Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A faulty compass?

As New Zealand's election campaign begins many Kiwis have been using the Political Compass website, which asks its visitors a series of questions, gives them a place on the political spectrum according to their answers, and then suggests which political party best represents their views. 

I visited the Political Compass site, and was struck by the vagueness and ambiguity of some of its questions. There's the question, for instance, which asks whether military action that violates international law is ever justified. It's hard to answer this question with a simple I agree or I disagree, because the nature of the military action isn't specified. 

I protested against the US invasion of Iraq, which was most people considered a violation of international law, but if I think that, for example, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to remove Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge from power at the end of the seventies was justified, despite the fact that it went against international law. So how am I to answer?
There's the question which asks us to agree or disagree with the statement 'It's a sad commentary on our society that water is now bottled and sold as a commodity'. Without context, though, that statement is so vague as to have little or no meaning. 

In Bolivia in the '90s water was briefly privatised, and could only be collected and sold by certain private companies. It was even illegal to collect rainwater. In this context, I'd certainly condemn the commodification of water.
But the situation is different in New Zealand, where water is plentiful and nobody has a monopoly on collecting and providing it. Many people on the left would feel there's nothing wrong with the commodification and export of Kiwi water, as long as this is properly regulated and taxed (a socialist might add that the bottling and marketing of the water ought to be controlled by the community, and any profits from the enterprise ought to be shared). 

And yet if I disagree with Political Compass' statement about the commodification of water being a sad thing then I'm pushed towards the right of the Political Compass. Free trade is yet another area where the Political Compass is confused. The Compass asks us to agree or disagree with free trade, and pushes us to the right if we agree and to the left if we disagree.
Historically, though, the left has not been dogmatically in favour of either free trade or protectionism. Positions have varied from time to time and place to place. In early nineteenth century Britain it was the Conservatives who supported protectionism, in the form of the Corn Laws that drove up domestic food prices, and liberals and radicals who demanded free trade, so that the poor could feed themselves. Part of the criticism of the proposed trans-Pacific free trade deal was that it wouldn't really have been an exercise in free trade, because it would have preserved and created protections and advantages for powerful American companies.
I personally support the right of small Pacific nations like Tonga and Vanuatu to export their goods freely to New Zealand, but support the right of those nations to put up barriers to protect themselves from undesirable Kiwi exports, like the dodgy mutton flaps we dump on them. I think these small and poor nations deserve some advantages when they trade with us. I don't see, then, how I'm supposed to answer Political Compass' question about free trade with a simple 'agree' or 'disagree'.

The Political Compass is a great idea, but the questions it asks are poorly worded.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, August 18, 2017

A settlement on Rekohu

It is marvellous to see that Moriori have reached a Treaty settlement that will compensate them for the theft of their land by the Crown in the 1870s, the failure of successive governments to free them from the slavery inflicted by Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama after the 1835 invasion, and the misleading way they were presented for many decades in the education system and official documents. There are still many Pakeha New Zealanders who believe Moriori are an extinct people; the settlement will no doubt come as news to them!
A recent newsletter of the Hokotehi Trust, which represented Moriori in negotiations with the Crown, reveals that the descendants of the Ngati Mutunga invaders still refuse to recognise Moriori as the indigenous people of the Chathams (or Rekohu, as Moriori call the islands). 


I blogged about some of the background to the Moriori Treaty claim here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The road and the river

I'm grateful to Creative New Zealand for providing funds for the publication of Ghost South Road, a book that will match my words with the sumptuous and occasionally melancholy images of Paul Janman and Ian Powell

Ghost South Road will be published by Atuanui Press, and Creative New Zealand has also given Atuanui funds to bring out a book that Paul Moon has written about the history and present of the Waikato River. The Great South Road and the Waikato River flow beside one another for many kilometres, and Atuanui plans to bring out the two volumes at the same time, early next year. 


Brett Cross, the proprietor of Atuanui Press, sent me some chapters from Moon's book a few months ago. This was part of my response:


Over the past couple of decades Paul Moon has proven himself one of the most prolific and provocative intellectuals in New Zealand. 
Although he holds an important academic post and works assiduously in the archives of our academic and public libraries, Moon is unafraid of leaving the security of the seminar room and the stacks and entering the trenches of public debate. 

Moon's opinion pieces for newspapers, which have covered subjects as different as the contemporary significance of the Treaty of Waitangi, the meaning of freedom of speech, and the relationship of Christmas to Christian theology, have drawn on his research without seeming either fusty or recondite. Like Keith Sinclair and James Belich, Moon belongs to the tradition of the New Zealand public historian, who has an audience both inside and outside the university. 
It seems to me that Moon's new book stands a good chance of reaching a wide audience. Like Moon's pieces for our media, the book draws on careful historical research but is unafraid to discuss contemporary social and political issues. 

During his chapter on Ngaruawahia, for example, Moon uses his reading to reimagine that town during the era when it was the capital of the Waikato Kingdom, and a place where the river ran clearly. But Moon soon pivots from past to present, and decries the garbage he finds floating through Ngaruawahia, and the capitalist civilisation which has made garbage tips and dumps its supreme monuments. 

