Friday, 17 February 2017

The Port Hills Fire

For those who don’t know much about my little corner of the world, Banks Peninsula sticks out of the eastern coast of Te Wai Pounamu – more commonly and prosaically known as the South Island of New Zealand. To Māori, the Peninsula was Te Pataka o Rakaihautu.

Captain Cook, named what he thought was an island after naturalist Joseph Banks and it was once an island until the great rivers that flowed out of the Southern Alps deposited enough gravels and soils to join it to the mainland.

It is the twin craters of ancient volcanoes whose seaward sides have been eroded through to the crater hearts, creating two deep-water harbours – Lyttelton and Akaroa – along with many other bays and inlets. The Māori name for Lyttelton harbour is Te Whakaraupō - harbour of the Raupō  - reeds that once filled the marshy area at the head of the harbour.

Before European settlement the 1150 square km peninsula was still largely forested with tōtara, tī kōuka, kahikatea, mātai, akaake, miro, puruhi, houhere, kānuka, mānuka, harakeke, tarata, kōhūhu, korokio, koromiko, nīkau, mānatu, makomako, whauwhaupaku, horoeka, horopito, matipou, kawakawa, rōhutu, karamū, tītoki…..and many other trees, shrubs, flaxes and grasses which formed the diverse coastal and hill forests that blanketed the land.

Most of this glorious and diverse forest was lost in the first 50 years of European settlement - either logged or burned. The Canterbury Plains and the Peninsula are among the most altered landscapes in one of the most rapidly altered countries in the world.

Along with the forest went the millions of birds that depended on it; and with the birds went the nutrient rich droppings that fed the bush and the soils that overlaid the igneous rocks. The land that the logging and fires exposed was mostly very steep and deeply folded having been formed by lava flows.  Many of the streams that trickled out of gullies dried up once the bush had gone.

Many of the old hill farms on the peninsula were marginal because the land is so steep and folded and, because of the loss of the deep damp litter of the original forest floor with nutrients provided by the droppings of millions of birds, the soils quickly lost heart. The loess erodes in the wind and rain and it dries out fast and hard. In light rain the exposed soil turns as slick as ice and in heavy rain into a sticky porridge.  Holes in the volcanic rock can collapse and trap animals. They can also harbour fire.  

The fire risk was massively increased when settlers planted fast growing gorse and pines to try to stabilise the land and to give shade and shelter to, and contain sheep and cattle.  Gorse quickly became a very harmful noxious weed because in NZ it flowers almost all year round, is highly flammable, broadcasts its fire resistant seeds widely, and nothing eats it.  Pines, which  tend to poison the ground beneath them, are invasive and flammable and co-exist very happily with gorse which colonises pine forest margins and spreads to open land.

The part of the peninsula to the south of Christchurch / Ōtautahi is known as the Port Hills which form a 300m barrier between the city and the port.  There are three roads into and out of the port other than the road tunnel: Evans Pass, which went up from Sumner and came down into Lyttelton from the east and was so badly damaged in the February 2011 earthquake sequence that it remains closed on the Lyttelton side; Dyers Pass, which runs over to Governor's Bay and is closed at the time of writing this because of the fires; and Gebbie’s Pass, that runs in through the low hills at the head of the harbour.

The scenic Summit Road which runs along the crater rim was meant to have a series of tea shops named after native birds of which only three were ever built and two remain.  The Summit Road was the creation of the visionary, Harry Ell. 

The three road passes and the Summit Road give people access to a wide variety of walks and bike paths on the hills and to the numerous small communities that have grown up in the bays around the harbour. 

It is fair to say that the Port Hills and the peninsula more widely, occupy a special place in Christchurch history and in the hearts of most of the people who live there.

Generally Christchurch turns its back on the sea because of the prevailing strong and cool on-shore easterly winds, and the city’s eastern suburbs are largely working class.  The hills have always drawn the more affluent and their interest pushes up the price of land. People have built homes on the hills and cliffs above the small Christchurch seaside suburbs of Sumner and Redcliffe and along the roads that lead out there from the city for generations because of a microclimate and the spectacular views across Pegasus Bay and / or the Southern Alps. 

The new housing developments west of the older hill suburbs are the latest encroachments on the hills, with higher density housing on the lower slopes, and lower density housing further up where the views are the best.

In addition to the encroachments of housing, some of the old hill farms have been subdivided into what are known in NZ as ‘lifestyle blocks’.  Mostly the people who buy these blocks have to work to earn the money to live on them, which is why they’re often referred to as ‘life sentence blocks’.

