Criminal Justice and Maori – The Worm at the Core of our Nation

It is a bittersweet irony that the European system of justice, which appears to be failing on all reasonable indices, will have to turn back to the principles of a justice system that it considered primitive and sought to supplant. Restorative Justice is tikanga Maori through and through, but its principles will benefit us all.

download

 

The staggering ethnic disparity in our criminal justice system speaks to generations of disadvantage in a range of factors, including socioeconomic status, drug and alcohol abuse, inter-generational trauma, cultural dispossession and ethnic bias.

The simple fact is we have a criminal justice system that that is sick with institutional racism. This is not just my conclusion, or the conclusion of Maori advocacy groups – this is the conclusion of the Department of Corrections itself.

Shocking Statistics

New Zealand has the 2nd largest prison population relative to its size in the western world, second only to the United States. It is 84% higher than the advanced economy average.

While Maori make up just 15% of the general population, Maori men account for 50% of the male prison population and Maori women account for 57% of the female prison population.

For young Maori the statistics are even worse – of all prisoners under the age of 20, Maori account for 65%. When it comes to re-offending things don’t get any better – there is an 80% likelihood of a Maori prisoner being reconvicted, compared to 67% for non-Maori.

Overall, 40% of Maori men over the age of 15 have done prison time or a community sentence.

These statistics are truly shocking, but what is worse is that they are not particularly new. In many ways they are very well known, in fact so common they have become normalised as part of our natural social environment.  This must change.

The Problem

Key to understanding this is acknowledging the fact that although Maori are over-represented in this area for a variety of reasons, they are most certainly over-represented due to the very fact that they are Maori. Socioeconomic status, past offences, gender, drug and alcohol use all play their contributory roles. But if we forget that ethnicity itself is a risk factor, then we lose the wood for the trees.

Don’t just take my word for it. In 2008 the Department of Corrections compiled a report entitled “Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice System”. In it they referred to the idea of “Bias and Amplification”:

“It is generally understood that each stage of the criminal justice system, from apprehension through to sentencing, contains a significant degree of built-in discretion with respect to decision-making.”

These stages would include the judgment of officers “on the beat”, the decision after apprehension of whether to arrest a person, the decision whether to proceed to prosecution, the decision of the court to then convict or not convict, and once convicted the decision of the judge regarding appropriate sentencing options.

This process continues on even after sentencing. Parole Boards make decisions with respect to those imprisoned, for instance if part of the sentence can be served as Home Detention or whether an early release may be granted. Probation Officers supervising community-based sentences and orders also exercise discretion in notifying breaches of conditions or whether recall-to-prison proceedings should be initiated. The report states that

“The explanation inherent to justice system “amplification” is that systemic factors exist at one or more of these step in the process, which serve to increase the likelihood that, relative to non-Maori, Maori will progress further into the justice system and be dealt with more severely…the result of such influences would be that Maori “accumulate” in the system in disproportionate numbers.”

The report thus defines the method by which any perceived bias could occur. It is not dissimilar to the “Swiss-cheese” model of risk known to most medical professionals, which postulates that a succession of small errors is much more common in the production of adverse events than any single large one.

When it comes to apprehension an important point raised was the extent to which the detained person cooperates with the Police officer. Perceptions of bias among Maori and Pacific Islanders were very common and studies have demonstrated Maori hold relatively negative attitudes towards police. The report admits that:

“It is conceivable that this negativity may motivate hostile and uncooperative responses when in direct contact with the Police…such behaviour could in turn increase the likelihood that the Police take the matter further.”

There is also evidence that in individuals with a history of family violence, police sanctions “more often result in criminal acts of defiance than deterrence.”

Turning to prosecution, the data clearly illustrates that Maori are moderately more likely than Europeans to be prosecuted, and are prosecuted in higher numbers than the number of apprehensions might suggest. The report lists one of the most important factors involved in this as a history of previous offending.

With regards to sentencing, the report admits that “on the scale of severity, fines are typically regarded as at the less severe end.” A review of all persons sentenced between 1996-2004 revealed Maori typically received a fine less frequently than did Europeans or other sections of the total population. The report states that:

“It seems likely…that ability to pay, an obvious consideration of whether a fine is imposed, reduces the probability that Maori would receive monetary penalties, given the well-documented disparities in annual income between Maori and non-Maori.”

So Maori, owing to pre-existing economic disadvantage, are barred from receiving what is widely considered punishment that is at the “less severe end.”

A similar trend is apparent in the most severe penalty, namely imprisonment.

“Maori were more likely to receive a prison sentence. Between 11% and 13% of convicted Maori receives sentences of imprisonment, as opposed to 7-9% of Europeans, a statistically significant degree.”

In its summary report makes explicit reference to non-ethnic factors contributing to the above disparities:

“Much of this apparent ethnic difference is able to be shown to be related to other factors which validly apply, equally, to all ethnicities – factors such as previous offending history.”

But it then continues:

“However…a number of studies have shown evidence of some greater likelihood, associated only with ethnicity, for Maori offenders to:

  • have police contact
  • be charged
  • lack legal representation
  • not be granted bail
  • plead guilty
  • be convicted
  • be sentenced to non-monetary penalties
  • be denied release to Home Detention

Finally it makes a rather categorical admission:

“There appears to be sufficient evidence to conclude that ethnicity, in and of itself, plays some small but tangible role at key decision making points, in ways that are not intended by the justice system.”

Remember that this is a government commissioned report, conducted by the Department of Corrections which concludes that racial bias does in fact exist within the criminal justice system. Also remember that this was in 2008.

For those stubborn individuals in our society and political realm that continue to deny that ethnicity plays a role in disadvantage, that statement, my friends, is what they call a coup de grace. There is no debate on this issue anymore – there is only disingenuous political sentiment and ignorance.

History

If we establish that being Maori, in and of itself, is important then we need to think about why that is. It is easy to consider it from the perspective of unconscious (or conscious) bias on behalf of those involved in the system, for example police officers or judges. While this may be true, what is likely to lead to more fruitful ideas is recognising what justice actually means for Maori, and how traditional Maori concepts around justice are ignored in the current system.

maori_fence_banner

Unfortunately the focus of law, policy, media and research involved with criminal justice focuses too much on factors such as poverty, alcohol, lack of education, solo parenting, employment or physical and mental health, while ignoring Maori ethnic and cultural identity directly. It then ignores what is a crucial factor – the intergenerational effect of the trauma of surviving colonisation.

There is abundant evidence from Maori scholars such as Mason Durie and Moana Jackson that engagement with a secure and healthy Maori identity is central to addressing the vicious cycle of poverty and harm. A healthy identity is one where people may access their language, cultural norms and practises. It is also one where these are validated and endorsed by society at large.

So what are some of the concepts of justice in Maori society?

Tikanga Maori and the Justice System

The structural framework of Maori society is based upon whakapapa, or genealogical connection. Personal identification starts with membership of larger groupings, such as the whanau, hapu, or iwi, and individuality is secondary to the collective.

The key dynamic of tikanga is to maintain equilibrium between parts of the human and non-human world. This is achieved by utu, meaning balance or reciprocity. Social and legal factors are controlled through the complementary principles of tapu and noa.

Tapu means a person, place or thing is ‘off-limits’ unless certain protocols are followed. Notably, there is an inherent tapu attached to all human beings. Noa means that a person, place or thing is ‘safe’ to use or access. Essentially, tapu and noa designate what is lawful and what is not. To break the tapu of a person or resource is an offence, or hara.

Another important concept is mana, or a person’s reputation, charisma or influence. Mana may derive from many factors, such as mana atua (birthright), mana tangata (gained via deeds or actions) and mana whenua (in accordance with the geographical location of the tribe, i.e. citizenship).

The basic principle of offending in Maori society is the breach of tapu through commission of hara, which affects mana and requires utu. The aim of dispute resolution was therefore to restore balance, and the mana of the parties involved.

Owing to the collective nature of society, an insult by one member of a hapu against a member of a different hapu was viewed as an offence of the first hapu against the second. This kind of collective responsibility could be more functional than individual culpability as recompense may be more possible when it is shared amongst many rather than applied to a single person. There were consequences for the individual also, mainly whakama or shame. The fact that the whole hapu could be injured by an individual’s actions would work as a powerful deterrent.

The essential difference between the Maori system of justice and that of European society is that, owing to a worldview predicated on harmony and balance, reparation is of far more importance than punishment. Maori society also made it imperative that the victim be included in this process in order to ensure a stable and enduring outcome. The emphasis on the future also prioritises reintegration of the offender into society and the healing of the victim.

Moana Jackson sums up the system very well:

“The rights of individuals, or the hurts they may suffer when their rights were abused, were indivisible from the welfare of the whanau, the hapu, the iwi. Each had reciprocal obligations found in shared genealogy, and a set of behavioural precedents established by common tipuna. They were based too on the specific belief that all people had an inherent tapu that must not be abused, and on the general perception that society could only function if all things, physical and spiritual, were held in balance.”

0882d8e5f41c42e59eb82bfc66a1f372_18

Colonisation

The common law system introduced by European settlers imposed many concepts alien to Maori ideas of justice – including the notion of an atomised individual (as opposed to collective), a materialistic focus, the exclusion of the victim from the process and the lack of focus on reparation. It is also sadly ironic that Maori had no concept for that European penalty known as imprisonment.

