rejected reality and are now underrepresented in academic faculty.

For some reason, some Very Serious New Zealanders are worried about free speech being under threat in NZ universities following the closure of a quasi-fascist club at the University of Auckland such that they signed a letter, led by AUT Professor of History Paul Moon. The European Students Association started out with some alarming Nazi imagery on their social media page and the claim to “promote European culture on campus” which is typical vague weasel language used by white supremacist groups. If they were genuinely interested in European cultures, they would have created multiple groups i.e. Italian Students Association, French, German etc in order to cover the vast range of cultural practices covered in Europe. Similar distinctions exist already with other international student clubs. If you actually wanted to celebrate things like French architecture or Swiss chocolate, then you would just say so. You wouldn’t hide it behind a Nazi slogan.

While we will never know what their true future intentions were because they gave up soon after, I suspect they were taking a softly-softly approach to get their foot in the door and then gradually acclimatize the student body as they ratcheted up the racist rhetoric. Of course, they used their failure as an opportunity to cry fascist oppression, gaining the attention of those who signed the open letter. It’s ironic that they don’t see the opposition to the club as being an exercise in free speech itself. Freedom of speech is not a guarantee of a platform, nor does it mean freedom from criticism. Nothing is wrong with free speech at NZ universities. For example, past incidents at the University of Canterbury demonstrate that students are free to do dumb stuff and they are free to suffer the consequences of said dumb stuff.

The signatories are claiming that there is a problem where there is none and by doing so are unwittingly playing into the hands of fascists. Fascist groups want to become more prominent without facing any opposition because they fail when they are opposed. They are trying to use claims of free speech to silence their critics (oh the irony)! Fortunately, many students, staff and the general public will continue to be rightly horrified by the attempts to normalise such an abhorrent ideology and will use their voices to discredit them.

Ugh. NZ Retirement Age Comes up for Discussion… Again

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English got into a spot of trouble over the past few days when he stuffed up some television interviews with a non-committal approach towards the retirement age*. In what comes across as an act of political desperation, English announced that he would pass legislation post-election to implement a rise in the retirement age from 65 to 67 in 2037. I have some misgivings about the policy. It is weak. The retirement age is political poison, English attempts to minimise the blow by putting it ahead so far away. It indicates that he has no confidence in his ability to lead this issue (to be fair, I also have no confidence in his ability too).

Here is my position on the retirement age. It should stay at 65. Here are some reasons:

  • Automation. As a society, increasing amount of work can be performed without human involvement. A low-ish eligibility for superannuation will incentivise older workers to retire, creating opportunities for younger people.
  • Ageism. Talk to anyone who has lost their job who is over-50. They’ll tell you it’s tough to find more work. From territorial management types who don’t want to be shown up by more capable and experienced staff to crude assumptions about one’s digital proficiency, there are a lot of barriers to re-employment for older people. Pushing up the retirement age just exacerbates this issue. Whats the point of keeping 60-somethings miserable while giving them unemployment payments? Just give them super instead.
  • Social contract. Simply put: pay your taxes now, which we’ll use to support others now and we’ll see that you get the same support when you retire. Of course, the social contract has already been violated with GST, student loans, previous rises in the eligibility age, tax cuts for the wealthy. The answer is to restore the social contract, not to keep breaking it.
  • One-size doesn’t fit all. All this talk about age increases is framed from a white-centric, managerial class point of view i.e. that of the most privileged in society. The needs of those in manual work or those belonging to ethnic groups with a lower life expectancy (due to structural inequalities in society) are often ignored. On this point, I have warmed to Peter Dunne’s idea of a variable age with adjusted payments. You can read the discussion document here, with a rather amusing foreword by none other than Bill English himself! However, I don’t see the need to reduce payments for those who need to retire earlier because of the nature of their work or because of societal issues beyond the control of individuals.
  • Running out the clock. I once interned at an organisation whose name I won’t reveal. The group leader was in their early 60s and it was clear that they were really just waiting to become eligible for NZ super so that they wouldn’t need to bother turning up to work. Raising the retirement age would mean such people hang around for longer while not doing much work which is harmful to interpersonal dynamics and for business productivity.

I disliked English before he announced his plans, all this means is I dislike him even more. Stoking the flames of generational warfare helps rally the generally older National voters, this policy is designed to do exactly that. The timing of the age rise is curious. Far away enough that the current-day elderly will be dead and won’t care and that younger people won’t be looking far enough ahead. It won’t even affect my parents in their early 50s. This is an implicit concession by National that it is an unpopular idea. But hey, it kicks in after you retire so who cares?

Having a defeatist outlook means that I suspect many NZ voters will think exactly along these lines. It is also a test to see how wedded Winston Peters and New Zealand First are to 65. I hope Peters and NZF take a solidarity type approach and reject any change to the age of eligibility. Fortunately, Peters has shown some of his trademark intransigence and has denounced English’s proposal. National improved their outlook for a coalition with NZF if needed following Key’s surrender. Now they have made a coalition which will almost be a necessity to stay in government post election much less likely.

The stuff.co.nz self-selecting poll is scary. 70-30 in favour of hiking up the age. Some of the person-on-the-street interviews don’t hold much hope either. The obsequious younger people that were interviewed have swallowed the neoliberal nonsense about a rising age being sensible and inevitable.

The media response from some circles is infuriating. The anonymous Press editorial praised English for “starting a discussion”. Jesus fuck, the editorial writer is either 5 years old or has dementia. Labour proposed the exact same thing in 2011 and held on to it for the disastrous 2014 election (the self-selecting poll from 2013 is interesting at 50-50). Don’t praise National for something they didn’t do, your bias is showing.