These blocks range in size from .5 of a hectare to 25 or so hectares, after which they become small farms.  Lifestyle blocks tend to have smaller paddocks than hill farms and the owners plant more trees – which is a good thing except they tend to plant fast growing exotic species like pines, conifers and gums.

The grass cover throughout Canterbury this time of year, other than the land under irrigation for dairying, is tinder dry. If grass is left long under fences - i.e. not grazed hard by sheep or sprayed, fire will track along fence lines igniting fence posts. These posts are treated with highly toxic chemicals that are released into the atmosphere when burned and fire can also smoulder in them underground.

There’s an increased fire risk from overhead power lines shorting onto trees or if a transformer is overloaded and blows, or when electric fences short onto dry vegetation – as well as sparks from exhausts, mowers etc.

Although Christchurch got normal rainfall over the last year it wasn’t enough to replenish soil moisture levels depleted by preceding years of drought. We’re in the driest part of the year so trees are stressed, leaf dries out and falls early, the litter on the ground becomes tinder dry and - wherever the sun can get at it - very hot.  It takes very little to ignite it. 

All vegetation will burn in certain conditions - anyone who has burned gum tree slash will know that even when green and soaking wet, once the water evaporates and heat gets to the oils in the leaf, it will explode.  The same with pines and gorse.  Arguably the key element in this fire was the heavy fuel of mature pine trees. All the really big wildfires in NZ have been in pine forests and most of the ones in the South Island have occurred in February. 

The Port Hills now have extensive commercial pine plantations, a lot of it owned by companies like McVicars, which owns the land the new Canterbury Adventure Park is on.  Commercial pine planters are notorious for not cleaning up litter from trimming trees or after logging. They’re not required to provide things like storage ponds for firefighting and their attention to fire breaks may not be all it should be.

The Fire

I first heard of the Early Valley fire at 6.30pm Monday and it had been burning for a couple of hours or so by then. A strong north-west wind was blowing that was forecast to blow all night and the following day.  

The Canterbury nor-wester is a foehn wind – dry, hot and powerful. That wind, plus tinder dry conditions and decades of poor land management, provided the conditions in which a fire  - if it got away – had the potential to roar right across the very steep pine, grass, gorse and bush covered hills. 

I had an ominous feeling that the fire was going to be a bad one. That feeling became worse when I heard about a second fire on Marley Hill to the east. Fire can’t be fought from the air at night or in low cloud cover and with power pylons and convection currents it’s highly dangerous even in daylight. The nature of the fire meant it was almost impossible to get in front of it from the ground.

If I, as a lay person, could work out that this first fire needed to be hit with everything that could be mustered while there was still daylight - how come the people managing the fire seem not to have done the same?  

I don’t mean the people on the ground - for whom I have nothing but praise - I mean those people whose job it is to assess the situation and deploy the necessary resources as rapidly and effectively as possible.

The situation seems to have been exacerbated by the intrusion of jurisdictional issues.  The rural fire chief who made the statement on TV that the rural service knows how to deal with rural fires while the urban firefighters just rock up and plug their hoses into a hydrant - may have betrayed a schism that has no place in an emergency service at any time, let alone when facing a fire of this magnitude.

It also exposes New Zealand’s rigid bureaucracy, which too often leads to an inability to respond fast and effectively.  In rescuing and housing animals, catering for exhausted firefighters, offering accommodation for evacuees and their animals - the public was sprinting far ahead of the authorities in the first two days.

The first responders to the fire were the professional firefighters from Christchurch city and they and various members of the public fought the fire initially but were struggling to contain it.  They had been deployed because the fire was at the edge of the city and there’s always a delay with the rural fire service because volunteer firefighters have to get from home or place of work to fire stations, get geared up and get to the fire.  The professionals from Christchurch were stood down and - because the fire was within Selwyn District Council boundaries - the Selwyn rural fire service then led on it.

By the time the second fire was reported further east along the Summit Road within city boundaries - it was too late to hit either fire with helicopters or fixed wing planes so both fires burned out of control overnight gathering massive energy and momentum. The two fires eventually joined up and the cold air sinking into valleys at night took it back down the hills and onto houses.

As to the anticipated wind change to north-east on Wednesday that the person leading on the fire hoped would blow the fire back onto already burned land - I’m not sure how a north-easterly wind would blow a north-westerly driven fire back on itself and it seemed to take no account of the fact that the second fire was to the east of the first. That aside, given the vagaries of convection currents in steep folded land and fire’s propensity to take lines of least resistance, it was obvious it was already in a state of extreme unpredictability.