All of this explicitly breached the principles of Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi – namely tino rangatiratanga, or Maori sovereignty over Maori affairs.

Maori psychiatrist and scholar Mason Durie identifies loss of access to Te Ao Maori, through loss of land, language and tikanga, as the historical events that define modern Maori identity. The material, physical and psychological damage perpetuated on Maori by ‘assimilationist’ policies, including the loss of land and resources, and the trauma of surviving violence and illness that decimated entire generations, should not be underestimated.

The resulting disadvantage Maori found themselves in also helps to entrench the institutional racism via under-representation of Maori as legislators, judges, lawyers and jurors. There is a clear sense among many Maori that the legal system is not shaped in any way by Maori, which directly contributes to Maori distrust of this system.

For example, historically Maori were not allowed to sit on juries for trials of non-Maori defendants until 1962. To this day there remains concerns about Maori representation on juries – the current law provides that potential jurors must be over 18 years of age, registered on the electoral roll, live within 30km of the court and have no disqualifying convictions. Many Maori do not meet these criteria – owing to a predominance in rural areas and previous convictions, or transportation/childcare barriers.

Another problem is the ability of “peremptory challenges” to allow the Crown and defence to dismiss jurors without cause. Evidence has shown that prosecutors often view Maori as anti-police an anti-Crown, while being empathetic to defendants. The research showed that Crown counsel were twice as likely to challenge Maori as non-Maori in High Court, and three times as likely in District Court.

So much for being judged by a “jury of one’s peers.”

Maori Women

It is an interesting fact that prior to European contact, Maori women had a legal standing in their society that was superior to Pakeha women’s standing in theirs. They had their own separate legal rights and could own and dispense property. They retained their own name and family connections upon marriage, which could also be dissolved without prejudice to her reputation or consequence to her assets.

Simply put, the colonial system and the imposition of European law reduced the status of Maori woman and was a disaster for them.

0447d2780d3d0069a8fd170d89f37054

Much commentary has been made upon the change from the extended whanau to the nuclear family unit, where Maori women lost much support from this network and became isolated in individual households with full responsibility. In Maori society there was no clear distinction between a public and private sphere, which arguably lessened the likelihood of domestic abuse, which appeared largely absent in Maori society and if present was visible and dealt with in a very straightforward way.

Today young Maori women are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than any other group in New Zealand and the most likely to be repeat victims of violence. Much of the violence perpetrated against Maori women is at the hands of Maori men.

Policy for the Drivers of Crime

The Opportunities Party policy on Criminal Justice is part of a combination of policies that seek to address the drivers of economic inequality, a variable that is consistently identified as being directly correlated to the incidence of crime.

These policies include Tax Reform, Thriving Families Unconditional Basic Income, Real Deal Cannabis and Real Action on Alcohol policies, Education policy, Rental policy and the Unconditional Basic Income for 18-23 year olds.

Taken together, they seek to address the various factors associated with crime, with the evidence suggesting they would result in lower crime and lower criminal justice costs. TOP identifies that despite this problem being obvious for decades, Establishment Parties such as Labour and National have failed to fix it.

Underlying this is the ‘worm at the core’ of these kinds of parties – the need to appease the “vociferous segment of the public who demand simplistic retribution”. Those who just want to “lock ‘em up”. It is another example of Establishment parties betraying the evidence in pursuit of votes.

Tikanga Maori Policy

The Opportunities Party’s policies to address the socioeconomic drivers is all well and good, but this entire piece has been about the fact that being Maori, in and of itself, is associated with poorer outcomes in the criminal justice system. So what are they doing to address that?

Fortunately, as a cornerstone of their policy they champion an increase in funding and support for the Restorative Justice system. As we’ve seen, the traditional Maori concept of justice placed much more emphasis upon reparation and victim support than punishment. It is therefore a policy that is in accordance with tikanga Maori.

It’s also a policy that works – reoffending rates for those who participated in restorative justice were 15% lower after a year than comparable offenders who did not participate.

They also note that the traditional arena of European justice is the providence of judges, public servants and other experts and is often viewed as very “elite.” They describe how Restorative Justice “can be thought of as a state-provided space where citizens meet each other, in this case, offenders and victims, to heal their relationship” and that “this can be done in line with tikanga Maori if that is what the participants choose.”

People often speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. But it is interesting that the European system of justice, which appears to be failing on all reasonable indices, will have to turn back to the principles of a justice system that it considered primitive and sought to supplant. Restorative Justice is tikanga Maori through and through, but its application would benefit all members of New Zealand society equally.

The Opportunities Party also propose raising the age of the Youth Court from 17 to 20. They cite evidence that since 2011 the Youth Court has overseen a 48% reduction in youth offending. Maori are, on average, younger than non-Maori in population terms, and would benefit from such a change.

Liberals and The Death of Policy

For all those who consider themselves in favour of Maori rights and correcting Maori disadvantage, there seems to be a conspicuous absence of outrage at the disgrace that is our criminal justice system.

This is both a personal failure, and a predictable outcome of allegiance to Establishment Parties, both Labour and National, who are evidently aware of this untenable state of affairs, and more evidently unperturbed by it.

I grow weary of seeing my liberal friends continuing to throw support behind a party, namely Labour, who have shown no willingness to really address this problem. I understand that everyone has the right to vote for whom they wish, on whatever grounds they wish, and I understand that very often people vote for a personality or in response to a feeling. This is all part of politics.

But if we are happy to ignore sound policy to rectify this extremely concerning issue, then we should be honest with others and ourselves that fixing Maori disadvantage, and therefore institutional racism, is just not a high priority for us. And personally I think that makes a mockery of our professed liberal values – because what could be more repugnantly illiberal than a racially biased state that disproportionately incarcerates its ethnic population?

Lastly I think ignoring this is an abdication of one’s duty as a New Zealand citizen. Our founding document is a beautiful and unique one that stipulates a shared duty-of-care between Maori and non-Maori. We are failing to honour it, to our severe detriment.

Maori over-representation in crime statistics and incarceration is an issue that sits at the crossroads between income inequality and racial prejudice. To address it properly we need bold policies that will right both of these terrible wrongs. The Opportunities Party’s policies are the best chance we’ve ever had of doing that.

So y’know, let’s actually do this.

 

theredgreenpen 

 

‘Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice system – Department of Corrections, May 2008

This piece is also heavily indebted to  – Chapter 12 – Maori and the criminal justice system in New Zealand, Criminal Justice in New Zealand, Tolmie and Brookbanks, 2007

Despise Mike Hosking? Then let’s fix the failed enterprise that created him.

TVNZ is the Doctor Frankenstein of New Zealand public enterprises – divided, erratic, troubled, and prone to creating monsters. If you’d like to see the back of people like Hosking the solution is pretty simple – change the system that created him.

 

Hosking1

There seems to be a bit of a crescendo recently in the degree of Hosking Hate. I’ve written about his ilk before (check out ‘The Unhooded Wolves’) and made a few general comments on what could motivate someone like him to have such a callous disregard for the plight of those less fortunate.

Our outrage at Hosking is all very well and good, but what we’re neglecting, and what I neglected in that piece, is a criticism of the institutional structures and incentives that create, sustain and promote his brand of vile nonsense. Without addressing this structure the problem will be just like the mythical Hydra – chop off one head, and another two pop up in its place.

Why have we forgotten the fact that TVNZ is a state-owned enterprise funded by taxpayers like you and me? With the reduction in print and TV revenues from advertising, TVNZ now find themselves in a volatile and highly competitive market. Over time the model has then shifted from the one we expect of a public enterprise – to serve the public – to one more consistent with big business.

That change has created a monster. A company that is beholden to the public to provide it with honest, informative content, but that must endear itself to flashy, populist practices as the current business media climate demands, will eventually find that it cannot do both at the same time. This is exactly TVNZ’s dilemna.

And what do we end up with as a result? We end up with journalism taking a back-seat to this relatively new wave of celebrity-style, TV personality “brands.” We end up with poorer, more biased content. We end up with overpaid creators-of-opinion-and-outrage, instead of journalists. Basically, we end up with people like Mike Hosking.

Say what you like about Hosking, but love him or loathe him the simple fact is that we the taxpayers are paying his salary, and the reason we pay for it is because we decided as a society that our news media should be held accountable and reflect our population. Except now that it patently doesn’t. So when Hosking delivers his divisive, incendiary and often outright racist commentary, just remember that we are paying him handsomely to do so. Feels wrong doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

If you’d like to see the back of people like Hosking the solution is pretty simple – change the system that created him. The Opportunities Party has a plan for this – sell TVNZ now, before it’s value declines further, and use the proceeds to create a Public Journalism Fund as part of NZ on Air. Media outlets can then compete for this funding, and will only be granted it if they pledge to do what they are supposed to – provide a service that delivers clear, unbiased news and information with the goal of helping create a more informed and educated population.

Our tax dollars are meant to pay for this kind of journalism – not for Hosking to continue to spew his intolerance all over prime-time television, then drive home in his white Lamborghini, lovingly subsidised by you and I.

To be clear, this proposal by The Opportunities Party is not part of a broad programme of selling off state assets – such as that conducted by the National Party. That was ideologically driven – part of a belief in reducing the influence of government in business. It was also illogical (although not for National) given the assets they sold were performing very well.

