Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chris Knox: The Trick of Standing Upright

I am too young to have really been there and I've never talked to the guy, but it is clear that Chris Knox is a force of nature. His recent stroke has prompted me to reflect on his role in my musical education, and his many contributions to my enjoyment of my misspent youth.

It's easy to forget today that there was a time when the emergence of a particularly New Zealand music culture didn't seem inevitable. But there was Chris Knox with his 4-track, his friends in all those amazing bands, his songs. Even the one where he recites the alphabet.

I remember him as the shambolic troubadour with the banana shorts doing gigs at the University of Canterbury in the mid-nineties. We were all too cool to admit that "Not Given Lightly" was our favourite, so we had to hide our disappointment when he pretended to have forgotten the words.

I particularly recall four of us dancing around on the grass like maniacs while Chris played the End of Lectures Stein in 93, or was that 94? It was a warm and sunny spring afternoon and it sticks in my memory as one of those perfect occasions of youth; your friends around you, your whole life before you, the best music in the world. Who knows what Chris made of it when two blokes (I won't admit here to knowing them) got up on stage for a bit of a pash with the great man. He certainly seemed game.

Before the live music, and the communal appreciation of musical greatness, there was my teenage bedroom fanboy phase.

I don't remember exactly what prompted me in 1989 to give up on the FM radio stations and take up with student radio for good. At this time the Pixies were my favourite band in the world, but student radio being what it was in those days it was inevitable that I would eventually discover New Zealand music in the shape of Chris Knox and his cohorts at Flying Nun.

I remember going on a school bus trip to Akaroa in 1990. It involved singing. Despite not being able to hold a tune I was that kind of kid in high school; the choir and the debating team. I remember being counselled about Flying Nun on the trip back by a guy who was a year ahead of me. By this stage I think I had decided the Verlaines were my favourite. He urged me to reconsider Straitjacket Fits. We talked about Chris Knox and how prolific he was, the fact he was there at the beginning with Toy Love and a 4-track for the Clean. He recommended the early Tall Dwarfs EPs and "Seizure".

Today I can't even remember name of the guy on the bus but I still have a TEAC C90 mix tape of Flying Nun music he made for me. Side A is a selection from the Clean compilation that was around at the time. Side 2 has the best bits of "Bird-Dog" and "Hallelujah All the Way Home", Toy Love's "Rebel", and a lot of other gems like "Joe 90" and "Happy Endings" from Bored Games, and "Native Waiter" from the Victor Dimisich Band.

Pretty soon I had bought myself a tape of "Seizure", and the new Tall Dwarfs "Weeville" when it came out. This weekend I've taken advantage of modern technology and bought them off iTunes. I still know every word. I still feel like Chris is looking me right in the eye during "Hallelujah Boy".

I'd forgotten how much he sang about the challenges of living a good life. Admittedly, these reflections are often phrased as invective against some character who has lost everything in the pursuit of money or fame.

The songs that recount his obsession with bodies and with bodily functions seem painfully tinged today with the awareness that the body can become a prison.

Get better Chris, there are lots of us out here wishing you all the best.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Other peoples thoughts about Iran

Andrew Sullivan has completely given over his blog to the remarkable events in Iran. Even to the extent of turning his background green.

Today I came across a recent article writen some time ago by Robert Kaplan, in which he spent some energy advocating the primacy of geography over ideas in all his usual "clear-eyed realism", but concluded with Iran and the battle for hearts and minds:

As with Russia, the goal of containing Iran must be to impose pressure on the contradictions of the unpopular, theocratic regime in Tehran, such that it eventually changes from within. The battle for Eurasia has many, increasingly interlocking fronts. But the primary one is for Iranian hearts and minds, just as it was for those of Eastern Europeans during the Cold War. Iran is home to one of the Muslim world’s most sophisticated populations, and traveling there, one encounters less anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism than in Egypt. This is where the battle of ideas meets the dictates of geography.

