Saturday, 13 February 2016

Defending Free Tertiary Education: Chris Trotter Responds To Dr Oliver Hartwich’s Praise For The User-Pays University.

Ungrateful Son: In spite of the German taxpayers funding his entire education - from primary school to university - Dr Oliver Hartwich chose to devote his life to fighting against the principle of universal social entitlement. Labour's re-commitment to that principle prompted an immediate response from the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Initiative - successor to the Business Roundtable.
 
WHEN DR OLIVER HARTWICH departed his native Germany for the Anglo-Saxon lands it was in high dudgeon. In spite of the fact that German taxpayers had paid for his entire education – from primary school to university – there wasn’t much evidence of gratitude. Meeting the cost of young Germans’ education out of the public purse was, in the newly-minted economist’s opinion, a dangerous policy relic of Germany’s social-democratic past. The British and the Americans had long since dispensed with the notion of  publicly-provided tertiary education. It was, therefore, to the English-speaking world that this eager young neoliberal foot-soldier took his publicly-funded doctorate.
 
New Zealand is, of course, very much a part of that world. Hartwich arrived here via England and Australia, where he was a major force at the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (an extreme right-wing think tank). When the notorious Business Roundtable joined forces with the NZ Institute in 2012, Hartwich was the corporate bosses’ pick for Executive Director.
 
Moved to contribute an opinion piece to Interest.co.nz on Labour’s re-commitment to the principle of universal social entitlement in tertiary education, Hartwich has usefully rehearsed all the familiar neoliberal excuses for making young people pay for their education.
 
“The first thing I would say about free education is that it suffers from a basic flaw:” writes Hartwich, “If something does not cost anything, it is not valued much either.”
 
This observation, Hartwich tells us, is born of his “personal reflections of free tertiary education”, and is not to be confused with rigorous policy analysis.
 
That being the case, let me respond in kind by declaring that my own experience of free tertiary education threw up not one case of a recipient who did not value their opportunity to explore the life of the mind in their late teens and early twenties. Quite the reverse, actually.
 
University was a magical place, insulated from the charges of the workaday world, and collectively dedicated to the expansion, communication and acquisition of knowledge. If a vocation was one’s sole purpose for attending, then those skills were available. But of infinitely greater value to students than a mere “meal ticket” was the access that university afforded to the signal achievements of their culture. Young people emerged from tertiary study as both engaged and enlarged human beings.
 
Hartwich deplores this aspect of tertiary life:
 
“What it means in practice is that when university courses are free, students will think about them differently. Some students may begin their studies without much commitment because, well, it does not cost anything. They might also then take a more relaxed approach to studying since, again, it does not cost them anything (other than opportunity costs which are harder to notice). With this attitude, these students may not even bring their studies to a conclusion.”
 
It is clearly Hartwich’s view that the pieces of paper doled out at the end of its courses are the be-all and end-all of university life. This instrumental view of tertiary education lends itself to the notion that: “as the recipient of something free, you are not in the best position to demand better service. As a paying customer, suppliers need to treat you better if they do not want to lose you. If customers are not paying, they may well be regarded as a nuisance.”
 
It gets worse. “For a university to be run like any good service provider,” says Hartwich, “it should think about its students as clients. And for students to take their studies seriously, they should be paying for them. Of course, for students who cannot afford to pay the fees, there need to be financing options. But university education as such should not be free.”
 
Nothing here about the pernicious consequences for both academic rigor and student achievement of turning tertiary education into a commodity. Fully enmeshed in the market economy, university “providers” cannot afford to risk alienating their fee-paying “clients” by holding them to the sort of rigorous academic standards that characterised my tertiary education. If it comes to a choice between jettisoning standards or jettisoning students, the commercially-driven university will sacrifice its standards every time.
 
Of course no neoliberal paean to user-pays tertiary education would be complete without the ritual condemnation of publicly-provided tertiary education’s allegedly socially regressive character.
 