TVNZ is not performing very well. It is the Doctor Frankenstein of New Zealand public enterprises – divided, erratic, troubled, and prone to creating monsters. In fact it is helping to erode the quality of public discourse in this country. When we are less informed we are more susceptible to charlatans and liars and to voting for parties or policies that aren’t in our self-interest or the interests of our nation. Democracy then suffers. The restoration of a functional democracy is outlined clearly in The Opportunities Party’s policy number four, ‘Democracy Reset’ – I encourage you to check it out.

So next time you find yourself protesting Hosking’s unacceptable behaviour (which is likely very soon if not right this very moment) remember that there is a party with a policy that would not only help to end his terrible reign, but prevent any additional Hydra heads from popping up in the publicly-funded realm long after he is gone.

We could vote for TOP and a policy that sends a message to Hosking and TVNZ that their days are numbered. Or we could just continue to whine about him and somehow expect things to change. If we really despise him as much as we say we do, the choice is clear.

theredgreenpen

 

 

For the Truly Progressive, Labour is the ‘Wasted Vote’

Young and enthused Labour voters, who I remain optimistic are motivated by naturally progressive values, are being led astray by a party that co-opts the imagery and language of Progressivism, while following the Establishment playbook every time. If anyone’s vote is to be considered ‘wasted’, then sadly, it is theirs.

images (1)

 

I’ve been accused of being too negative towards the Labour Party instead of focusing my attention on National. I am unrepentant. I disagree with a great deal of National’s policies and definitely with its ideology. Notwithstanding some seismic change, they will never get my vote, and on this I think I speak for most young people with progressive values.

That’s not to say there aren’t undercover progressives in the National electorate who are as equally frustrated with our non-evidence based, incrementalist Establishment. The Opportunities Party is a broad church with only a few conditions of entry – give a damn about people and their right to meet their potential, especially the historically and currently oppressed, and believe in the facts.

But for me there is a bigger problem for progressives than the National party. One that is much closer to home. It is the uncritical tendency to equate the Labour Party with the ideas and values of the Progressive movement. This ends up making the support for Labour by young people with those values a sad mistake.

I don’t believe in ‘tactical’ voting. If you do, then you’re probably unlikely to agree with me. You will say a vote for Labour is a vote for a change of government. I would say that a vote for Labour is still a vote for the Establishment. An Establishment that has had 30 years to address soaring inequality, a broken Criminal Justice system, draconian drug policy, and Maori disadvantage and have failed miserably.

I am sure that a vast amount of people who support Labour have a strong sense of fairness and equality. I am sure that many want to see bold and radical changes to finally address the big issues of our time, such as inequality and climate change. And I am sure that their hearts are in the right place. That is why it is extra frustrating that their vote is not.

Tax Me If You Can

So what does the average young, liberal, perhaps progressive voter think about tax? I’d be willing to guess that they’d like to see a fairer regime – in accordance with the need to reduce inequality. Does that sound like you? Well if you’re a Labour supporter, you’ll be disappointed to know that it doesn’t sound like them.

Labour’s decision today to make no changes at all to the tax regime is emblematic of their unwillingness to make any significant reforms to address inequality. Bernie Sanders would have had a field day.

Closing the Gap released a press release today detailing their “disappointment at Labour’s approach to tax.” The release cites several authoritative sources, such as Associate Professor Lisa Mariott, School of Accounting and Commercial Law at Victoria University of Wellington:

“Our top tax rate currently sits at 33 per cent compared to UK and Australia where the rate is 45 per cent. Raising the top tax rate would mean more resources to reinvest in social services – so all New Zealanders can prosper.”

She continues on to say how it is high time for New Zealand to consider a wealth tax.

“In relation to taxing wealth, NZ is quite unique in not having any form of wealth tax.”

She then mentions the fact that just 1 per cent of the population holds 20 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 50 percent hold less than 1 per cent, and that:

 “By taxing wealth we can create a more equitable New Zealand.”

Later in the release Paula Feehan, Advocacy and Campaigns Director at Oxfam, details how New Zealand ranks very low globally in terms of the progressiveness of its tax policy – 30th out of 35 OECD countries.

“The index demonstrates that Governments have considerable powers to reduce the gap between rich and poor, and that only by addressing this gap can we end extreme poverty.” 

So Labour has the ability to do it, just not the will.

If a relatively damning release from a major organisation dedicated to reducing inequality and poverty isn’t enough to rattle one’s belief in Labour’s liberal credentials, perhaps adding a praiseworthy release from the New Zealand Taxpayers Union might help bring the edifice shuddering down.

“The Taxpayers’ Union welcomes Labour leader Jacinda Ardern’s ruling out of any increases in the top personal tax rate…With the possibility of a new capital gains tax, water taxes, and regional fuel taxes, we call on Ms Ardern, and Labour’s Finance Spokesperson Grant Robertson, to commit to reducing existing taxes to compensate for any new taxes that are introduced.”

It’s a sad day for the Labour Party when the quasi-libertarian organisation founded by National Party sycophant and general right-wing vitriol-spiller David Farrar approves of your tax policy. Its even sadder when those campaigning to end poverty deride it.

Of course Jacinda told us the other day that Labour hasn’t “ruled out” a Capital Gains Tax, whatever that means. But why the hesitancy? A Capital Gains Tax shouldn’t even be a controversial issue. In fact there’s evidence to show it doesn’t go far enough. Unfortunately for us all John Key and the National Party’s PR machinery did an excellent job of scaring the public into thinking it was the worst thing in the world.

What’s even more unfortunate is they seem to have also scared the Labour Party – and there is some accepted feeling that the Labour Party should know better. They don’t. We like to believe, or at least we hope, that a politician’s task is to listen to the advice of the civil service and implement that advice as policy for the betterment of the nation. The sad truth is that both major political parties very often don’t do this, for a good reason.

Modern political parties have become mirrors of electorate opinion. Instead of telling us the truth and the ways to fix it, no matter how hard they may be to accept, they have moved to a terriblly reflexive stance.  In effect focus groups can end up literally dictating policy. Think about it – “people are scared of crime!” (despite crime going down), “Let’s get tough on crime!” “People are scared of a Capital Gains Tax!” (despite the evidence for it), “No Capital Gains Tax!”. It goes on and on.

Sure, this kind of thing wins votes, and it’s exactly the strategy New Labour employed in the UK to spectacular success. But it is a terrible hollowing out of democracy.  It ensures we never get above the swamp of our prejudices and our private and collective fears.

It also ensures that major political parties rarely make significant, bold policy decisions. They’re just too high risk. So it becomes easier to recycle platitudes and trust in other factors, such as personality and a sense of optimism, rather than policy.

For example, you’d think that Labour’s Enviromental Policy would match the strong and visionary rhetoric Jacinda used at the Party’s launch. Unfortunately it doesn’t. In fact, at least according to their own website, they don’t even have an Environmental Policy.

The Wasted Vote

Jacinda’s arrival on the political scene may in the end be enough for Labour to win this election. But it isn’t a victory that Labour supporters should feel much pride in. Particularly if they are under the illusion that their vote for the Labour Party is a vote for any real chance of reducing inequality, fixing the housing crisis, addressing Maori disadvantage or tackling the obscene levels of extreme poverty.

Supporting The Opportunities Party often means you’re accused of ‘wasting your vote.’ Supporters of the Greens often also contend with this. But I am voting in accordance with my values, and for the evidence-based solutions that could lead to a society that embodies those values.

Young and enthused Labour voters, who I remain optimistic are motivated by naturally progressive values, are being led astray by a party that co-opts the imagery and language of Progressivism, while following the Establishment playbook every time. If anyone’s vote is to be considered ‘wasted’, sadly, it is theirs.

My hope is that I’m completely wrong – that once in power Labour will cast off the shackles of the election and proceed with real gusto, implementing policies distilled from the consensus of multiple non-political institutions, for example a Drug and Alcohol Policy actually supported by the NZ Drug Foundation. I hope, but I plan otherwise.

But The Opportunities Party has these kinds of policies, right now. Policies based on the academic consensus as to what will actually work. The most radical, progressive and well-researched set of policies that has ever been offered to the New Zealand public.

Now all we have to do is vote for them.

 

theredgreenpen

 

Establishment Parties have failed us on inequality. It’s time for something new.

The truth is very plain to see – over 30 years we have become a more unfair nation, and our health and happiness has suffered. We have the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world. The National and Labour parties, both sides, have presided over this decline and seem incapable of arresting it.

4032
New Zealand housing crisis forces hundreds to live in tents and garages – The Guardian, May 2016

 

I’ve written before of an experience I had visiting a very sick girl in South Auckland. She was born with a crippling genetic disorder into a home wrecked by poverty. I can see her in my mind very clearly, working hard just to take a breath, her face drawn and tired. I can see her hooked up to the machine, propped up on a single mattress in the corner of a cold state house bedroom, while the rest of the family (seven if I recall rightly) shared elsewhere to give her peace. I met her mother. Amongst the anguish and concern on her face flittered guilt and shame. I could tell very quickly she was doing the best she could, under appalling conditions. The entire experience left me drained and saddened. It also made me angry.

