Friday, February 29, 2008

Will National be a one-term wonder?

The polls are fairly unanimous. After nine years in power the Labour Party is shaping up for its biggest trouncing since 1990. Already a stream of MPs are deserting the sinking Party seeking jobs in academia or further afield. Meanwhile the rear-guard of newish Ministers seems to be adept only at opening their mouths to change feet. Environment Minister David Parker descended to a completely humilating squabble with Solid Energy's Don Elder at an energy conference recently while Health Minister David Cunliffe's determination to sack the Hawke's Bay DHB - despite it only having held one meeting since it was elected - has stirred up a hornets nest of antagonism in a region already furious over Transport Minister Annette King's refusal to sell the local airport to the Regional Council so that they can extend it for jet aircraft.

Despite a relatively buoyant economy the public have had enough. But what exactly have they had enough of? For National may think it has this 2008 election in the bag, but unless it recognises what Labour is doing wrong it could very rapidly feel the public boot on its collective butt come 2011 as well.

After a year on the road meeting as many interest groups as he can National Leader John Key has summed it up very well in recent months. The public are sick of Labour's perceived arrogance. The assumption, common among many ideologues, that the Government has the right to correct the public's naughty behaviour. This boils over in the so-called "Smacking law" which eliminates the defence of parental responsibility from common assault. Parents all over the country are up in arms about the bill and already there are enough signatures on a petition to force a citizens initiated referendum at the 2008 election.

Another less stated thread is the frustration with the apparent influence of the minority Green Party over their Labour partners. While the Greens appeal to at most 20% of New Zealand's population they deeply irritate the other 80%. In Australia or Ireland where the Green parties are hopelessly ineffective this wouldn't matter but the New Zealand Green Party boasts Jeanette Fitzsimons who is one of the most singularly effective politicians in New Zealand politics. Ms Fitzsimons influence on Helen Clark, Pete Hodgeson and David Parker is subtle but very effective and even as they distance themselves from the Green Party the Labour Party has ultimately embraced Green leadership lacking any other ideas.

Ultimately it all comes down to some basic ways of operating. New Zealanders want a government that is forward-looking, collaborative, accountable and bases its decisions on rational evaluation. Increasing the Labour Party is perceived as being autocratic, unaccountable and basing its decisions on political rather than rational reasons. Quite rightly people fear such outlooks and draw rude cartoons of such leaders dressed as Adolf Hitler etc.

But the key question is how different will National be?

For the moment National is lying low in the grass hoping the public will delude itself that a change in political leadership will bring about whatever policy change it is that Labour has annoyed them with. Key's strategy is to "smile and wave, boys, smile and wave" hoping this mass delusion will deliver National the Treasury benches. But his real problem is that his shadow cabinet team is every bit as potentially autocratic, unaccountable and politically irrational as Labour is. There are a lot of people in National who have waited a long time for a chance at power and have probably lied awake many a night relishing the prospects of their first weeks in power.

But where Jim Bolger and Bill Birch had a powerful grip over the National line-up it is unclear whether the same is true of John Key and Bill English. For the fact is Jim Bolger and Bill Birch had served their apprenticeships under Robert Muldoon and had a clear idea of the pitfalls of that approach. John Key and Bill English are by comparison extremely inexperienced while some of their cabinet colleagues are more experienced than they are. The first main test of the Key-English leadership will be the ability to keep these 'junior' Ministers under control when they get excited with the reins of power some time in March 2009.

If National want to be more than a one-term wonder they are going to have to continue to go slowly. They are going to have to adopt a 'chairmen of the board' outlook rather than the 'leadership' trap Labour's current Ministers seem to have fallen into. That means more democracy, accountability, collaboration and rationalism then perhaps some of the Ministers may have patience for.

The big question is, will they be able to do it? If so they can look forward to virtually eliminating the Labour Party as a political force in the way that maestro Keith Jacka Holyoake did during the 60s. If not election 2011 will administer a severe kicking.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

UN - 60 years old and deeply flawed

The United Nations was founded by the United States 60-years ago. Now as it turns sixty in my opinion its time to ask how the fundamentals of its structure defined in the post-WW2 period will ever be re-examined?

Officially the UN came into being in 1945 but many nations were heavied into joining the alliance against Germany, Japan and Italy purely because they worried about being excluded from the forthcoming world club. The fundamental issue of the day was the obvious conflict between the Comintern and the rest of the world. While it was hoped this son-of-the-League-of-Nations would be stronger than its predecessor history has amply demonstrated that it has been every bit as weak and unrepresentative as the League ever was.

There is a lot of nonsense written about how the United Nations differs from the League of Nations. Wikipedia - ever a good source of nonsense replicates much of it in its critique of the League. Namely

  • The League, like the United Nations, lacked an armed force of its own and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, which they were very reluctant to do. (for example see anything to do with Israel)

  • Economic sanctions, which were the most severe measure the League could implement short of military action, were difficult to enforce and had no great impact on the target country ( for example Iraq)

  • The British Conservatives were especially tepid on the League and preferred, when in government, to negotiate treaties without the involvement of the organization (substitute US Republicans)

  • The League's neutrality tended to manifest itself as indecision (Bosnia/Rawanda)

  • Another important weakness of the League was that it tried to represent all nations, but most members protected their own national interests and were not committed to the League or its goals ( see UNFCCC)

Today the issues confronting the world are very different to the ones that existed in 1945. Today the two main issues are environmental degradation (including climate change, and food provision) and migration (including refugees, terrorism and war). The threat of nuclear annihilation while lurking in the background is nowhere near as real as it was a mere twenty years ago. As such we need to ask ourselves whether the structure of international relations is as representative as it ought to be.

Indeed it was at a post-Bali briefing where I came to the conclusion that the UN's response to the global climate change emergency has been to put hundreds of lawyers in a room representing diverse national interests. The histrionics over what would eventually be a bland set of sentences that committed nobody to anything much can only be described as one of the most expensive wastes of time ever committed by national Governments. And frankly this is all one can expect from the UN. It is a plenary for discussion - it is not a preliminary to world government.

The biggest problem with the United Nations is that like the League it largely reflects a world defined in Europe. Consider these questions:

  1. When will EU Members surrender their UN seats in favour of the EU? (answer: never)
  2. When will China's provinces - each every bit as large as European nations get representation at the UN (answer: never)
  3. When will the States of the US or India ever get represented at the UN (answer: never)
  4. Why are the borders of African nations still those defined by the European colonialists at the Berlin Conference in 1884? (answer: because it suits their largely corrupted rulers)

The fact is the only democratic redistribution of UN representation occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Even then there is still the question of whether Prussia will ever be revived as a Baltic state.

What I am trying to point out here is that while the United Nations may look perfectly normal to European eyes - to everyone else in the world it is a strange distortion of political reality. As such who it represents is very much open to question.

I am not about to propose any solutions to this institutional dilemma partly because I don't have any, but largely because it wouldn't matter if I did. All I think is important is that we begin to ask ourselves, as citizens of this planet, when this institution will ever change to better reflect the very different world 2008 is from 1945.

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