This was not the biggest wildfire in NZ's history - what made the Port Hills fire so dangerous was that it was just 6 kms from Christchurch city centre.

If we are in an era of climate change driven east coast drought and increased fire risk, then these jurisdictional issues need to be sorted out and our reliance on volunteer fire services on urban margins may need to be reviewed. 

I’m not taking anything away from the volunteers of the rural fire service - they do an amazing job - but this situation exposes the logistical absurdity of rural versus urban fire services on city margins and of artificial lines of territorial demarcation.

Individual landowners' responsibility to minimise fire risk will need to be clarified and enforced - especially large scale commercial planting of exotic trees. One of the main problems in fighting this fire was finding sources of water for monsoon buckets. It seems ludicrous that an individual or a company may plant massive pine plantations on the hills above a city and its satellite settlements but not be required to build and maintain fire breaks and create water storage for fire fighting.

My father farmed on the eastern bays of the peninsula years ago and I remember his diatribes about bad land management and the horrors of a mix of dry grass, gorse, wilding pines and gums.  This fire was a disaster waiting to happen.  Of course native forest will burn but it is not as flammable as bone dry pine, gum, gorse, dry grass and houses. 

We destroyed the vast bulk of the original ecologically balanced forest cover on the peninsula. Pockets of it survived in gullies and dedicated people have invested lifetimes of work trying to protect and extend those pockets, control predators and encourage native bird populations.  A fair bit of that regenerating bush has been destroyed and that’s beyond heart breaking.

There’s a battle going on for the heart and soul of the world, which this situation exemplifies - between those who want to sustain, nurture and co-exist and those who see the world as something to be pillaged for short-term gain, and/or as their playground.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Age of Something or Other

I read an article some time back by Garrison Keillor lamenting the triumph of Trump.  My life is probably quite similar to Keillor’s - courtesy of a moment in history that allowed a working class girl to get an education that was denied to her foremothers and forefathers. 

The pleasant middle class lifestyle choices Keillor refers to - which he places on a higher plane than the likes of watching football - rest on the backs of others; not just the low paid workers and pool of reserve labour in his own country, but the workers of all the countries to which American capital has fled in pursuit of greater profits.

The distribution of social benefits does not occur within an impartial meritocracy and Keillor’s claims about the ability of the children of an American waitress still being able to become physicists, ring very hollow in the face of the mountain of disadvantage that all poor people have to climb in order to ‘succeed’. 

Exceptional talent, exceptional luck, being exceptionally driven or a combination of all three may see the children of poor people succeed, but they are the exception to the rule that poverty blights lives. As I have written elsewhere, it's a very powerful trap and those who manage to escape it often leave a part of themselves locked in its jaws.

The people who voted for Trump are widely typified as beer swilling, football watching, crotch-scratching, racist, homophobic misogynists. No doubt quite a few are one or more of those things but, among those voted for him, there will also be some essentially good people who have good reason to feel aggrieved about the political class and its machinations on behalf of the global corporatocracy. 

Around 1 in  2 of those Americans who voted - against all the expectations of the Clinton camp, the media pundits and, it seems, sections of the deep state - were persuaded to see Trump as someone who would stand up to the politicos and fight their corner, make America great (ie feared / respected  / envied) again.  What is sad and bad for them - and the rest of us - is they were royally conned but arguably no more than other people were conned by Obama’s oratorical skill, affability and urbanity. Or, for that matter, by Clinton’s dry credentialism.

Clinton was undoubtedly the most qualified candidate having acquired an impressive array of experience during her long career as a politician. But you do have to ask, qualified to do what?  A measure of what she intended to do may be found in the fact that she raised a vast sum of money to fight for the presidency but precious little was spent on reaching out to the almost 1 in 2 Americans who were not registered to vote. 

There's no doubt surely in any sensible person's mind, about Clinton's loyalty to the neo-conservative project. That proven loyalty is why the financial world and the deep state both expected and were content for her to win. 

Trump’s a paid up dynastic member of the American corporate class. He’s the product of high privilege. He’s not as patrician as George W Bush but his ‘man of the people’ act is just as contrived and phoney.  He's not the champion of the downtrodden; like his father before him, he got where he is by doing the treading. 

The reason Trump succeeded was he tapped into the deep vein of anger, fear and resentment felt by people who have been acculturated into believing that a degree of privilege is their birthright.  He claims to stand for domestic business interests in opposition to shadowy, poorly defined ‘foreign’ interests. He glosses over the fact that US Main Street is subservient to, and dependent upon Globalised Wall Street and the changing of that arrangement will require the changing of the whole world.