“Finally, as someone who has successfully completed a master’s and a doctorate, of course I have a much greater ability to generate income than someone without such qualifications. So the question is, why would I expect that other person to subsidise me? What right do I have to demand people with poor skills in low-wage jobs to pay for my university education that would yield me a much higher income than they would ever have? Isn’t this grossly unfair for them?”
 
I am always astounded at the neoliberal’s confidence that the above argument should be regarded as the clincher – against which no rational or ethical response is possible. It is only possible to make this case, however, if the concepts of citizenship and social reciprocity are first eliminated from the equation.
 
Access to tertiary education is every citizen’s right, and so it is also every citizen’s responsibility. The low-wage worker contributes to the cost of a wealthy person’s children’s university degrees because the wealthy person contributes to the cost of the worker’s kids’ post-school education. For the low-wage worker, this is a huge step forward, comparable in its life-enhancing effects to the provision of universal health care.
 
But the very notion of “middle-class welfare”, or, as Hartwich puts it, “the reverse of income redistribution” only makes sense in a neoliberal society which no longer subjects its wealthier citizens to the rigors of progressive taxation.
 
Of course the graduates of Law and Medical School will earn more than workers “with poor skills in a low-wage job”, but in a decent, social-democratic society, the lawyer and the doctor will also pay much higher taxes. It’s all about your fellow citizens paying you forward, and you then paying them back.
 
This was the socio-political environment from which Dr Oliver Hartwich fled and is ideologically committed to destroying. It is also the socio-political environment in which I was raised, and which allowed me to attend university without incurring massive debt. That Labour is pledged to restoring this environment is extremely heartening. Not only because it will make this a more just and equal country to live in, but also because any such restoration of social-democratic values in New Zealand will, almost certainly, see Dr Hartwich high-tail it for more congenial jurisdictions.
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 13 February 2016.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Labour's Choice: Free Trade, Or Free Nation?

Historically Incorrect: Labour's claim that it has always supported Free Trade simply isn't true. For two-thirds of its history, Labour regarded trade simply as a means to its end of transitioning New Zealand from economic colony to free and independent nation. The party's embrace of Free Trade actually dates from 1983, when Labour threw its support behind the CER agreement. Thirty-three years later, independence is as far away as ever - and the TPPA will not bring it any closer.
 
“LABOUR HAS ALWAYS BEEN a Free Trade party.” This is the bald assertion from a chorus of past and present Labour leaders desperate to escape John Key’s “anti-Free Trade” label. There is, however, a very large problem with Labour’s claim. It simply isn’t true.
 
Prior to 1984, Labour is much more accurately described as a party committed to ending New Zealand’s status as a cultural and economic colony of the United Kingdom. This mission necessitated a radical expansion of the range and sophistication of New Zealand’s exports. Obviously, such a policy also required that serious attention to be paid to the size and scope of protective instruments applied to imported goods by this country’s potential export markets.
 
By the same token, however, any broad expansion of New Zealand’s industrial base would require the development of its own array of protective instruments. For at least as long as it took new, export-oriented industrial concerns to become firmly established, the price of goods imported from their international competitors needed to be artificially boosted by tariffs.
 
Tariffs, and an import licencing system, were accordingly utilised by all pre-1984 Labour Governments. Not only was the system needed to protect infant industries, but it was also vital if New Zealand’s always vulnerable reserves of overseas funds were not to be frittered away on non-industrial imports.
 
To make the policy work, as the Second Labour Government made every effort to do between 1957 and 1960, a significant degree of state planning and co-ordination would be required. In June 1960, an Industrial Development Conference convened in Wellington to determine the way forward.
 
One of Labour’s “From Colony to Nation” mission’s strongest supporters, Industries & Commerce Secretary, Bill Sutch, recorded that:
 
“The conference recommended a Development Council, better regional distribution of industry, much more industrial research, an Industrial Finance Corporation, advisory aids to industry, the negotiation of bilateral trade agreements [and] various methods of promoting external trade.”
 
Not “Free Trade”, then, but trade as a means of advancing New Zealand’s economic independence: by expanding its industrial capability, diversifying its exports and making it less reliant on both foreign capital and the imported goods of New Zealand’s creditors.
 