Economic inequality in New Zealand is out of control. There is no excuse for ignoring it. Since the 1980s the gap between the rich and poor in this country has grown faster than in any other developed nation on the planet. After deducting the cost of housing, the average disposable income for someone in the bottom 10% of our nation is lower than it was in the 1980s. And although the middle class’ share of income has also declined, the surge in income to the rich is shown to be off the backs of our nation’s poorest people.

Wealth, defined as our income plus our accumulated assets, is even more unevenly distributed – the top 1% of adults own three times as much of New Zealand’s wealth as the entire lower 50% put together. The simple fact is that in a world of increasing productivity and connectivity, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That all of this is happening in New Zealand (previously a lauded model of egalitarianism in action) at such an astonishing rate should make us all ashamed.

But many of us aren’t. We seem to just blithely accept this state of affairs, or worse to outright ignore it. And when we are given the opportunity to change it, we seem to lack the gumption. The truth is very plain to see – over 30 years we have become a more unfair nation, and our health and happiness has suffered. We have the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world. And the National and Labour parties, both sides, have presided over this state of affairs and done little to arrest it. Why is that?

National is the party of the property-owning class, and the gross disparities in accumulated wealth resulting from our property market is a major driver of that inequality. National also toyed with ‘trickle down’ economics in its devastating 1990 budget and still embraces debunked Neoliberal ideology that continues to drive down wages and perpetuate this inequality. They routinely ignore the evidence for certain problems, such as being “tough on crime”, in favour of pieced together policies that speak to people’s emotions rather than their intellects. They are draconian with respect to our prisons and our schools, and they still flirt with socially conservative positions that have no place in our modern, diverse nation.

Labour has been more helpful in genuinely trying to help those at the bottom, but their efforts are either too little too late, or based on old-fashioned thinking – they are window-dressing. The truth is both of these parties have let the New Zealand people down. By and large this has nothing to do with malice – it’s just what happens when winning votes becomes more important than fixing problems.

For example, both parties refuse to address the big problem of superannuation out of fear of losing the older vote. So we continue to give away the same amount of money to every single senior citizen, from those in cold homes struggling to pay the power bill, to the millionaires right at the top. Meanwhile, those at the bottom – people sleeping in their cars, people leaving their prescriptions unfilled, people working two jobs and still not earning enough to survive – all of those people who desperately need extra support are made to go without. Is that really fair?

I’ve been accused of having a go at Labour, when I ‘should’ support them, as they are more closely aligned to my beliefs than National – which is most definitely true. I also ‘should’ support them because it is the ‘tactical’ thing to do. I acknowledge this is just a matter of opinion, and many will disagree with me, but I don’t believe in tactical voting. I don’t believe in being told who I should vote for, and I don’t believe anyone has a right to my vote. I believe politicians have a duty to earn my vote.

The best way I can see to guarantee that bold change never happens, is to scare us into thinking that a vote for it is a “wasted vote.” I don’t believe in wasted votes. The only way to one day achieve the plan or vision for society that resonates with you is to vote for it.

This year I’m going to vote for the party with a policy plan that I believe will best help that very sick girl. National and Labour have had 30 years to make sure we protect her from such destitution and they have failed. I want a government that says that those with so much can afford to help those with so little.

We need to understand that our major parties often choose policies not based on their evidential merit, but on the likelihood that certain groups and special interests will like them. This has to change. I strongly believe people are good and empathetic when we are honest with them and speak to their hearts.

Most of all, I want to unburden that girl’s mother of her terrible guilt and shame – because that guilt and shame does not belong to her, it belongs to all of us. We have a collective responsibility to care for one another and we are failing to do so. We can’t keep trusting to the National/Labour duopoly to fix this for us. It is time for something different.

theredgreenpen

Kelvin Davis, Maori Seats, and Labour’s failed promises

The roots of Maori disadvantage go deep and are woven into the flawed premises of some of our most important institutions. Only a party committed to radical revision of these institutions can bring about the change we need – Labour is not that party.

1501548293655

Today Gareth Morgan and The Opportunities Party revealed their number one ‘bottom line’ – no deals with any party who is committed to abolishing the Maori seats. This is an and honest and decent stance for a number of reasons.

TOP is demonstrating an understanding that the Maori seats were established to ensure Maoridom had fair representation until such a time as it is no longer required. The Maori seats are a means of affirmative action to protect Maori society until that day.

Furthermore, they raise the very valid point that it seems incongruous for parties such as Labour and the Greens to stand candidates in Maori seats, despite the fact that on occasion party policy may conflict with the interests of Maori in that particular electorate.

This could lead to a bit of a conundrum for the Labour or Green representative in these seats. What are they to do? They can tow the party line, or they can remember where they’ve parked their behind – a Maori seat provided to them by Maori voters who put them there to best represent their needs. They can rationalise it however they want (and they do) but to the clear-eyed observer that’s called a conflict of interest, and we should generally try to avoid those in politics.

This is precisely the concern Hone Harawira raised in the media with his call for ‘Mana-Maori Motuhake’ – the idea that having Maori representatives in Pakeha parties does not necessarily ensure Maori-friendly policies are enacted, as Pakeha policy has an historical tendency to come first.

This all came to a head in February when Labour accused the Maori Party of acting purely in the interests of ‘elite Maori’ due to its coalition with National. This sparked harsh rebukes from across the political spectrum, but in particular from the Maori Party and Mana. It also came on the heels of the Labour decision to remove its candidates sitting in Maori electorates from the List. It was a one-two punch from Labour to denigrate the Maori Party and attempt to shore up its position in the those seats. This was trumpeted as “courageous” and as showing how confident Labour are of winning Maori seats. It is anything but.

What Labour did was what politicians have done for a long time to the severe detriment of Maori – they have put party politics first. This was a clear attempt to drive a wedge between Maori in order to win votes, and in this case, Maori seats. Seats that  should really only be contested by members of parties with a Maori focus, to avoid a potential conflict of interest in the future.

Labour’s “courageous” decision not to include those sitting in Maori seats is actually a pretty sly, tacit acknowledgement that what it is doing is not really fair or right. Again, as with most Establishment parties, there is a disappointing absence of principle in their motivations and actions.

Kelvin as Winston’s Padawan

Kelvin Davis, the new Deputy Leader of the “Let’s Do This” brigade (do what exactly?), topped off this whole episode with some unfortunate comments about his beliefs and intentions that should concern voters. He accused the Maori Party of playing “the race card” when they were told by Andrew Little the best way to advocate for Maori. He claimed that:

“as soon as they are challenged by a Pakeha, they drop the race card…they aren’t exempt from criticism just because they are Maori.”

Marama Fox, Maori Party Co-leader, responded to Kelvin’s comments, stressing that:

“we have a common enemy, and it is not each other. Our enemy is homelessness, it’s poverty of mind, hand and wairua, it is to address the burden of disparity.”

The Mana and Maori Party soon after announced an agreement to work together this election, Harawira stating that they are:

“taking up the call to bring the Maori seats back into Maori hands.”

Kelvin’s response?

“what he is saying is that he can’t make a difference in a Pakeha party, but I can and I have.”

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who sounds more invested in Maori progress, and who in their own career.

Also, let’s remember how the Maori Party was formed – after Tariana Turia resigned in protest at the Foreshore and Seabed Legislation and helped organise a 10,000 strong Hikoi. In her own words:

“Maori should never forget it was the Labour Party that lost the last piece of Maori customary land.”

Or as AUT Professor Paul Moon, Treaty expert puts it:

“Maori have invested a lot in Labour…with little gains in 15 years.”

Of course, the media has been breathless about Kelvin’s ability to “galvanise Maori voters”. Along with Jacinda, he is in many ways a core part of Labour’s focus on personality over policy. But we shouldn’t forget his antipathy towards accommodation with the Greens, nor his connections and ongoing respect for Winston Peters – who helped him oust Hone Harawira from the Te Tai Tokerau seat. If Winston is Kelvin’s political mentor, we should all be worried.

Kelvin has also made some pretty snarky accusations regarding Hone’s deal with the Internet Party in the last election, which in effect lost Hone the Northland seat. This arrangement was evidently political poison, for many unfortunate reasons – but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do. It depends on what your goal is. Kelvin was more than happy to deride the union, and the discussion around mass-surveillance it created, for political gain.

He derides that “saga” still. Remember that ‘saga’? The one where we found out the extent of John Key’s lies and our government’s subservience to illegal mass surveillance. That ‘saga’ where one of the most respected journalists in the world, Glenn Greenwald, visited to warn us in person of the covert impingement on our rights. That ‘saga’ where one of the real heroes of American disobedience – Edward Snowden – beamed in to double down on Glenn’s insights. Kelvin betrays a pretty disturbing capacity that is unfortunately routine for career politicians like him – shoot the messenger, and put getting power over fighting for what’s right.

There’s your Deputy Leader of the Labour Party everyone. And it goes to show why Labour’s pretence to best represent Maori and being the party of real progressive change is superficial.  I just hope that people can shield their eyes from Jacinda’s holy light long enough to spot Kelvin in the background.

So if you’re a young voter who thinks they care about Maori and are considering voting for Labour, you’re either ignorant or not as concerned as you say you are. There are better options. But you know…forget all that…Let’s Do This!