I was trying to see if the MSM criticised Labour for this policy, but it looks like they selectively praised Labour at the time as part of appearing “fair and balanced”. So at least they’re consistent in shilling for neoliberal talking points.

So what’s my solution? I’ve already made some noises about unconditional incomes and NZ super is an unconditional income for everyone over a certain age. Rather than trying to limit it, we should seek to expand it as part of restoring the social contract. Perhaps Dunne’s variable payment mode could be further stretched in order to make such an initiative more palatable to the hard-of-thinking. Also, wealthy people and corporations should pay more tax in order to fund government services. If National were as courageous as their media poodles insisted, then they would propose something like this instead of promising to inflict more damage onto New Zealand.

*Note. “retirement age” is synonymous with increasing the age of eligibility for NZ superannuation payments, which is the actual subject under discussion.

John Key Does a Nico Rosberg!

Not long after I wrote about the end of the 2016 F1 season, World Driver’s Champion Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from F1, to the shock of fans and media mouthpieces the world over. I can sympathise with his situation; Mercedes may lose their advantage in 2017 and the strained relationship with childhood friend and team mate Lewis Hamilton will be in his mind. As he has said himself, he has achieved what he wanted to do in F1 and now is a great time to pursue other interests.

Today was shaping up to be interesting enough in the political world where the fascists were kept away from the Austrian presidency and Matteo Renzi resigned as promised following the “no” vote in the Italian constitutional referendum. The real surprise took place here in New Zealand, where John Key announced his resignation as Prime Minister.

The official line seems to be a combination of family commitments and boredom. I know I would get bored of winning. Given his media-assisted popularity, he was in no danger of losing public support any time soon. There is plenty of speculation surrounding ulterior motives that may have prompted his resignation; such as an impending economic crash or political scandal, or National party in-fighting.

Economic woes pose a serious threat to any sitting government. The biggest issue on the horizon is the property bubble which has trapped National into inaction. Aucklanders get to pretend that they are wealthy as prices soar as a result of overseas and domestic demand, while housing supply is restricted by skills shortages and the failure of the market to provide (and the government’s refusal to intervene). The government has no incentive to restrict overseas investment or act to increase supply while “middle” New Zealand smugly watches the “value” of their properties increase. The bigger the bubble gets, the harder the crash. So long as National is not in government when this happens, Key sees no problem. The speculation is that Key could jump now before disaster strikes.

National party in-fighting has always existed, but Key has managed to keep a lid on it. Plus the media use in-fighting as a means to bash the Labour party, so keeping the National party backbench headbangers in line is critical. Especially since Key has pursued a softer approach than the far-right faction of the National party would prefer. Examples of this include retaining Labour policies such as Working For Families* and interest free student loans**. This in part helps explain his high polling numbers. The moment that National tries to pursue an extreme-right policy agenda is the moment that they lose their appeal to much of the electorate. It also gives Labour the point of difference that they so desperately need.

It could also be the precursor for forming a coalition with NZ First following the next election. Winston Peters (Kiwi Farage) detests Key who attacked him over the Glenn affair (2008) and then made disrespectful comments about NZ First voters during his “cup of tea” with archbigot John Banks (2011). For Peters to go with National, it has been presumed that the removal of Key would be one of his conditions. It would make more sense to replace Peters, but then again he has compared himself to Konrad Adenauer (warning: NZ Herald), so he may hang around for a few more terms.

Mercedes have a range of possibilities of high-quality drivers to replace Rosberg: Vettel, Alonso, Bottas and (my pick) Wehrlein. So what about Key’s replacements? They don’t look so flash. The media have been talking up several options, I will briefly summarise them below:

  • Bill English: Uncharismatic bigot. Led National to disaster in 2002. Redeemed himself in the eyes of the Very Serious Media People as Minister of Finance, but I think he’s done a poor job. 4/10 would love to see him fail again.
  • Judith Collins. I remember sitting in her seat during a special guided tour of parliament by my local MP when I was 10 years old. She represents the extreme-right faction of the National party and is known for much ado about nothing and corruption.
  • Gerry Brownlee: Embarrassing bigot. Has had a heavy-handed approach with the Christchurch earthquake recovery and does dumb stuff like insult Finland and breach airport security.
  • Steven Joyce. The least worst option. Unencumbered by the extreme right-wing views of other leadership contenders, Joyce would follow the Key model most closely. I am impressed by his high talk about science and innovation, but his neoliberal approach means that government policy falls short of what is required.
  • Paula Bennett. Possibly the most media friendly, but already highly unpopular for perceived hypocrisy over her role in the dismantling of the welfare state. Staggeringly ineffective as climate change minister***.
  • Amy Adams. Unknown to the public at large, but talked up by the media anyway. Has had controversy with a potential conflict of interest regarding irrigation schemes in Canterbury. I also spoke to her at a university Clubs Day event this February and asked her about her Prime Ministerial ambitions. She said no, but circumstances always modify rules.

This could be an opportunity for the left-bloc to win the next election. With Labour in-fighting under control and an MOU with the Greens and similar economic views to NZF, a strong three-party coalition should be easily possible. Their collective polling should rise given the low quality of Key’s replacements. Of course, I’m not confident yet that the left can win the next election; NZ 2014, UK 2015 and USA 2016 have left me dizzingly cynical. But with Key on his way out, National have lost their strongest asset. It’s anyone’s game in 2017!

*Left-wing purists berate this policy as it is in effect a subsidy for employers who are too shit to pay their staff a decent wage. But to cut it would harm ordinary families. Rock, meet hard place.

**Left-wing purists would prefer no student loans and no tuition fees at all. We may head in that direction if the opposition policies are to be believed. And I’m pretty sure that’s what conservatives mean when they want to take us back to the 1950s, right? /sarc

***Bring back Simon Upton!