Not surprisingly, Labour’s From Colony To Nation policies were met with fierce opposition from the National Party and its key backers. Farmers, importers, merchants and retailers had little to gain and great deal to lose by such a fundamental reordering of New Zealand’s economic and cultural priorities. It was from these groups, the most prominent beneficiaries of New Zealand’s colonial status, that the cry for Free Trade was most loudly voiced.
 
The commitment of Norman Kirk’s Third Labour Government to the From Colony To Nation mission was, if anything, stronger than the Second’s. Aware of the extent to which New Zealand’s limited industrial base remained overseas financed and foreign controlled, he was determined to establish a pool of domestic investment capital from which New Zealand could build its own future.
 
The precise nature of the vector which carried the Free Market/Free Trade virus into Labour’s ranks in the early 1980s is still not 100 percent clear. Part of the answer no doubt lies in the examples made of the governments of Chile’s Salvador Allende, Australia’s Gough Whitlam and the UK’s Harold Wilson, by the enemies of Democratic Socialism. The policies of the New Right governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had, similarly, made it plain to New Zealand’s Labour politicians that democratic economic planning and the preservation of national independence were well-and-truly off the “Free World’s” political agenda.
 
What should not be overlooked, however, is the impact of the decision of the Bill Rowling-led Labour Opposition to support “CER” – the Closer Economic Relationship with Australia sealed by Rob Muldoon’s National Government in 1983. Critics of CER like Wolfgang Rosenberg struggled to make Rowling (his former student!) understand the consequences for Labour’s From Colony To Nation mission of facilitating Australian capital’s gradual take-over of New Zealand’s economy. To no avail. As the British colonisers were departing for Europe via the front door, the Aussies were being smuggled in the back!
 
Historically-speaking, Labour’s pro-Free Trade stance has been around for just 33 of its 100-year existence. If its dream of transitioning New Zealand from colony to nation still endures, then Labour’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is, indisputably, the more natural fit.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 February 2016.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Here Be Dragons: The Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s First “Table Talk” Looks At The Year Ahead - Through Right-Wing Eyes.

"Have a care when fighting dragons, lest ye become a dragon yourself." Nietzsche's famous aphorism remains as confronting as ever. To beat the likes of the Right's Matthew Hooton, should the Left attempt to match their Machiavellian amorality? Or, should it simply decide not to invite them onto "Table Talk" panels?
 
I LEFT the first Ika “Table Talk” for 2016 feeling very down – and I know I wasn’t the only one. The panel discussion, on “The Year Ahead”, could have been an enlivening rehearsal of the challenges facing the New Zealand Left in 2016 – but it wasn’t. Instead Ika’s patrons endured an hour-long demonstration of the Right’s remarkable skill at kicking the Left’s ass.
 
Moderated by broadcaster Lisa Owen (of TV3’s The Nation) the panel was made up of the ubiquitous far-right political commentator, Matthew Hooton (proprietor of Exeltium Public Relations) arbiter of all-things-Auckland, Simon Wilson (Editor at Large of Metro Magazine) and Maori educationalist, Dr Ella Henry (AUT Faculty of Maori Development).
 
Dr Henry adopted a position of wry detachment from her “bourgeois” audience of mostly inner-city leftists. Her comments throughout the evening suggested that she regards "Table Talk" as little more than an additional course which Laila HarrĂ© has tacked on to Ika’s menu. A heaped ideological platter in which, this time, the sour easily overpowered the sweet.
 
Only once did she cut through the relentless conservative discourse of her fellow panellists and that was in relation to the forthcoming local government elections. Her uncompromising description of the world inhabited by West and South Aucklanders: Maori, Pasifika and immigrant; was as compelling as it was unsparing. Intruding, as it did, a jarring note of brutal social reality to the proceedings, Dr Henry’s intervention was easily the most uplifting of the night.
 