He’s changed the actors and some lines in the script but he won’t be able to deliver on his vague promises to change the plot and he will have to find a scapegoat to blame his failures on - assuming the US deep state doesn’t dispose of him first.

It's stating the blindingly obvious that the global corporate class has no real national loyalties; it will use nationalism and patriotism as weapons of social control but its members, for the most part, care only about money and power -  how to make it and how to keep it. 

The political class serves global economic interests that are inimical to the interests of a large and growing number of people.  It forms an essential buffer zone between the corporatists and the world they must, as a condition of their own existence, exploit - and is amply rewarded for its services. 

There are others who provide more tangential support - by voting correct, paying taxes, being patriotic, playing the game and marching off to war when convinced enough of the awfulness and threat of whoever is today's enemy. It all works - as long as the great unwashed are content to remain dirty and downtrodden.  

The people who have voted for Trump are not the great unwashed. For the most part, Trump supporters are still on the track to 'success' -  they've just lost the slight starting line advantage they once had and they're blaming that on all the wrong people.

Obama's subservience to global interests quickly became apparent.  Clinton's has never been in question.  A bit of tinkering around the social margins and making some concessions to the formal and informal rights of groups of people who’ve been marginalized, but essentially acting to advance the power and interests of global finance capitalism and the military-industrial complex.

The main thrust of the neo-conservative project with its monetarist economic theory was to facilitate the operation of transnational corporations - by definition - companies which operate and extend across national boundaries and which, of necessity, seek to reduce the power and influence of national governments that might want to regulate business.  

It's an ideology that came to the fore in Reagan's administration and has been implemented with varying degrees of fervour by every US administration since.  Controls on the export of capital are removed, jobs are exported and/or labour is imported with the sole objective of driving down labour and other production costs in order to increase profits.  Profits are privatized and production costs are socialised as far as is achievable. This is why American primary industry crumbled and why its manufacturing base has been decimated.  

There's no place for nationalism in global neo-conservatism EXCEPT as a weapon of social control. If a form of revolutionary nationalism were to threaten global interests- it would be crushed mercilessly.  

Reactionary nationalism - which is usually draped in the national flag - is useful because it diverts, divides and inflames.  It makes some people say and do unconscionable things - such as advocating or participating in the slaughter of others. 

There are many in both the Republican and the Democratic parties who want to take US into yet another war – as usual disguising their aggressive imperialistic intent with rhetoric about patriotism and the defence of the ‘free world’.  Trump may well have to defer to them to stay in power.

Trump appealed to the vein of reactionary nationalism that runs both wide and deep in American society by claiming to support American national interests against external ones.  That may well have been genuine but even if it was genuine it was naive and is unlikely to survive the unprecedented tidal wave of propaganda, mockery and opprobrium that has engulfed him even before he has been inaugurated.  He will either have to capitulate to the globalists or they will destroy him – cheered on by those who detest him.

If his ego will not allow him to defer, the question is how will his opponents get rid of him without unleashing the potential for civil unrest?

If the bulk of the media are to be believed, a large proportion of those who voted for Trump are heavily armed bigots – some of whom, logic suggests, will be in the police and the army reserves.  How then, to persuade all those people who see Trump as the saviour of their America that their idol has clay feet, without unleashing the father of all rightwing backlashes?

When propagandists want to sow division and discord, they harness their ideological plough to a team of deep and ugly prejudices. The fields that they plough have been well fertilised by tons of shit and blood so growing a good crop of fear and rage towards the other is easy.  Trouble is you reap what you sow and fear and rage are not always easily directed. 

It gets all the more messy when the loss of secure employment has resulted in the loss of working class collectives, and when those who should be the voices of reason and common-sense are too busy arguing among themselves about whose interests are primary. 

In the context of the wider individualisation and social isolation promoted by neo-conservatism, the destruction of working class collectives has meant that a key means of organizing, educating and mobilising large numbers of people has been lost. 

The neo-cons' destruction and hamstringing of trade unions was not just about wages and conditions, it was about fragmenting and isolating those people whose stake in their society was about to be reduced to a splinter.

It’s also apparent that liberalism's not an absolute any more than bigotry is.  Political conservatives can be kind and forgiving people in some circumstances and political radicals can be cruel and retributive in some circumstances.  You have only to trawl through Twitter when the political liberals and radicals are in hot pursuit of someone who has been deemed to have breached protocols to see that.  

The degree of and attachment to social liberalism often correlates with the degree of actual and potential economic security and social mobility. The more threatening and unnerving the world is, or can be made to seem, the more likely some are to be drawn to simple answers and authoritarian conservatism.  