Best of all Ian Packer has a remarkable post on the situation in Iran and Obama's remarks about it, in which he urges us to trust the evidence of our eyes:

It’s remarkable how difficult it’s been for writers of many different ideological persuasions to say that scenes like this are shameful. The reason, of course, has everything to do with the wars of the Bush years, at home and abroad, which have left so many thoughtful people incapable of holding onto the most basic thought. But it’s a mistake to let your attitude toward historic events be shaped and deformed by the desire not to sound like a neo-con, or to sound like a neo-con reborn. Trust the evidence of your eyes.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Obviously crazy things they will tell you about David Shearer

The people of Mt Albert have elected a very interesting and accomplished character to be their MP.

Given his varied and successful career, and his interesting written work, it's a pity that profiles of him have been so shallow.

So far as I can tell the main long form profile is this piece in the Herald, which is fine as far as it goes, but the pointy headed academic in me is desparate to know a little more about how Shearer thinks about the world. Particularly about domestic issues.

In the absence of much in-depth coverage of the candidate there have been a long list of absolutely ridiculous characterizations. Here are some of the more obviously crazy.

He's boring:

Hmm, well as he put it this morning on television "I've never been called boring before! I just came out of Baghdad and before that I lived in Beirut and in Gaza"

But seriously, this is a case of the media mistaking the by-election candidate for the man. Matt McCarten, who knows a thing or two about by-elections, outlines the sort of strategy of playing it safe and focussing on local concerns that worked for the successful campaign in Mt Albert.

The biggest stress is dreading your candidate making a boo-boo the media picks up. You'd spend hours briefing the candidate until they could recite their lines in their sleep. Contrary to what most people think, questions are pretty predictable.

David Shearer is a model candidate who had his ego in check and stuck to script. When he didn't know an answer he reverted to pleasant generalities that may not have pleased his questioner but would have reassured his handlers. That is, he didn't say anything stupid.

He needs a haircut

I'm not joking. This was one of the wilder comments on TV3's excellent overall Saturday night coverage. I'd be willing to make a bet that some backroom operative forbade the haircut. The slightly mad scientist look made him seem down to earth and sincere, and went with the focus on local issues and the desire to be boring. Besides which he should not have had time to have a haircut, given the exigencies of that kind of shoe-leather campaign.

My own presentational tip would be: get longer trousers! The ones he wore on his first appearance on Q&A were riding up almost to the knees :)

He's too NICE for politics/that nasty Labour caucus:

Heard this one from Linda Clark AND Duncan Garner on Saturday night, it goes with the previous two.

Lets just look at Shearer's most recent job: second in command in Iraq for the UN, the world's most notorious bureaucracy. Now I know those on the right think otherwise, but you don't get ahead in behemoth bureaucracies by being NICE.

I'm quite confident Shearer will soon be across the currents and cross-currents in his new caucus.

One can think about this notion that Shearer will be somehow namby-pamby and ineffectual a bit more broadly, and here I may be drawing a long bow but I see his much publicized written work on mercenaries as evidence for the defence.

One of the few comments from Shearer that came across as deeply felt is his desire, expressed on TV3 Saturday night, "to make a difference". There's an emphasis on that word "difference" that doesn't come across on the page and makes the comment step some way beyond the cliche. Judging by Shearer's written views it seems to me that he takes seriously the need to use the tools that are at hand in an imperfect world to make an impact.

Take these opening paragraphs from Shearer's article "Privatising Protection" (in The World Today volume 57, number 8/9, page 29):

`The redeployment of mercenaries in this blighted nation would be an act of genuinely ethical foreign policy,' noted Times correspondent, Sam Kiley after witnessing Sierra Leonean women and children being killed and their limbs being hacked off in January 1999.

This view shared by a growing and diverse group of aid workers, journalists, human rights advocates and even the higher echelons of the British and US armed forces - those closest to the world's frontlines. Although seldom aired publicly, they wonder what there is to lose by using military companies to shield innocent civilians when there is no other choice.

The emphasis here is very much on making a difference and not being too nice about how that is achieved. (Nice in either the modern sense of "dull, friendly, push-over" or the Jane Austen sense of "overly particular".)