There was a period in Simon Wilson’s life when he mixed almost exclusively with the sort of people who attend the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s events. As the Editor of the Victoria University Students Association’s newspaper, Salient, and later, as the Maoist President of NZUSA, Wilson’s youth was an emphatically left-wing affair. The journey he has undertaken since then, from the Left to the Right, has been a slow one. The Maoism he ditched early in favour of the well-mannered leftism of the Wellington liberal intelligentsia. It was only when he bade farewell to Wellington, and Consumer magazine, to take up the editorship of the yuppie gourmand’s glossy guidebook, Cuisine, that the shift to the Right began in earnest.
 
Wilson has a newshound’s nose for a shift in the political winds. As a Metro writer, he’d correctly predicted John Key’s comprehensive electoral victory in 2008, and two years later used his new position as Metro’s Editor to deftly reposition the magazine as the voice of the socially liberal, economically conservative and aggressively acquisitive Auckland middle-class. Nowhere was this repositioning more in evidence than in his choice for Metro’s political columnist. Where the magazine’s founder, Warwick Roger, had turned to New Zealand’s best left-wing journalist, Bruce Jesson, for political commentary, Wilson’s choice was the National Party’s leading ideological skirmisher, Matthew Hooton.
 
Those skirmishing skills were displayed to considerable effect from the get-go on Tuesday night (9/2/16) when Hooton accused the writer of seeing the 4 February anti-TPPA demonstrations as “the beginning of a revolution”. It is precisely this acidic mixture of smile and sneer that makes Hooton such a formidable opponent. That, and his ability to master a complex political brief very quickly and then fashion it into a political argument that is at once simple and subtle. Hooton, when he’s in control of himself, is both a superb manipulator of the truth and a master at identifying his opponents’ weak spots.
 
Out of control, Hooton can be rabid. One of the reasons the numbers were down for Ika’s first Table Talk for 2016 was that many people simply refused to be in the same room as the man who has constantly and viciously impugned the integrity of Professor Jane Kelsey. This penchant for abusing progressive New Zealanders publicly has turned Hooton into something of a hate figure, and it seriously undermines his political credibility. If he ever learns to control it, he will instantly become an even more deadly opponent of the Left.
 
As it was, the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine of Wilson and Hooton was deflating enough. Between them they succeeded in making their left-wing audience wince, sigh, squirm and shake their heads in disbelief. A different set of panellists may have blunted some of the worst thrusts from Hooton, but the one we “bourgeois” leftists had to endure on Tuesday night left Lockwood Smith’s political adviser; the man who makes RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan sound like a moderate; in undisputed possession of the field.
 
Now the more hard-headed leftists amongst us would no doubt say that Tuesday’s Table Talk was an important wake-up call for the Left. Unused to the punishing performance that Hooton excels at delivering, an hour-long pistol-whipping at his hands might be exactly what the Left needed if it is to muscle-up and become politically competitive.
 
But if the only way to defeat a dragon is to become a dragon oneself, then what’s the point? What distinguishes the Left from the Right is its belief that the world should be – and can be made – a better place. Against all the contrary evidence that the cynics and trimmers delight in throwing in their path, the world’s progressives must somehow continue to muster the faith, hope and love to continue fighting. That’s why Laila HarrĂ©’s gatherings at the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill are so valuable. They provide an opportunity for the beleaguered Auckland Left to recommit itself to a more just and equal future. The cause that Simon Wilson long ago abandoned, and Matthew Hooton openly despises.
 
So, Laila, please. No more dragons!
 
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Thursday, 11 February 2016.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Straws In The Wind

A Change Is Gonna Come: The militant solidarity and bi-cultural unity on display in the anti-TPPA protests has delivered to the neoliberal elite a symbolic message which they would be wise to heed. They have grown accustomed to dominating this country’s political discourse as effortlessly as they dominate its economy. They are not used to being contradicted by people they dismiss, contemptuously, as “losers”. But as Bob Dylan reminds us: "the losers of now may be later to win – when the times they are a-changing."
 
TAKEN SEPARATELY, a series of unusual incidents may not amount to much. Taken together, however, they can suggest that, politically, something important is happening. Specifically, that the long-quiescent New Zealand population (the people upbraided by top left-wing blogger, Martyn Bradbury, as “sleepy hobbits”) are beginning to bestir themselves.
 