Policy and a Party that Respects the Maori Seats

TOP is a political party after all, and needs votes to put policy into action. That is why it has called for Maori to consider giving it the party vote. By not contesting Maori seats and raising the concerns about traditional parties sitting in them, TOP hopes to see those seats go to parties with a predominantly Maori focus and for that vital representation to continue. But TOP also believes that its policies, based on the evidence, have the best potential to change Maori lives for the better.

My message to Maori is then this – if on the Maori roll, then vote for a candidate from a Maori party and don’t reward candidates from Labour and the Greens who shouldn’t be contesting those seats anyway. Then give your party vote to TOP – choose the party who has done its homework and has the honesty, expertise and will to make structural changes in this country.

The roots of Maori disadvantage go deep and are woven into the flawed premises of some of our most important institutions. Only a radical revision of these institutions can bring about the change we need – and only TOP has the guts to be so radical.

In the next piece I want to turn to perhaps the most disastrous of these institutions – our Criminal Justice system.

theredgreenpen

Left or Right: What’s best for Maori? Neither.

The Opportunities Party is a vehicle for evidence-based policy which could be life-changing for Maori, who have been poorly served by an arbitrary and disingenuous political divide.

 

MuldoonMaori

 

With the election just five weeks away I’d like to try and lay out the very real choice facing Maori.

Personality-driven politics undermines democracy – as a tool to try and gain power, it must come to an end. There is simply too much risk in putting faith in a person – people change, people lie, and people are imperfect. We must put our trust and our support behind specific policies that are based in reality and have an eye to the future.

There is no supreme ideology here, no Left vs. Right. It’s a practice that requires only two things; the ubiquitous human capacity for empathy and understanding, and a respect for the truth. Its political mantra is a very prosaic, but often forgotten one: we are all in this together.

Over the next few posts I want to examine the way that Maori have been poorly served by this arbitrary political divide. I want to examine some of the structures that predate Colonialism and the effects of their loss. I want to highlight how, if not being silently ignored, Maori are used as a lightning rod for New Zealand’s worst demagogues. I want to discuss how Maori over-representation in the indices of crime, health and social deprivation is a stain upon this country.  And I want to talk about how when specific and effective policy becomes secondary to political grandstanding, there is little chance of this stain is ever washing away.

Most of all, I would like to nail my colours to the mast. I’m a Maori man – my hapu is Ngati Mahuta and my iwi is Tainui. I take pride that my hapu produced someone like Tawhiao, the second Maori King and a spiritual leader to his people. My Nana was raised as Ngapuhi and spoke only Te Reo until she was six years old. My Mum was born in a state house in Otara, the eldest of eight children, where money was scarce but love more plentiful. As a kid I remember us having enough to be happy and healthy, but not a great deal after that. My eldest brother was the first in our extended family to attend University and was also honoured as the Top Maori Scholar for Bursary that year.

The tikanga-Maori in my life flowed from the warmth and love of my Nana. She was a big lady with a big heart and us grandkids adored her – that big state house in Mangere was our happy place. I remember my cousins and I cramped into the lounge where Nana slept, Inspector Morse seemingly on repeat, Nana quietly playing solitaire on her bedside table, the room all suffused with the orange glow from the streetlights, bathing the Tretchikoff Blue Lady, the faded Constable, and her collection of creepy dolls and cluttered Kiwiana trinkets. I remember the faint smell of dusty blankets and rising scones.

Nana would write how she loved to have her mokopuna so close, referring to that lounge as like “a little marae.” With her passing, my Mum seeks to maintain that link, working for the Auckland City Council as a financial advisor for the South Auckland region – an area with communities, strengths and problems that she knows like the back of her hand. I can’t honestly say that I’ve engaged with my heritage as much as I could have, that would be untrue. But I can say that it is one of the things, among only a few others, that I feel and hope defines me.

So as a Maori man speaking to all other Maori, and to those who wish to see progress for this vibrant people, I want most of all to say this: the political party in this country putting forward the best policy programme to improve the lives of tangata whenua, while still respecting kaupapa-Maori, is The Opportunities Party.

I want to make it clear that I understand that kaupapa-Maori means leadership by Maori, for Maori. I see TOP mainly as a vehicle for evidence-based policy, which if enacted, will have an enormous impact on those areas in which Maori are over-represented. TOP is also committed to the Treaty of Waitangi and is calling for it to be formally enshrined forever, in a written constitution, and finally acknowledged as the unique and beautiful, shared duty-of-care that it is. These actions together would then hopefully lead to a more equitable relationship and a model of shared, mutually respectful governance. The Opportunities Party is not able to provide the exact same kind of representation that the Maori Party or Mana can, for obvious reasons. But what separates TOP from other traditionally ‘liberal’ parties is that they acknowledge this fact, and take a principled stance on it – they are not standing candidates in Maori seats. This will be discussed elsewhere.

For now, I’d like to look at  four specific policies and how, for Maori, they are potentially life-changing. These are:

  • Democracy Reset
  • Criminal Justice Reform
  • Cannabis and Alcohol Reform
  • Tenancy Act Reform

So stay tuned!

theredgreenpen

 

Take a Maori Seat Winston, You’re Scaring Everyone

The way to win on policy is by entering into a dialogue with those who disagree with us. Especially those who we feel can never change.

winston

 

Winston Peters is on a mission to get rid of the Maori seats. But like most things Winston wants us to care about we need to stop and ask an important question – do we actually care?

Turns out, not really, although that might be difficult to appreciate given the media’s irresponsible and hysterical reporting. In fact, they seem to already know how we feel, as a Stuff article on the 17th June makes clear:

“Peters is calling for a referendum, of course, but it is assumed by many that the majority European population would vote to get rid of the seats.”

Too bad that a Colmar Brunton poll three weeks later found that:

“55% say they should be kept, 13% say they should be abolished as soon as possible and 23% say they should be abolished some time in the future”

Of course, this can be seen as another cynical attempt by Winston to create an issue where there isn’t one just to fire up his base – another good example of why we need to move to a more honest, reality-based politics focusing on policy, not personality and demagoguery.

But sadly, it may actually be worse than this. Winston may actually believe his own lies. Our mutual fiend, Don Brash, makes it clear:

“the last time the pair spoke in person was in April last year when Brash was in Wellington to make a submission to select committee about the RMA. He and Peters ran into each other in the street after and had a coffee together.”

Putting aside the unsettling fact that Don still has his ‘colour-blind’ eyes keenly focussed on the what he sees as the carrion of New Zealand race-relations, he now seems to share many qualities with NZ First and Winston, not least a proclivity for delusional thinking.

“I had said to Mr Peters that morning that this whole racial separatism issue is the biggest issue facing Government right now, at which Mr Peters replied ‘it’s the biggest issue facing the country right now.'” 

Except of course that it isn’t.

It is precisely this kind of deceit that impedes democracy and progress. The interchange between these expensive dinosaurs really sums up the problem with this type of politics – it’s not about finding out what the real pain is or the real problems people face. It’s not about speaking to those problems and offering policy ideas to fix them. It’s just about pushing buttons and waiting for a bounce in the polls. To add to our disquiet, Winston now seems to entertain the possibility of accepting not only cups of coffee from Brash, but substantial financial support. The racist ex-politican du jour wants to:

“…make money available to any political parties that were “committed to moving New Zealand to a ‘colour-blind’ state after the election”.

Scary stuff.

***

Winston Peters is a menace and it’s vital that other parties (my obvious preference The Opportunities Party) pinch traditional NZ First voters. I managed to sway my conservative Dad, whose support for NZ First is really just because Winston “talks straight” – to consider that Winston really plays voters, and to switch his vote to another party whose leader “talks straight” but doesn’t play us. The real reason for his decision I think, was when I laid out the scale of economic injustice in this country, and TOP’s plans to address it. He worked hard all his life as a Butcher, never making a lot of money. He understands that these days people are working even harder for less, that they don’t have enough money, and that this is all unfair. He has no love for a system that makes people clean toilets for pittance, while others live large in gaudy excess.

The thing is – I truly believe that nearly everybody feels this on some level, and that if we tap into that feeling in an honest and bold way, then a grand coalition is just waiting to be formed. People like Bernie Sanders had their success because they told people what they already knew anyway – lacking only the social climate or discussion in which to express it.

Unfortunately, its where this frustration is directed that clouds the issue – so for Dad, it’s a disgrace that “prisoners are getting underfloor heating”, while poverty persists. That’s a classic Winston/NZ First line – and I completely empathise with Dad responding with outrage – it’s a difficult statement to dismiss. But it’s so obviously not the whole story, not by a long shot. Winston has shone a torch on an issue, taken it out of all context and wrapped it in his “straight talk”, just to get people fired up. Meanwhile the real sources of such inequality and injustice remain outside the torch beam, obscured in the darkness.

So here is my plea – if you have a family member who sits in the NZ First cross-hairs – socially conservative perhaps, a bit nationalistic, a little prey to emotional manipulation towards classic scapegoats (Maori, the poor, the incarcerated, foreigners) – trust in the possibility that what really motivates them is a disgust with politics-as-usual, but more crucially, economic injustice. Speak to that part and explain that there is a party with bold plans to tackle the real causes – not just the same-old tinkering. Disabuse them of their simplistic ire, foisted on them by Winston, and show them the bigger picture.