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Year From Hell

I joked about 2016 being the quintessential year from hell but let's be realistic - it wasn't. It was just another year in which - as usual - millions of humans died, many of them horribly and many while still very young.  

It also happened to be a year in which a few more celebrities than usual shuffled off their mortal coil - and in which the amplification of their deaths was perhaps a useful diversion from some momentous political and ecological developments.

Of the celebrities who died in 2016 - a fair proportion of them were in their 80s and 90s so their deaths are hardly unexpected or tragic, and some of them were younger people, a number of whom who had lived in ways that may not have been conducive to longevity.  So where was the tragedy?

In the past people created myths and legends about both the living and the dead - often as a comfort against the harsh realities of their own lives and the awareness of their own impermanence.  We still do - we just use digital media to do it these days instead of folk stories. 

Myths and legends about the great, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly have also been used as tools of social control. A lot of our modern myths are the product of the many publicists and spin doctors employed by those who have a vested interest in promoting certain aspects of a deceased person's character and life - to divert the masses or, more prosaically, to sell stuff.

These days, thanks to digital media, we're more immediately aware of the lives and the deaths of celebrities and are bombarded with words and images mourning their passing and eulogising them to, and sometimes beyond the point of commonsense and reason.   Great dollops of faux sentiment and schmaltz fly off the screen, blurring the real world which continues in all its usual awfulness.  

Of course it's sad when people who have touched our lives die, but these are people most of us have absolutely no connection with and never will, whose true personalities and worth we can never really know and who, through film and recordings, actually remain as 'alive' to us plebeians as they ever were.  

The celebrities who attract this sort of media attention when they die are usually very rich. Their personal losses, trials and tribulations, their battles with addiction or illness - were all buffered by fame and by great wealth which enabled them to  buy the very best of everything - from legal representation to medical care. They were all cushioned by the downy pillow of privilege - not an abstract political construct but real advantages and immunities. 

I can't say I thought overly much about George Michael - either as a singer or as a person.  He wasn't a great musician but he was a talented pop singer and I'm prepared to believe that he had a good heart.  However, the acts of generosity he was lauded for after his death have to be put into the perspective of his massive fortune and his on-going earning capacity from royalties.  For someone who is worth £100m to donate £15k to someone  - is - objectively speaking - no more remarkable an act of generosity than a pensioner giving £1 to a homeless person.

I can't say I gave much thought to Carrie Fisher either.  I have never seen any Star Wars films -  although I could think I have given the ubiquity that was created by the cynical mass marketing of Stars Wars' ephemera - but I did like her in the Blues Brothers. I have also never read any of her books, but she seemed like a refreshingly honest person especially when judged by the standards of the plastic world she lived in,  in which honesty is notable more for its absence than presence.

David Bowie - who I didn't like as a musician and who I never forgave for his flirtation with fascism - died younger than someone of his wealth might be expected to, but that was not 'stop the world I want to get off' level tragedy.  He'd abused his body when he was young, he had lived his life to the full and died a rich, happy and fulfilled person, or so we are told.

I loved Leonard Cohen as an artist and I felt very sad at his death but I know that he would be the first to acknowledge how privileged a life he had led and I suspect he would have approached the amplified mourning of his death at the age of 82 with his usual laconic humour.

I lost my younger brother in August to liver failure. He was Carrie Fisher's age. I also lost two other close family members and, towards the end of the year, the husband of a good friend died. He was the same age as my husband.  

I've watched my once highly intelligent and fiercely independent mother sink into a half life of immobility, incontinence, confusion and periods of terror when the reality of her situation breaks through the drug-induced fog in which her carers keep her.

I'm aware that 2016 - like all other years - saw the deaths of millions of children under 5, most of whom need not have died.  Millions of others have lives full of misery, fear and deprivation.

I'm aware that much about our first world way of life is polluting, wasteful, cruel and asocial and looks likely to become more so.

I'm aware that we have not slowed our insane dash towards mass extinctions of other species, and I'm also aware that we're on a slide to what may literally be the war to end all wars.