Consider the following straws in the wind.
 
Straw No. 1: As last Thursday’s massive anti-TPPA march swung sharply left at the bottom of Auckland’s Queen Street and headed back towards Sky City, construction workers began punching through the white plastic of their “petticoated” building sites and urging-on the marchers with clenched-fist salutes.
 
Straw No. 2: Seasoned activists insist that the huge demonstration was the first Pakeha-organised political protest to be led down Queen Street by a Maori Kapa Haka group. (Some claiming that these toa (warriors) were members of the same group who’d earlier refused to provide a Maori welcome to the TPPA’s signatories.)
 
Straw No. 3: John Key was booed when he turned up to the Auckland Nines on Waitangi Day.
 
It’s this latter event that will have stung the Prime Minister most painfully. His easy, apolitical rapport with sports-mad Kiwis has been one of his greatest electoral strengths. That a major political issue was able, finally, to penetrate the feel-good force-field that has for many years kept our sports stadia politics-free-zones must have given him genuine pause. It may not have been the whole crowd, but it was a large enough section of it to warrant the journalists present filing a story. And that, as Mr Key well knows, is all it takes.
 
The mass participation of Maori in last Thursday’s protest activities is also a highly significant development. New Zealand has seen big Maori protests before: the Seabed and Foreshore hikoi of 2004 being the most impressive. Separate Maori contingents, like the Patu squad of Springbok Tour fame, have also featured in Pakeha dominated protest movements.
 
The 4 February demonstration was different. Last Thursday’s was a genuine bi-cultural protest (the first of any size that the writer has witnessed) in which thousands of Maori bearing fern fronds, and Pakeha carrying placards, marched side-by-side; English and Te Reo mingled seamlessly; and where scores of New Zealand Ensigns flew proudly alongside an equal number of fluttering Tino Rangatiratanga flags.
 
This is a politically explosive combination: at whose heart lies the frightening realisation that more and more Pakeha New Zealanders are losing control of their future. For Maori, that is, of course, a far from new revelation. As Marama Fox, Co-Leader of the Maori Party, told the Anti-TPPA rally held at the Auckland Town Hall on 26 January: “Welcome to our world!”
 
For 176 years the rulers of New Zealand have lived in fear of this alliance. Captain Hobson’s 1840 declaration “now we are one people” notwithstanding, the intention of New Zealand’s British colonisers has always been to separate not only the Maori from their land, but to keep forever separate the interests of colonised and colonisers. The Powers-That-Be may have paid lip-service to the ideal of bi-culturalism by linking together the interests of the Pakeha and Maori ruling elites. But the very idea of non-elite Maori and Pakeha making common cause in defence of their common interests, and their common homeland, has always been culturally and politically terrifying.
 
The fear inspired in the political class by the clearly bi-cultural quality of the 4 February demonstration was expressed, at least initially, in the scornful depiction of the protesters as ignorant dupes of the usual “commie” suspects. What those making fun of New Zealanders very real, if ill-expressed, anxieties about the TPPA simply ignored was the fact that in democratic societies most citizens take their cues from trusted cultural and/or political leaders, by whose deeper understanding of complex issues they are more than happy to be guided.
 
Only a few days ago, it was to Labour voters’ trust in Helen Clark that the TPPA’s promoters were appealing, in an obvious attempt to convince them that Andrew Little’s opposition to the agreement was mistaken. When, however, it became clear that Centre-Left voters put more faith in Jane Kelsey’s assessment of the TPPA than Helen Clark’s, its promoters immediately began mocking them. The very idea that ordinary people’s views might be taken seriously was treated as a joke.
 
Which brings us back to those construction workers’ fists breaking through the plastic.
 
In that arresting image of militant solidarity there is a symbolic message to which the neoliberal elite would be wise to pay heed. They have grown accustomed to dominating this country’s political discourse as effortlessly as they dominate its economy. They are not used to being contradicted by people they dismiss, contemptuously, as “losers”.
 