Not all readers with agree with Moon's nostalgia for the Kingitanga's communistic economy, or with his polemic against the present: but even those who differ with him will be stimulated and engaged by his mixing of objective scholarship and subjective judgment. 
I imagine that there might be some interesting debates at the launch of the two books and at any subsequent joint promotional events, because I don't agree with everything Paul Moon says, and I doubt whether he'd accept some of the things I write. In this blog post from 2009 I talked about some areas of (dis)agreement. 

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

'An intense radiation'

The people of Nukuoro, the remote, westernmost island of Polynesia, carved smooth, faceless wooden gods they called tino aitu, then sold these treasures to Western traders after abandoning their traditional religion for Christianity. 

In 2009 fifteen tino aitu were brought together for the first time in many years, at a museum in Switzerland where curators and anthropologists were holding a conference. Something strange soon began to happen: the gods seemed to be waking from their sleep, and 'charging' each other. 

Marion Melk-Koch, one of the scholars at the conference, said that she felt 'an intense radiation' when she stood between two tino aitu. At EyeContact I've written about the sumptuous and eerie book that records the 2009 conference and the alleged awakening of the gods of Nukuoro.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Going kava

Is kava the drug of the future? How would New Zealand change, if Kiwis swapped alcohol, P and the rest of our unhealthy drugs for the ancient elixir of the Pacific? In a piece for The Spinoff I've visited the kava clubs of Nuku'alofa and Port Vila, and talked a little about the developing kava scene in Auckland.  

Readers have noticed that the article contains a blunder. I claim to be able to buy half a kilogram of kava for six bucks at my local dairy in West Auckland. In fact, the bag I typically buy from my mates at the dairy weighs about one hundred and fifty rather than five hundred grams. Some readers have warned me that the stuff I'm buying is probably poor quality kava, and might even be mixed with flour. Kava prices are at a record high, partly because the drug is winning new fans in the West, and one hundred grams of good stuff ought to be costing me more than six bucks. 

Friday, August 04, 2017

Paper and mouths

Michael O'Leary has reviewed The Stolen Island for Landfall.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Kidnapping and street war: the O'Neill approach to coalition building

Update: O'Neill has just been reelected by parliament.

Down here in Niu Sila Prime Minister Bill English is thinking about how he might put together a coalition government after the upcoming election. His National Party won't win a majority of seats in parliament, so English has been making overtures to smaller parties like New Zealand First and United Future in the hope that their MPs will side with him in September.

In Papua New Guinea, though, Peter O'Neill has found some altogether more creative ways of constructing a coalition. O'Neill became Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea five years ago, and he isn't keen to give the job up, even though his People's National Congress party looks like winning only a small minority of the one hundred and eleven seats that went up for grabs in last month's general election.

Papuan elections are seldom straightforward affairs - the country's vertiginous terrain, hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups, and poor infrastructure mean that it takes weeks for some ballots to be counted. Most Papuan polling stations closed on July the eighth, but by the end of the month only eighty of one hundred and eleven contests had been declared. That didn't stop O'Neill from insisting that he had assembled a coalition of fifty-six MPs. An alliance of opposition parties disagreed, but last week O'Neill was able to get the country's electoral commissioner and its governor-general to invite him to form a government.

After People's National Congress incumbents were declared losers in a series of seats, gangs of O'Neill's supporters hit the streets, burning the homes and the cars of opposition activists. In the highlands town of Wabag supporters of the opposition fought back, and more than a half a dozen people were killed. As they have flown into the Papuan capital of Port Moresby, newly elected opposition MPs have been met by police and by armed gangs of O'Neill's supporters. The police and the gangs have attempted to kidnap new MPs, so that they can 'persuade' these neophytes to back O'Neill for Prime Minister. Crowds of opposition supporters have begun to assemble at the airport, so that they can defend their representatives.

Papua New Guinea's parliament has not yet convened, so O'Neill's claims to have assembled a coalition have not been tested. Even if he does now command fifty-six votes in the house, the tactics he has used during and after polling discredit him. They also discredit the government of Australia, which has helped fund Papua New Guinea's elections. Aussie foreign minister Julie Bishop has repeatedly been asked about O'Neill's approach to coalition-building, and has repeatedly refused to condemn him. Many observers believe that O'Neill bought Bishop's silence by promising to support the Aussie refugee centre on Manus Island.

If Peter O'Neill can't get a majority when Papua New Guinea's new parliament finally meets, then there's every chance he'll use a politicised police force to again to intimidate his opponents. If the sort of confrontations that rocked Wabag spread to the metropolis of Port Moresby, then O'Neill would quickly require support from Australia's efficient and well-equipped security forces. Will Australian troops end up fighting for O'Neill's regime?

Keith Jackson is providing essential coverage of the crisis in Papua, as well as nourishing the country's writers.