In this context I'm sorry, but the deaths of a few famous and highly privileged people - however delightful, talented, good, kind and generous we believe those people to be – really do need to be put into a broader perspective.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

On the question of abortion

I had a discussion about abortion with someone on Facebook.  This person who is an animal rights activist - asked whether 'a man should have a say if a woman wanted to kill their unborn child'. 
I always try to engage in sensible debate so I said he should have a say but the ultimate decision has to be the woman's. A lively discussion ensued. She then asked me if I thought a woman who had an abortion was a 'murderer'. 
This was my reply:
"Human life starts as an embryo which may be expelled or resorbed without a woman even knowing it was there. An embryo may develop into a foetus which may naturally die and be expelled at any point in the pregnancy.  A foetus may go full term and be stillborn. A foetus becomes viable in medical terms these days at around 24 weeks - assuming of course that its family has access to the sophisticated medical care such a premature infant needs to survive. That sort of care is not available universally and  a baby born that prematurely to a poor family or at a distance from advanced pre-term care, is highly unlikely to survive.
Even if a child is born full term, if it is born into a poor family - especially in the less developed world - it may become one of the 3 million babies that are stillborn each year, or one of the 6 million children who die every year before the age of 5 - 45% of whom die in the first 28 days of life.  It might end up being a slave or trafficked as a sex object or be killed in a drone strike or any of the many hideous fates that befall so many innocent little children.
You might stop and consider, in the time it took you to write your question how many hundreds of innocent children worldwide died from a myriad of mainly preventible causes - e.g. for want of clean water, basic medicines and food? How many women died in childbirth? How many women became pregnant who do not want a child because they simply don’t have the financial, emotional or physical resources to carry it and care for it? How many women became pregnant as a result of forced sex?
As things stand in our society,  the new human stops being a foetus and becomes a baby when it can live independently of its mother and in legal terms that is the point at which ending its life may be deemed to be murder - or infanticide or manslaughter or failing to provide the necessities of life …..depending on circumstance. 
Clearly a woman who has an abortion within legal limits is not a murderer but the sub-text of your question is whether a foetus should be seen as a human being with full legal rights from the point of conception and therefore the deliberate ending of its life be classified as murder - i.e. whether anti-abortionists are right in their attempts to turn back the clock to the time when women could not get safe, medically supervised abortions. 
I think anti-abortionists are wrong - in pretty much the same way as I thought the burning of witches and heretics was wrong. 
If they succeed - anti-abortionists will be responsible for killing many women and children because women will still try to terminate unwanted pregnancies as they always have done - and they will suffer and some will die as a consequence. You might also like to consider that the leading cause of infanticide is - as it always has been throughout human history - an unwanted pregnancy. 
The answer is safe, reliable, easily available contraception and education,  full legal equality and full employment - and an end to religious fundamentalism, phallocracy and bigotry."
If you are wondering if my words had any effect on the woman - I doubt it.  You can lead a dogmatist to the facts but you can't make them think.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Impoverished Nation

I had  a conversation recently with someone who refused to acknowledge that there is 'actual poverty' in NZ because people aren't starving. This person's belief was that unless a person is starving, dressed in rags, and living on the streets, they are not poor, they are just not as well off as some others.  Moreover, the fact that this person is so much better off than most other Kiwis is all down to her having made good choices. She chose to pay attention at school, get a good education, work hard, buy a house etc etc. 

She completely blanked out the considerable privilege that underpinned ALL her choices. Only child of well off parents, living in a warm and dry house with her own bedroom, going to a prestigious school, being helped through university, coming of age at a time of full employment, inheriting a signifiant sum of money from her grandparents and standing to inherit even more from her parents - in those circumstances there is nothing remarkable or praiseworthy about making good choices. She is not to be condemned for her situation but she is at fault for believing it reflects anything but a good fortune that is denied to the majority of other human beings and a significant number of her fellow countrywomen and men.

We have had 3 decades of a steady erosion of workers' rights, the loss of collective bargaining and spread of individually negotiated contracts; the loss of and further threats to job security  - at its most vicious, the notorious zero hours contracts; an increase in unemployment and under-employment, and a removal or failure to maintain social safety nets. 

This has resulted not just in unemployment and homelessness but the return of large numbers of working poor many of whom have been priced out of the housing market, the inflation of which makes loads of money for banks and private investors - and with a reducing pool of social housing, are left hugely vulnerable.

We all have to have enough money to be able to live and to contribute in a meaningful way to society.  People have to look and to behave in certain ways in order to get and to keep a job. They need to be clean and reasonably well presented.  They need to be well enough nourished and rested to be able to do their job efficiently.  They have to travel to and from their job which, unless they can walk to work, will cost them money, and they may have to clothe and feed themselves while they are doing their work.  

This may be said to be the cost of subsistence which the workers' wages need to be cover.  The dependence of the working poor on state funds to maintain that essential subsistence level is never described or decried as low paying employers bludging off the state - although that precisely is what is happening. Instead, the blame is transferred to the low paid workers and to the unemployed.