But as Bob Dylan reminds us: the losers of today may be tomorrow’s winners – when the times they are a-changing.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 February 2016.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Making It Stop: Taking Stock Of 4 February 2016, With Some Thoughts About The Way Forward.

A Huge Response: The Anti-TPPA protest of 4 February 2016 packed out Auckland's Queen Street from end to end. The last big protest to do that was Greenpeace's Anti-Mining in National Parks demonstration of 10 May 2010 - when the NZ Herald estimated the number of marchers at 40,000. The 4 February protests were also notable for the numbers of Maori and young people on the streets. Is the "Missing Million" waking up?
 
SOME TRIBUTES FIRST, then an apology. To Jane Kelsey and Barry Coates I can only say thank you. Demonstrations like the one I marched in on Thursday don’t just happen. They are the product of hours and days and years of hard work, during which people fight not only against loneliness and fatigue, but against the insidious thought that their unceasing efforts might all be in vain. Observing the glowing faces of Jane and Barry, as they rode down Queen Street on the afternoon of 4 February 2016, it was their selfless commitment to battling on, heedless of setbacks and against all odds, that brought tears to my eyes. Once again, thank you.
 
Tribute is also due to Real Choice. By their extraordinary actions throughout the morning and afternoon of 4 February they proved just how sterile theoretical debates about tactics and strategy can be. Somehow, in growing older, I had forgotten the words of the young student activist, Mario Savio, spoken 50 years ago on the steps of Sproull Hall at the University of California’s Berkeley campus. In my teens and twenties I had sworn by them, and, to my older self, they certainly bear repeating:
 
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
 
On 4 February, Real Choice put their bodies on the asphalt of Auckland’s inner-city carriageways, and for several hours they made things stop. In doing so they sent a much-needed reminder to the people who run, to the people who own, this country that it can, if the provocation is great enough, be prevented from working. No one has indicated that to them for a very long time.
 
So, to Real Choice I say: Respect. No one was seriously hurt and no one was arrested. In the words of the little man in the grey suit who was right there in the thick of things, that was: “Bloody marvellous!”
 
I also say: Sorry. For my throw-away, and clearly unfounded, suggestion that Real Choice might be a “false flag” operation, I apologise – and my statement is withdrawn unreservedly. No false-flag operation could possibly have out-thought, out-run and out-manoeuvred the Police like Real Choice did on Thursday. The Springbok Tour protesters of 1981 could not have done it better.
 

BUT, NOW WHAT? In which direction should the energy generated by the 4 February protest actions be turned?
 
Happily, there is no shortage of targets.
 
Parliament resumes sitting on Tuesday, 9 February. The slow wending of the TPPA document through numerous select committee hearings; followed by the Government’s enabling bill’s passage through the four stages of parliamentary debate; both will provide excellent opportunities for carefully targeted protest action. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trades’ (MFAT’s) travelling road-show of public presentations intended to “sell” the Government’s pro-TPPA position to the electorate. All should be seen as educative political events, reinforcing the anti-TPPA’s core messages of diminished national sovereignty and a deepening democratic deficit.
 
The extent to which these core messages have already entered the public’s consciousness has unpleasantly surprised the TPPA’s supporters. They were taken aback at the size and vehemence of the Auckland protests and will already be working on ways to unpick the picture Jane Kelsey and her comrades have embroidered so vividly on the public mind. The Government’s and big businesses’ counter-offensive will have to be met, held, and rolled back.
 
This will be made considerably easier by the simultaneous fightback against the TPPA occurring all around the Pacific rim – but especially in the United States. Strategically, the struggle is between the progressive/patriotic forces operating within the twelve signatory states, and the defenders of the transnational corporations. Obviously, this puts the “Pro” forces at a serious disadvantage. Far from being able to pass themselves off as promoters of the public good, they will emerge from the contest as the big corporations’ fifth columnists, committed to defeating the patriots fighting to prevent the agreement’s ratification.
 
John Key and his Government thus risk entering election year as a collection of figurative “Quislings”, guilty of conspiring against the national interest on behalf of entities without countries, morals or scruples. If this perception can be driven deep into the electorate’s mind, then National’s chances of re-election will be nil. More importantly, the victorious coalition of Labour, the Greens and NZ First will be swept into office with a broad mandate to take on a corporate plutocracy that has ruled without challenge for far too long.
 