The way to win on policy, and to hopefully win on election day, is by entering into a dialogue with those who disagree with us, especially those whom we feel can never change. I can post to my like-minded friends all day, but it’s not really the answer. If we actually make the effort, instead of turning away, we may be surprised – certain unpleasant prejudices might wither away.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But I will forever be an optimist on this one – there is no other option.

theredgreenpen

 

 

 

 

Metiria and the War on the Poor

We are educated to hate the poor. It’s time to redirect our ire to where it belongs.

images

 

We recoil from poverty in two different ways.

The first way is relatively natural but still unfortunate. If we do not acknowledge it, then it doesn’t exist. It is a selfish need – if it doesn’t exist, then it can’t happen to me.

I think if you work in healthcare, or really any field that deals with people and their journeys, you quickly release that the difference between full health and illness, happiness and despair, fortune and destitution, can be a nanosecond. You realise that life is not fair, that the Fates are fickle things, that life is short and often bittersweet and that, basically, shit happens. For many people there is no gradual descent from wellness and security – there is a thin, jet-black veil that can fall away in heartbeat.

What a terrorising reality that is. What a difficult thing to hold conscious for too long. To do so takes courage and honesty and creates a large degree of anxiety. But it has its own reward – the knowledge of this frailty can give power and richness to life. Indeed, it is in these ‘boundary moments’, those times when our best laid plans are radically altered forever, that a new commitment to life can occur. Some would go so far to say that this hallowed ground, where we face loss and accept impermanence, is the only place where real change happens.

This is why empathy can seem such a rare thing – it requires real courage – and it requires we accept that “there but for the grace of God go I”. It also undermines that great bulwark against anxiety – an obsessive need to control. Because you can’t control all aspects of life, and you certainly can’t control death. Those who try to might find success for some time, and although often productive people, are usually quite insular and detached. They are also quite brittle. It is no surprise that those with the least are often more charitable than those with plenty – they are less afraid, less obsessively controlling, and more empathic as a result.

The second reason we recoil from poverty is much more unnatural and disappointing. We are taught to. This is the ‘War on the Poor’. We are educated, through cultural and media bias, to hate the poor. And because we have a natural aversion anyway, these institutions often have a great deal of success.

A good rule of thumb I once heard is that if you’re criticising people below you on the ladder, you’re probably being manipulated by people above.

This inhumane attack on Metiria isn’t occurring in a vacuum – it is just one more example of this implicit rule, albeit a much more public one. I understand the law is important, I use it every day in my work and have a great respect for what it represents – but the law is there to serve us. If by breaking the law you are correcting an injustice, then personaly I think it might be OK to do so. Often I have to make decisions regarding physical or mental illness that circumvent the autonomy of my patient – this is the “duty of care.” Yes, it’s a legally valid thing to do, but in essence it’s an overriding or interfering with other laws related to personal autonomy. If I ever had to face a legal challenge, the best defense is the fact that, at the time, it was “the right thing to do.” Is Metiria’s dilemna much different?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever satisfactorily convince someone who is adamant Metiria broke the law by arguing in this way. But that’s because I don’t think the ‘legal’ level is where their outrage lies. What interests me more is that silent command inherent in the way our system is constructed and in the lies we tell ourselves about it. That the poor “deserve their lot”, that success always comes from “hard work” and that if you can bank your wealth in land, or dodge taxes, then you’re just being “smart”.

I remember doing a home visit in Mangere to see a young girl with Cystic Fibrosis. This is an autosomal recessive, rare genetic condition with no known cure. She was living with six others in a three bedroom government house. I can still see her now, pale and thin, hooked up to an apparatus that helped her breathe, lying on a single mattress in that cold, damp room. Every time I hear someone talk about the poor not “trying hard enough”, I think of that girl. Every time that pustule Hosking waxes on about the glories of Capitalism or derides policy aimed at helping the poor as “the politics of envy” I see her face. She did nothing wrong except be born with an illness into an ethnically deprived group, and a socially deprived community. And she will suffer more than she should because poverty in this country does not exist. Even worse, because we have been inculcated to hate her and her plight.

Hating the poor serves an absolutely vital purpose for those who wish to maintain this uncaring status quo – it keeps us divided. Demagoguery is the oldest trick in the book and bars us from creating that grand, universal solidarity that is not only necessary to meet the challenges of the future, but eminently possible. Its a cheap trick that keeps us from directing our ire to where it really belongs – this rapacious system that rewards greed, and the sycophants in the media and politics who get paid handsomely to promote its cultural narrative.

Metiria is only one victim of this relentless onslaught. She’s done us a great service in raising this issue, as she has done consistently throughout her entire career. Let’s not let her brave disclosure go to waste.

 

theredgreenpen

The UBI and our Quest for Meaning

We must think radically about our relationship to labour. We must define productive work in terms that incorporate what we know about the needs and desires of the human spirit.

ImcIoLi

There has been a lot of talk so far this election about a Universal (or Unconditional) Basic Income or UBI. Many of the arguments for it are based on the fact that something just has to give – with the changing nature of employment we are entering a new future where the old concepts of labour and welfare will need revision. These arguments are all very sound and are really the specialty of my economist friends – I don’t want to rehash them here. As a doctor specialising in psychiatry my natural inclination is to try and understand the effects of such a policy upon the mental health of individuals and the well-being of the population at large. A cursory review of some of the statistics seems to indicate positive benefits, but comprehending the underlying reasons for such results is what really interests me the most. It is the why questions that are always the most fascinating…

The Way Things Was

To really see our relation to labour in its totality we need to go back to the Industrial Revolution. The concept of a wage economy is a relatively new one but is often difficult to extricate from our understanding of the ‘way the world is’.

13cce24f97b78e6cdc684dc819cc898a

It should be remembered that the idea that one is forced to sell themselves in order to survive was vehemently rejected by a number of groups at the time and by large parts of the working class press. In the mid 19th century prominent among them were working class women from the farms, known as ‘Factory Girls’. They rejected what Adam Smith referred to as the ‘vile maxim’, “gain wealth, forgetting all but self” and saw wage labour as not very different from slavery – indeed referring to the industrial labour system as ‘wage slavery’. Like slavery they considered it inherently dehumanising and incompatible with the ideas of human dignity, independence and creativity.

The fact that one must submit their time and energies to the eventual, disproportionate enrichment of the managerial class was viewed with deep suspicion. If one works for an industry or company, then shouldn’t they have a say in decisions relating to it? Should they not have a ‘stake’ or partial ownership? And what of our impulses to self-determination?

815142637

Again, this idea seems quite foreign to our modern sensibilities. We seem to have accepted the tenets of this capitalist ideology as if it were the natural state of things. It is not dissimilar to the terrible inertia and inevitability of our perception of the ‘economy’ and of certain systems and policies. We forget that these systems arise from decisions made by certain groups of people (most often the very privileged) at certain points in history in response to certain situations and interests – they are not natural laws of the universe or of human nature. They can be challenged, they can be changed and there are alternatives.

The general ideology that I believe sits above all specific ones is that whatever system is operational is just ‘the way things are’. Communism, Socialism and Capitalism may have all had their genesis in a revolutionary spirit of change, but once they have established their dominance they all seek to shore it up by infusing this idea into the cultural narrative. It is a concretising and deadening injunction, and it ensures we don’t creatively challenge the status quo.

A Philosophical Shortcut to Acorns

Nietzsche’s famous concept of the ‘will to power’ is instructive here. I always struggled to fully understand what he meant – he seemed to be saying that the basic human drive, the one we all seek to express or actualise is a desire for power – and that didn’t seem quite right. It took me a while to understand that his understanding of ‘power’ was much less about strength and much closer to the idea of ‘potential.’

For Nietzsche, what every human being really wants, what really drives all of their actions and behaviours, is a deep will and need to meet their potential, to unfold as they feel they ought to be able. It is not a desire for power, it is not a basic gratification of sexual or aggressive drives (as Freud believed) and it is not an inherent need to dominate or control. It is the understanding, on some level of awareness, that we are like the acorn. If given the right nutrition, sunlight, care and the protection from insult and injury, we develop into the oak that we know we can become.

This idea of potential, or ‘entelechy’, is an important one in existential thought and many of the peculiarities of our mental lives can be understood in its light. For instance the concept of guilt in existentialism is much broader than simply an unpleasant emotional state related to a perceived wrongdoing. We can be guilty towards ourselves and to life itself. Guilt in this sense is the distance between our current circumstances, and our awareness, be it conscious or not, of our potentialities. It is therefore not an exclusively negative state, indeed it can be the catalyst for change and a more authentic existence.

The vagaries of life and the challenges that we face work upon this will to potential, buffeting the sapling of our potential oak, sometimes stunting its growth, sometimes accelerating it, sometimes closing off certain paths to realising our potential forever, sometimes opening up new ones. Crucially, although we may be forced into “hiding our light behind bushels” by external factors, it is always an outcome that we in some sense impose upon ourselves in order to survive. Our own role in our unhappiness is often the most difficult thing to fully grasp.

Personally, understanding my patients and their struggles in the light of unrealised or suppressed potential is the only way to fully make sense of their thoughts, behaviours, dreams and aspirations. It is a consistent, organising principle that helps me understand people and to try and help them accordingly. And I believe, as the Factory Girls did, that every person seeks to realise their potential and has a creative impulse that they long to satisfy. In contrast to a market economy or other economic or political theories, I believe that to make, shape or imbue some thing or some relationship with our special talents is actually a natural law, and is human nature.