Being unable to afford even the basics of life is and being forced into dependence on state benefits in a society which treats beneficiaries as somehow parasitic on the social body, is  iniquitous. 

The fact is that the poor spend ALL or close to all their income on the bare essentials - basic food, water, power, housing, clothing, transport - one reason why a blanket goods and services tax is so  unfair. 

They have nothing to very little to spend on desirables such as good quality and varied food, warm and dry housing with adequate space, supplementary education, good quality clothing, dental care and regular eye checks, helping their kids through university, having meals out, entertainment, holidays or building a reserve of savings

Luxuries - such as a large and expensively appointed home or second or third homes, servants,  overseas travel, new cars, boats, expensive clothing, appearance enhancement, private medical care, investments or other substantial savings - are completely beyond their grasp. 

And before anyone retreats into that clichéd and oh so distasteful argument that the poor could have more money for desirables if they just made the right choices - a few may be feckless but the vast majority are not. 

That aside, how disgusting is it, that people who have benefited from an advantageous place in the lineup for the race to success, or who made it because of some other sort of good fortune such as having inherited wealth,  feel justified in making those sort of judgments.  

Just what the hell do they know about the physical and psychological stresses of being poor in a society in which being poor shuts you out of so many opportunities and - if you are noticed at all - makes you the object of either pity or contempt?

No, we don't have people starving in the streets in NZ but we do have people who are poorly nourished. We have people whose reliance on high sugar foods has created a host of health and life threatening conditions, from dental caries to the outcomes of morbid obesity.  We have pensioners whose inability to heat their homes or eat well leads to fatal health problems that are never attributed to cold damp housing and poor nutrition.

We have increasing numbers of homeless people and we have many more who live in sub-standard housing. We have an appalling number of kids whose ability to take advantage of such educational opportunities that are available to them is compromised by a poor diet and the ill-effects of bad housing. 

Of course there's all the cheap 'stuff' that global capitalism has made available to us courtesy of hyper-exploited workers in other countries - baubles and beads to distract and divert.   The smug and the soulless point to this as evidence of how efficient, effective and economic global corporate capitalism is, or - when it suits and with typical disregard of the hypocrisy  -  as evidence of how feckless the poor are for spending their resources on 'luxuries'.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Quit While You Are A Head

Well, well, the Great Kiwi Communicator has quit while still a head - of state - a decision that has taken all the political pundits by surprise and left them arguing about his political legacy or lack of it, or struggling to find enough superlatives to describe his ‘political astuteness’ and his immense personal popularity that’s apparently based on his embodiment of a ‘quintessential Kiwiness'.  (That no-one has yet managed to define that slippery little sucker of a concept does nothing to diminish its popularity in the media.)

Key is being lauded as the most popular PM ever, a man who built up enormous amounts of political capital through his clever management and political dexterity.  The question of the moment is not how he was able to do that but whether or not he should have invested more of his immense political capital in his political legacy - the things by which he will be remembered after people have forgotten what a nice bloke they once thought he was.

There’s no doubt that the polls show Key is popular with enough people for commentators and pundits to extrapolate that popularity across the entire country - a fact which aggravates the hell out of me given I feel a deep distrust of him and I know I’m not alone in that. I remain deeply worried about what that popularity says about my fellow New Zealanders - or at least about those New Zealanders whose opinions are routinely canvassed and counted.

So why is he popular and what has he actually done to deserve it?

Key is perceived by those who like him and quite a few who don’t - as being a good economic manager who will leave the country in a better state than he found it - despite the global financial crisis. The deglossed reality of that ‘better state’ remains to be seen but in the meantime, most in the media will continue to brush aside the fact that the GFC was precipitated by the very economic paradigm and political ideology which enabled Key to make his personal fortune and which he remained committed to, and wanted to reinforce via the TPP.

In a world in which Left and Right have become unreliable indicators of political ideology and place - in which fascists are rebranded as  ‘alt-Right’ and anyone who is vaguely liberal is deemed to be 'of the Left’ - Key is regarded as a 'centrist' which is deemed to be a good thing because, well it just is.   But if left and right are outmoded and inaccurate descriptors of ideology and political place, where does that leave the centre?

Key says he resisted rightwing pressure within his party to 'pull the rug out' from under vulnerable New Zealanders - ie. dismantle what is left of the social safety nets that stand between many Kiwis and destitution.  Presumably we are to be grateful to him for not allowing the rabid ideologues to finish off the vulnerable and be thankful he just presided over a widening gap between rich and poor, sold off state assets, froze the budgets of key government services, instituted unpopular education changes, allowed a dangerous housing bubble to form and homelessness to increase and - close to my heart - removed Cantabrians' right to vote for their regional authority.