At this point in his career Shearer was, after around a decade in international aid efforts in Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda and elsewhere, a Research Associate at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. This is clearly a very prestigious think tank, Wikipedia account here. It's in the mainstream of transatlantic foreign policy thought, with US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg being a former Senior Fellow and publishing in their journal "Survival", while UK Foreign Secretary went there recently to launch a nuclear disarmament policy document. It's bipartisan too, being the kind of place that invites Henry Kissinger to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. I've added their blog on Climate Change and Security to my RSS feed.

One gets a feeling that Shearer felt a responsibility to "air publicly" a community's views on mercenaries and aid, and found the right position and worked hard on the right publications in which to do so. 30 seconds on Google will convince you that his work has attracted a decent amount of interest and discussion in the foreign policy literature. Frankly this all strikes me as a good sign for his political career, but then I am a pointy headed academic in an ivory tower.

For those who haven't caught up, in this period he wrote an Adelphi paper entitled "Private Armies and Military Intervention". This is a monograph length work, published in a highly respected series. The much shorter "Privatising Protection", another piece in The World Today entitled "Dial an Army" and a piece in Foreign Policy, "Outsourcing War", would have functioned as brief, accessible, and widely read precis of parts of the argument.

His main example was apparently the civil war in Sierra Leone of which he gave an account in "Exploring the limits of consent: conflict resolution in Sierra Leone" which was published in 1997 in Millenium Journal of International Studies volume 26, number 3, p845.

I can't quite bring myself to agree with some of Shearer's opinions on these issues. Particularly when one understands exactly what sort of outfit the mercenary company that worked in Sierra Leone, Executive Outcomes, was. Take a look at "Dial an Army" if you are interested. There's also a stridently "realistic" tone to much of his writing on this that doesn't sit so well with me either.

But let he who has talked down armed intruders desperate for food cast the first stone.

Besides noting that they have been overtaken by subsequent events, Shearer did not resile from the opinions expressed in these papers. Good on him. He is still prepared to go into bat for "the women and children being killed and their limbs being hacked off". But I wouldn't call him "too NICE" to make a difference.

(My university library does not seem to carry all of the Adelphi papers, so I haven't looked at the full version. I'm not giving links to these publications since they are behind firewalls. "Privatising Protection" was discussed rather more tendentiously by David Farrar here, and "Outsourcing War" here.)

He's Clem Simich

The candidate who takes over safe seat from legendary former Prime Minister, takes his message to Wellington and is never seen again. This started with Whaleoil, was regurgitated by Duncan Garner on Saturday night (now THERE'S a surprise), reprised by Whaleoil, and reheated by Kiwiblog.

Now I would have said that the excellence of Shearer's pre-Parliamentary career guarantees against this one. But there is always the salutary lesson of Richard Worth!

He's the next Labour Prime Minister

Well really. If a beginning politician doesn't want to be Prime Minister they should find another job. But I suppose it is impolitic to say it out loud. The truth is 13 people have entered the Labour caucus since November 2008 and it's overwhelmingly likely that only either one or none of them will ever be Prime Minister. It's a much more useful question to ask whether a candidate in a safe seat has a credible case for being Cabinet material. Shearer does. He's honest about wanting to serve in a Cabinet after 2011. Good.

Now Linda Clark and John Campbell worked themselve into ectasies about the prospect of a Shearer Government on Saturday night. By Monday morning it was officially a National talking point since Kiwiblog, Matthew Hooten, and Whaleoil were all repeating it.

I should have a special category for Whaleoil who thinks that Shearer is BOTH Clem Simich AND the next Labour Prime Minister.

He's a raging pinko Commie leftie

Well someone other than a Kiwiblog commenter must have said this!

But really, Shearer lost out on selection for Waitakere in 2002 because of very strong union opposition. Has anyone thought to ask why?

Thinking about his CV, he was a high school science teacher, he did a Masters degree I've only seen referred to on Kiwiblog, he did some work for Tainui that related in some way to the environment, he worked for international aid agencies including Save the Children and the UN. He wrote papers in academic journals for two think tanks, he was in charge of UN humanitarian efforts during the war in Lebanon a few years back and was second in charge for the UN in Iraq.