Two other crucial concepts in existential thought are meaning and freedom. They are intimately linked with the other and most psychologically pressing concept, death. To an existential thinker, the fundamental difference between humans and other animals is our awareness of our mortality.  We are both “angels and beasts of the field.” We can conceive of a Universe brimming with billions of suns, we can create the most beautiful images and harmonies and we can love deeply and strongly across time and space – but we ache inside for eternity. Despite our miraculous propensity for all of this, we know that in the end we are food for worms – that we return to the earth and to dust. This is an unedifying insult, and the terrible paradox of our situation.

I believe, as many humanist existential writers do, that the awareness of this paradox, of our finitude, is the font of all psychopathology. It is the primal, undifferentiated anxiety, from which all other anxiety flows. One of the rules of the dynamic model of psychology is that an entity seeks to reduce tension, to quell anxiety. As such, we devote a great deal of our energies to warding off and sanitising this primal dread. This is an unconscious, automatic and necessary repression in order to function in this world with some equanimity.

Pulling it all together it stands to reason that our quest for meaning flows directly from this painful awareness – we are meaning-creating creatures and we must have a purpose to feel at home in the world.  This is no surprise to those who work in mental health and probably not to the lay person either  – without meaning and purpose our oak sapling withers. And meaning can be gained from many different sources – the most obvious being religion. In fact religion is the solution par excellence to the existential question – it gives one’s life a preordained meaning and purpose. As I age I’ve become much more understanding of this need, and I confess to an unattractive atheist militancy in my younger days. Religion is a deeply important and vital practice and I believe, if not distorted or violently hijacked, the most elegant solution to living life with a sense of contentment.

However, for good or ill, the authority of these systems began to weaken with the dawn of the Enlightenment. We entered a brave new world of scientific and empirical thinking. Reason became the great protector, the essentially human function that could answer all of our questions. The spiritual element, the preordaining of meaning was no longer assured. The field of human possibility and achievement seemed to open up. God was “dead” and “everything was permitted.” What potential! What freedom! What could possibly go wrong?

Existentialism

Unfortunately, the existential understanding of freedom is not so straightforward. Whereas existentialism shone a light on the positive side of guilt, it must reveal the shadow of freedom. Because freedom really means ‘no structure’, it means no rules, no guidance. It is like the ground underneath us giving way – it is often referred to as ‘groundlessness’ in existential texts. The full realisation of what freedom really means forces us to see that we are the architects of our world, of what we find meaningful, of what we can do or become. Freedom implies very strongly responsibility for creating the world.

This is an enormous burden when you really think about it, and predictably it creates a lot of anxiety. This is why anxiety is so prominent when we are forced to make a decision – we are faced with the terrorising aspect of freedom and we recoil from it. A choice for one thing also excludes all others. Kierkegaard summed it up very poetically back in the 19th century  – anxiety, he said, is “the dizziness of freedom.”

Faced with a loss of a religious meaning and the responsibility of freedom what did we do? Us meaning-craving creatures? Of course we replaced it – “nature abhors a vacuum”, so they say. Religion and its spiritual and existential promise were replaced by whatever system was at hand, by something, anything, so long as it could take us away from that primal dread which is our birthright. A succession of surrogate systems and ideas tried to patch up this rent in our sense of being-at-home in the world. Today, the crowning champion of our quest for meaning is that spiritual waste-bin we call Consumerism and its demented cousin – the zealous belief in that rampant and supposedly ‘free’ market economy.

The UBI and our Quest for Meaning

I’ve taken a pretty big philosophical detour for a post that is supposed to be about a specific policy, the Universal Basic Income, and I must be getting back to the point. But I make no apologies – I believe that the UBI has potential benefits that speak to exactly what it is that makes us vital, healthy and happy human beings. If we are to move forward as a society, we must realise the stifling and inhumane effect of wage slavery.

The first task is to broaden our frame of reference and shake off the concerted attempts to make us think that this is just ‘the way things are.’ That involves appreciating that our current system is a cruel and unforgiving one for those at the bottom, for whom the evidence reveals have little chance of ever moving up the ladder. They are trapped. It is an insult to think that the people who clean our toilets or vacuum our offices at night are simply playing their fitting role in this glorious, necessary system. The economic ideology has increasingly contracted to a single, critical rule – either sell yourself on the so-called free market, or resign yourself to a precarious oblivion. There is no choice.

This cannot continue. We must think radically about our relationship to labour. We must define productive work in terms that incorporate what we know about the needs and desires of the human spirit. Do we really believe that those who play with numbers at big financial firms, who ‘earn’ obscene salaries by making money off money, are working harder than a solo Mum raising her child? Do we really think there is more societal value in these predatory capitalists than in the nurturing of the new generation?

It is a devastating indictment of our current economic system that caring for a child, a sick grandparent, or giving time to a charity or those in need is considered something less deserving of financial reward then the voodoo number-manipulating of those who crashed the economy. None of this is beyond the appreciation of the average person and yet we are slow to have this argument on a policy level. This is the tyranny of ‘the way it is’ mentality.

The effect of the UBI, particularly in adolescence and early adulthood, will have a profound impact. This is a time when our understanding of who we are begins to coalesce – our understanding of our potential, of our creative powers and the ways to their fulfillment. This is also the time where those natural, creative and vital processes come up against the unkind and inhumane realities of our capitalist system. To reflect back on the thrust of this post, it is a crucial time for our sense of purpose and meaning.

Working in mental health I hear many stories. I am in the very privileged position of having people open themselves up to me, relating their most painful or frightening thoughts, their dreams and fantasies, those things about themselves that they cannot accept. Psychiatry can often be considered pretty arcane, and sometimes rightly so. Because the reality is that many people that I see in a crisis, suicidal and despairing of life, don’t really need specialist psychiatric support. They need a house. They need a job. They’re worried that their benefit is going to be cut off next week, if they can feed themselves or their kids, if they can afford the GP, or whether they should go without their medication to pay the rent. Economic despair has an enormous role in destabilising a person to the extent where suicide seems like the only option. That is a national disgrace.

Poverty can kill, but the way it deadens is often forgotten. Think of all of the potential artists, theorists, creators, educators or artisans who are forced often only by the contingencies of their birth, into menial and meaningless jobs which crush their creative impulses, perhaps forever. These people will not be happy and this will not make for a happy society. We have robbed them of the opportunity to create their own sense of purpose and meaning through the use of their natural talents and the will of their creative impulses. They have become wage slaves. Unable to find meaning this way, they will likely turn to the relative security of our sick society’s only real offer – Consumerism, the endless accumulation of things, the feverish and unrelenting need to ‘keep up with the Jones’s.’ Of course, they are not alone in seeking this security.

All of what I’ve proposed is not in conflict with the belief that some people, once in a job that they were initially compelled into, find a meaning in it or use it as a stepping stone to something else. In fact all this does is validate how strong and imperative the impulse to find meaning is. The fact this happens isn’t an argument for capitalism – it shows how for some people, their innate human spirit succeeds in spite of capitalism.

Also, when I talk about creative work, I don’t mean purely aesthetics. I feel fulfilled in psychiatry because I am able to imbue my relationships with my patients with something that is both general and personal. In those moments, I am calling upon a creative impulse. That is the essence of creative work. Someone forced into being an automaton on the production line at Foxconn is robbed of this opportunity. Perhaps those with a very strong will may be able to find meaning and contentment in this kind of occupation – but the disgrace of 18 employee suicide attempts in a year suggests otherwise.

factory

The current proposals for the UBI are not sufficient – this is an unfortunate consequence of it being a new concept, and of us being a country that hasn’t completely found a way to pay for it. It cannot come out of thin air, and can only be established in concert with a revision of our taxation system that captures accumulated wealth. The Opportunities Party has rightly advocated for it, as a nod to the future, and has chosen to offer it first to vulnerable populations.

The provision to families with children under three is a bold acknowledgement of the logical benefits of targeted, primary intervention. The provision to 18-23 years-olds is also a bold acknowledgement of our appalling rates of youth suicide, and as I have just discussed, will help people who fundamentally know inside who they wish to be, but lack the financial support to consider it a realistic prospect. Granted, the current level on offer would not be sufficient alone for a lot of endeavours – but we must start somewhere. I encourage you to read the details of the policy on the TOP website.

We live in an age of anxiety, so everyone keeps saying. And I think they’re right. But it is not hard to find out why. We have forgotten what it is that makes us human and which we need more than anything else in order to live happy and healthy lives – the sheer joy and pleasure of exercising our powers, our unique and special talents, in the service of our own potential. I believe that what is also necessary is a sense of spiritual fulfillment, of purpose and meaning. In the absence of preordained religious faith, that can only be found in two other ways. One is an identification with some ruling ideology in which one can bury themselves in the “world of things” – in our time the most ubiquitous of these is called Consumerism. The other is via true creative work. Something that allows us the ability to develop and unfold as we feel we should be able. The UBI is a pragmatic step towards creating the conditions for this development. It is an attempt to till more fertile soil, in which our oak sapling may grow and soar, proudly and assuredly, into the canopy above.

Now all we have to do is vote for it.

theredgreenpen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

Let’s do what now? Apparently not much.