There’s not nearly enough criticism of his prevarications and equivocations on the question of local democracy in Canterbury or on what many regard as his government’s mismanagement of the Christchurch rebuild. But - like so much else that had the potential to be unpopular - Key was a master delegator - always sharing the bonus of the limelight and kudos but pretty much avoiding the brickbats and infamy.

Browniee fronted the government’s response to the Canterbury earthquakes while Key did the high-vis PR shots; Parata fronted the government’s education changes and was detested for it; Tolley has carried the can and been roasted publicly for refusing a public inquiry into the appalling abuse of kids in state care; Kate Wilkinson paid the price for Pike River  - and so it goes.

And how about Pike River?  Key, the reassuring, affable, approachable presence, has not been held to account for the indescribably horrible reality of 29 miners - the youngest just 17 and on his first day at work - lying entombed in what was known to be a highly dangerous mine that was permitted to operate with inadequate safety measures and inappropriate equipment in the context of a depleted and defanged mines’ safety inspectorate.  It was a classic example of the operation of the state in the callous and short-termist interests of big business and to my mind shows Key’s common man act is skin-deep. That Pike River had a history going back to the 1970s and was granted access arrangements by a Labour Government is not an excuse for the Key government's failure to address weak regulations and inspection procedures that led directly to the deaths of 29 men.

It is fair to ask how much we owe the media for Key’s popularity.  Did they back off him because the pollsters said he was so popular, or did they help create and sustain his popularity by being easy on him?   If Key had been mocked and vilified or even consistently held to account for his gaffes, errors and equivocations with the intensity and viciousness that the likes of Cunliffe experienced, how would the PM’s much vaunted personal popularity have fared?

And there's the fact that alongside the affable, don’t take anything too seriously John Key stands the smiling assassin Key and the snarling, triumphalist and vicious put down merchant Key.  It’s said to be a measure of the man that he can lay into political opponents in the house with gleeful malice but have a beer with them in the bar afterwards.  Some argue that’s a good thing, that it means he doesn’t hold a grudge. It might also be said to be a measure of his essential pragmatism and of course pragmatism is a fixture and fitting of mainstream politics, but, let’s not forget that if you take pragmatism too far, it utterly destroys principle and starts to skirt the borders of sociopathy.

The people who form the foundation stone of Key’s popularity are mainly those who are doing very nicely thank you very much: the comfortable and the smug, the acquisitive and the heedless, the insensitive and the uncharitable - those sections of our society whose ranks have been swelled by the naked self-interest and individualism of the neo-liberalism that was introduced into NZ in the 1980s by the Labour Party - and which, to its electoral disadvantage and political discredit, that party has not disavowed or distanced itself from in any meaningful way. 

It's failure to do so makes it a hostage to fortune and has resulted in a disengagement from the political process by many of those who have been left behind over the past 30 years.  What price democracy when fully one third of those eligible to vote do not bother because they see no point in it?

The Mr Popularity title granted to Key throughout his tenure has survived scandals that would have sunk other politicians and the media has played a large role in that.  For example, his persistent pulling of a young woman’s pony tail was called a ‘goof’ or a ‘prank’ and condemnation of his actions was widely counter-condemned as political correctness or point scoring. At the end of it, as with Dirty Politics, Key came up with his popularity intact.

Last month, courtesy of Key’s far-Right parliamentary ally’s obeisance to the law and order brigade, a Judge was forced, by the three strikes legislation, to sentence a man to 7 years incarceration for pinching a prison guard’s bottom.  

A prisoner of the state who pinched a guard’s bottom and the most powerful man in that  state who persistently pulled a young woman’s pony tail against her wishes - how does one get to be a ‘goof’ or a 'prank' and the other deserving of 7 years in prison?

This example of a deepening inequality and a dangerous erosion of both formal and natural justice is part of Key’s legacy.  It’s an example of the double standards that run through this country like a social fault line and which he did nothing to change for the better.

The politics of appearance with its substitution of froth for substance, the influence of cults of celebrity, the dumbing down and diversion of significant sections of the first world, the destruction of the fourth estate and the rise of asocial media,  the oppression and hyper-exploitation of the workers and natural resources of the less developed world, the mass extinction of other species and damage to the planet itself due to some humans’ unbridled greed and wastefulness - these are not small things - they are the very stuff our future is made of.   If we are to measure John Key's or any politician's political legacy - it has to in that context.