For the first time in over 30 years, there will be a mass political movement dedicated to putting itself “upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus” of the neoliberal machine – and making it stop.
 
This essay has been jointly posted on the Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Saturday, 6 February 2016.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Free Education: About What, And For Whom?

Labour Saving Devices? It’s all very well to offer the 7 year-olds of today three years of free tertiary education in 2025. The really tough question is: what are we going to teach them? Our universities and polytechnics need a massive injection of funds not only to erect the infrastructure required for free and universal tertiary education, but also to help them – and us – understand and prepare for the world that is coming.
 
THERE SEEMS LITTLE POINT in subsidising the post-school education of young New Zealanders if that education isn’t up to scratch. The voters need to be reassured that just because the next Labour Government will be offering up to three years of free tertiary education, this country’s tertiary institutions need no longer concern themselves about providing value for money.
 
Right now, New Zealand’s universities are receiving 30 percent less per student from the state than comparable universities overseas. Staff-student ratios are deteriorating, and it’s getting harder to both attract and retain the top-flight scholars this country needs. Every week another tranche of our best and our brightest departs these shores in response to teaching and research offers New Zealand can no longer match.
 
But, if our universities are in urgent need of a funding boost, our polytechs and wanangas are in need of even more. John Key’s National Government has not been the champion of non-university tertiary education that the sector so desperately needed. On the contrary, there has been an almost punitive aspect to the Government’s treatment of these largely vocational institutions. It began with the defunding of adult education in 2009, and it’s been downhill for the sector ever since – especially for the smaller, regional polytechnics.
 
On the basis of its announced policy, it would appear that Labour is gearing up to become that long-awaited champion of vocational education. Andrew Little made it clear in his State of the Nation address last Sunday that the guiding principle of Labour’s tertiary education policy is that the knowledge and skills required for a productive life should not be imparted on the basis of the recipient’s ability to pay.
 
He also devoted a large chunk of his speech to the dramatic (some might say devastating) changes technology is poised to bring about in the workforce. New Zealand needs to brace itself to meet these changes, and one of the best ways to do that is to make it easy for workers displaced by technology to retrain themselves.
 
In Denmark it is called “flexicurity”: a policy aimed at making it easier for employers to improve the profitability of their firms by replacing staff with the new generation of faster, smarter computers; while ensuring that the workers so displaced are retrained, and helped to find new employment, by the state.
 
Critics of Labour’s “free education” policy announcement have pointed out that what it is proposing is nowhere near as generous, nor as comprehensive, as the Danish model. Labour’s finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, whose “Future of Work Commission” has praised the “flexicurity” concept, must be aware that those most likely to fall victim to the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” are professionals. It is accountants, nurses and teachers who are about to see an alarmingly large chunk of their current job descriptions handed over to artificially-intelligent machines.
 
In Denmark such post-industrial casualties are paid a very generous job-search allowance and signed up for re-training by the state – regardless of their educational history. For the moment, at least, Labour is restricting its offer of free post-school education to those who have yet to darken the door of a tertiary institution. Accountants, nurses and teachers need not apply.
 
Professionals looking to acquire the (so far) unprogrammable skills of painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, screen-writers and other creatives will have to foot the new skills bill themselves. So, too, will all those tradespeople who’ve served their time as apprentices, received their trade certificates and established thriving small businesses, only to find their skill-sets rendered superfluous by the dramatically expanding capabilities of tomorrow’s 3D printers.
 
It’s all very well to offer the 7 year-olds of today three years of free tertiary education in 2025. The really tough question is: what are we going to teach them? Our universities and polytechnics need a massive injection of funds not only to erect the infrastructure required for free and universal tertiary education, but also to help them – and us – understand and prepare for the world that is coming.
 
Because it’s looking increasingly likely to be a world in which the pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake; and the acquisition of skills, exclusively for the purposes of artistic creation; will be the only remaining vocational options – for human-beings.
 