Why are we happy to be sucked into a cult of personality, and to ignore sub-standard policy while we do it?

corbyn

When are we going to learn?

Over the last two years the accepted political consensus of ‘Right vs. Left’ and ‘centrism vs. extremism’ has completely broken down. We have entered into a crisis of democracy that’s been 30 years in the making. Those with the supposed inside knowledge – public relations spin-doctors, bloated ‘think-tanks’, traditional media and political pundits have had their myopic and delusional plans blow up in their faces. Syriza in Greece, Brexit and ‘Corbynism’ in the UK, the overwhelming support for a self-proclaimed Socialist and the unfortunate rise of a Neo-Fascist pig in the United States – every single one of these events have left this enlightened and ‘expert’ caste in a state of dumb shock.

It has been said by many others but i’ll repeat it – the mask of the Establishment has slipped and the people who have been oppressed and left behind have glimpsed the technocratic and uncaring visage underneath. This is an enormous step forward.

Chomsky has commented on the sense of hope that we should take from it. The supreme ideology of any system of control is that it is seen as permanent and ‘the way the world is.’ This has been completely invalidated. Give the people a real choice – talk with them honestly and openly – and the whole thing crumbles. Bernie Sanders’ choice to go against the most ingrained status quo of US politics – that cosying up to moneyed and special interests is the only way to the Presidency – caused an earthquake in the political landscape.

We should always remember – the Establishment and their institutional structures are actually very weak. They just expend billions of dollars on those terrible twins of deceit – advertising and public relations – to make us think they are not. The society we see on TV and in the media is not really the world as it actually is – it is simply the world as they wish us to see it. It is the softest and most effective method of control ever developed in the history of mankind. The Politburo could only dream of something so effective.

But I digress. So when will we learn? Sadly, despite all of the evidence, some of us haven’t. The election of Jacinda Ardern to the Labour leadership is most definitely a thing to be optimistic about and to celebrate, and not just because it is another healthy acknowledgement of women in power and politics, a place so historically dominated (to its severe detriment) by men. But we have to be honest – the reaction from those who consider themselves Progressives or Liberals to this new appointment is absurd. It is silly, it is naive and it is dangerous.

Why? Because it again demonstrates that for some reason we haven’t the intellectual capacity to recognise how superficial this change is. Why are we happy to be sucked into a cult of personality, and to ignore sub-standard policy while we do it?

I wrote a letter to Jacinda in 2015 which I entitled “A Labour of the Left” – I had met her briefly at an event in Grey Lynn and she seemed like a really nice person and open to new ideas. I began by saying that I was “writing because I feel there are ways the party has been sabotaging itself” and that I believed that she may “represent the best possibility of arresting this process.” I implored her not to follow the path towards the “new centre” and that it “eviscerates a party and damages its soul.” I asked her to look at how the “path to victory was not the reclamation of the right”, but “the galvanisation of those whose hearts…are with the common people.” I protested against the game of trying to appear “more competent” on the economy than the National Party, and instead advocated for the need to “change the discussion completely…to reinstate different priorities” other than dull “economic indices” by “laying down a grassroots campaign with social justice at its cornerstone.” I asked if Labour could possibly feel happy with itself, and by extension could its base, if it must “lose itself to gain the vote”. I explained my view that at the time the “smug reaction of the conservative media and calcified political class” actually “belies an uneasiness about the possibilities” of a radical, progressive stance. I asked how long must we lose elections before we realise that if we follow behind an electorate being led down the wrong path by the National Party carrot, “feebly interjecting our views and moderating our outrage to public opinion” then we are doomed. I ended by imploring her to think on this and wishing her the best.

Unfortunately I never got a reply. And also unfortunately, I have little faith that she will follow the path that I felt and still feel is correct. I understand we are seven weeks out from an election and drastic policy change appears like a daunting proposition. But there are other signs that this is a cosmetic change without substance. Jacinda was asked recently about her stance as a ‘democratic socialist’ – remember that term? It was brought screaming back into popularity by the Sanders campaign. It seems like Jacinda is not as wedded to it as before and considers herself now a ‘pragmatic idealist.’ Aside from this being a bit of an oxymoron, it represents a definite climb-down. It also very closely echoes the words of the doomed Clinton campaign when they were forced to recognise the danger of being outflanked on the left. Remember that too? Clinton very disingenuously referred to herself as a “progressive who likes to gets things done” – in an attempt to co-opt the language and image of Progressivism, while offering policies far from its principles. I’m no political expert – but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign if you’re plucking ideas from the worst-run campaign in living memory.

Commentators have also raised some concerns about Jacinda’s previous attendance at a Paul Henry book launch – legitimising this racist, sexist and generally idiotic bigot. Most disturbing for me, was her attendance at an event with Tony Blair. You may take umbrage with this one – and to confess, I do not know who else was in attendance, probably lots of politicians from the Labour party – but that doesn’t make it any better. In fact, let’s compare this with another current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. For many years he was the leader of the anti-war movement in the UK, and has been vocal in his belief that Tony Blair not only committed war crimes, but deserves to be locked up for a very long time. This is the current leader of the Labour Party calling for the imprisonment of a former one. That to me is as principled a stance as you can get. I can’t escape the feeling that acknowledging or legitimising him is a gross error in judgment.

This brings me to the most naive flight of fancy entertained by those who consider themselves progressive or on the ‘Left.’ This fantasy that perhaps the Labour party under Jacinda can have some enormous turnaround and upset like that seen in the recent UK election. This is profoundly dumb. Labour in the UK had such a dramatic success because it completely restructured how it makes decisions to include greater participation of its members and because it presented a manifesto that was probably the most progressive ever on offer. Free University tuition. Renationalisation of railways. Ending tax avoidance. Raising taxes on the very wealthy. Committing to a strong National Health Service. Bold environmental action. The list goes on.

We must realise that our Labour party in NZ is a shadow of this kind of commitment. Their plans for early childhood support are woeful and inadequate, they have refused to discuss raising taxes and they continue to support a broken welfare system and its ridiculous premises. Working for Families is nothing but a subsidy for industry and a reflection of our low-wage economy. They also refuse to address the obscenity of a superannuation system that we can’t afford, and that pays the same amount to all regardless of wealth, while inequality stubbornly persists.

They do all of these things not because they are bad, or don’t care, or have some secret agenda. They do it because they are an Establishment party, and they must at times put the need to win votes over the pursuit of bold, evidence-based policy. It’s really that simple. But this is terribly flawed for two huge reasons.

Firstly, it reveals they have a cynical view of the average voter – that we are propelled by self-interest alone. I couldn’t disagree with this more. I truly believe that if you speak openly and honestly with people, they make empathic and logical decisions. The argument over superannuation is helpful here – if they had the guts to tell pensioners that if they need the money they will get it, and if they don’t it will go to those who are vulnerable and at the bottom (perhaps their children or their grandchildren) they would be surprised at the level of understanding and empathy this idea receives. But it is seen too much as the sacred cow of NZ politics.

People only work against their self-interests when they are lied to and their emotions are manipulated, in contrast to the message being honestly addressed to their intellect and their better nature. Winston is the perfect example of this kind of dog-whistling perfidy. The man is a festering sore in the flesh of our national discourse. But he can be very easily lanced by a return to an honest style of politics. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man, made this a cornerstone of the Labour UK campaign – a return to “honest politics”, after the slimy PR triangulation of Alistair Campbell, and that murdering politician, who Jacinda was happy to receive silver words from, Tony Blair.

Secondly, it is a gross misreading of the electorate, especially the youth. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that people, in particular young people, have a pretty good nose for bull-shitting politicians – or as the late, great Carl Sagan called it, a well-developed “baloney-detection kit”. And this is why, even though I write this piece out of frustration towards those of my peers who seem to still put image over policy, I don’t think a new leader of the Labour party is going to be a success – certainly not of the magnitude of some of their naive hopes. Because the age of this kind of thing working is coming to an end, and good riddance to it.

Sanders and Corbyn didn’t have the success they did because they are particularly attractive, although I suppose they do have somewhat of a fussy-old-man charm. They succeeded because they spoke to the pain people are feeling, because they had backgrounds of advocating for the same things tirelessly for 30 years, because they communicated honestly and directly to our better natures, because they didn’t triangulate their positions to please certain groups and, most important of all, because they put forward clear, radical and progressive policy. Labour is simply not doing that – it’s policy is not for the 21st century and their potential radicalism is still cowed by the same ridiculous logic of the so-called political ‘experts’. These ‘experts’, to put it bluntly, are either nefarious, stupid or delusional.

Labour are the old-guard, and they are dying. They are still in the pursuit of a fictitious “centre”, Helen Clark’s “third way”, and they will continue to lose every election until they recognise the idiocy of this approach. I want a strong majority opposition and I want Jacinda to lead it with her obvious natural talent and amiable nature. But what I really want more than anything else are policies that are actually based in reality, and that will work most effectively, especially for those left behind.

If you consider yourself a Progressive, you cannot vote for this Labour Party. Not when we have on offer policies that are more humane, considered and can lead to better lives for us all. I speak firstly of The Opportunities Party, and secondly of the Greens. We simply cannot continue rewarding Labour for what is, sadly, a profound lack of courage.

theredgreenpen