And the very last political job will be to persuade the machines to pay for it all.
 
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 February 2016.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

For Independence And Freedom: March Against The TPPA!

March in February! The TPPA is inimical to New Zealand’s national sovereignty, and poses a deadly threat to its democratic institutions So, march tomorrow/today as if your independence and your freedom depends on it – because they do.
 
WHAT I WOULD GIVE to get a look at the Government’s polling data on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Coming out of the summer holiday torpor, my best guess was that the public, generally speaking, was pretty relaxed about the agreement. But everything the Government and its allies have done since early January suggests that the opposite is true: that the numbers reported in TV3/Reid Research poll of 20 November 2015 have not budged, and that a clear majority of New Zealanders remain opposed to the agreement.
 
Since then, the anti-TPPA forces have worked tirelessly to analyse the 5,000 page document and to marshal their arguments against ratification. In the weeks following the 5 November 2015 release of the TPPA text, a raft of expert, peer-reviewed research papers (available at https://tpplegal.wordpress.com/) were written and released. These have made a considerably greater impact on the news media than the rather perfunctory National Interest Analysis, thrown together by New Zealand’s team of TPPA negotiators, and released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) on 25 January 2016.
 
The expert paper entitled “The Economics of the TPPA”, jointly written by University of Auckland economics professor, Tim Hazledine, Dr Geoff Bertram, Rod Oram and Barry Coates, impressed even the NZ Herald’s senior business writer, Brian Fallow. The rising level of vitriol deployed by the National Party’s best ideological skirmisher, Matthew Hooton, and echoed shrilly in the columns of the Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan, indicates strongly how disadvantaged in the propaganda stakes the pro-TPPA forces now feel themselves to be.
 
The greatest blow struck against the TPPA, however, was delivered by the Labour Party. On Tuesday, 26 January, from their New Year caucus retreat in the Wairarapa, Labour MPs dispatched their Finance Spokesperson, Grant Robertson, to Auckland. There, he informed the first of the four main centre town-hall meetings organised by the anti-TPPA group, It’s Our Future, that Labour would NOT be supporting the agreement.
 
The full impact of Labour’s rejection was blunted by Leader, Andrew Little’s, maladroit handling of the TPPA’s two strongest caucus supporters, Phil Goff and David Shearer. Within days, however, the grim fact that the cosy, 30-year-old, bi-partisan consensus on Free Trade had ended, began to sink in.
 
The TPPA had turned out to be a bridge too far – even for the NZ Labour Party. This was not a free trade agreement in the mould of the China-NZ FTA. It was, in the words of the veteran New Zealand diplomat, Terrence O’Brien: “an economic policy integration agreement”. And the intent of such documents is, indisputably, to limit the sovereignty of nation states. As Professor Tim Hazledine explained in a Herald op-ed article of 3 February 2016:
 
“The fundamental idea or ideology behind the TPP is that national governments cannot be trusted to act independently on many issues, because they will inevitably succumb to local vested interests. Only the cleansing discipline of untrammelled global free-market forces will deliver efficient outcomes.”
 
By “local vested interests” the free-marketeers are, of course, referring to the citizens of the nations concerned. That is why the opponents of the TPPA talk about the agreement threatening democracy itself.
 
Exactly how far this message: that the TPPA is inimical to New Zealand’s national sovereignty, and poses a deadly threat to its democratic institutions; has entered public consciousness is what the Government, MFAT, the “intelligence community”, the Police, the NZ-US Council, the National Party, and the mainstream news media have no doubt been working like blazes to find out.
 
Because all of them know that if a substantial portion of the New Zealand population – maybe even a majority – can be convinced that the anti-TPPA message is true, and if that conviction can be given political force by the Labour, Green and NZ First parties, then a great deal more than the future of the TPPA is at stake. If protecting our national sovereignty and defending our democracy become the battle-cries of the 2017 General Election, then the entire neoliberal project will be threatened.
 
So, march tomorrow/today as if your independence and your freedom depends on it – because they do.
 
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 3 February 2016.