He should be a raging pinko Commie leftie! What do the unions know that we don't? Why do commentators like Linda Clark and Matthew Hooten believe he will reposition Labour on issues like privatisation? and what do they mean by that? Could someone please find out and write about it?

He has three things going for him: "he's straight, he's married, he's got kids"

I'll admit, this one happens to be true but Wow! Talk about putting the cart before the horse. This is a quote from John Tamihere on Q&A. When I first heard this I saw red, I hit the roof, I phoned friends and bitched about it. But I "only" read the comment as an attack on Rainbow Labour. Could we please keep Tamihere off Q&A in future?

This morning though we had Matthew Hooten, who really should know better, characterize Shearer as "a candidate who is pakeha, male, heterosexual, a father, happily married and that's not what people associate with the Labour party at the moment".

This makes clear that this line of attack runs against Maori, against Pacific Islanders, against women, against those who are for whatever reason childless, and yes against gays and lesbians.

Is it true that Labour has been taken over by any of these groups? NO!

Lets take a look at the Cabinet of the Fifth Labour Government shall we? (This Wikipedia list has only the senior ministers but I haven't been able to find a more authoritative online list to jog my memory, so it's not 100% reliable but I am going with it. Also various people come in and leave, but by counting them all I have better statistics).

If I am not mistaken we have Clark, Cullen, Goff, King, Horomia, Cunliffe, Parker, Hodgson, Wilson, Anderton, Mallard, Maharey, Carter, Burton, Samuels, Dyson.

There seem to be 4 women, 2 Maori, no Pacific Islanders, and yes one gay man. This is out of the 16 people who took the most senior positions in the fifth Labour government. I started checking to see that the vast majority of the men were indeed married with children before it began to turn my stomach.

I have news for Matthew Hooten. These proportions are not representative of the New Zealand public at large, and it's not because there are too few white, male, straight married men with children taking up the senior positions in a Labour Cabinet.

We can only hope that a future Labour government will be significantly more diverse than this one. And, by the way, that Labour might find a woman to represent even one of the Auckland electorates at some time in the future. Matthew Hooten and his comrades on the right will have to get used to the idea that they may need to take orders once in a while from Maori, women, and yes even gays and lesbians.

In the mean time, people like Shearer and Goff need to work out how to respond to this egregious comment without accepting the premise of the question.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Winners and losers in Mt Albert

An utterly unoriginal theme for a blog post but here goes:

Television stations: from my sub-tropical exile over here there was no contest. The winner was TV3 which had regular updates posted to the web, a live streaming web-only broadcast for well over an hour and a web simulcast of its 10:30 show. TVNZ had only a few short clips posted to the web, none after 9pm so far as I could tell.

Politicians: Here the winners are clearly Shearer and party leader Goff.

For Phil Twyford it is a matter of swings and roundabouts. He was completely shafted by Goff and the media beat-up over Tizard and would have romped in had he stood. On the other hand he has become the effective representative for Auckland that Labour never managed to find when in Government. His work on the supercity has ruthlessly taken advantage of Government misteps.

Kiwiblog whines that this prominent Dominion Post story fails to mention that the economist who did costings and estimated job losses for the Auckland city reforms is a Labour party member. Yet Twyford who has been commissioning the research is very upfront about this, and points out that these estimates are attracting interest in the press solely because the Government has failed to do the work itself.

Moreover, I'm completely confident that Twyford, unlike the Minister for Local Government, doesn't need his mother to tell him why a city needs a library!

The list of losers is long.

John Key is an obvious one. The National talking point that the race was initially neck and neck is now a Labour talking point since their candidate got 60% of the vote to National's 17%. Key's handpicked candidate was a disaster. I am agnostic on this one, but it is possible that Linda Clark is right and the public will not react well to Key and his Cabinet dissociating themselves from the campaign and making themselves scarce on election night. There is something in the notion that New Zealanders don't like sore loosers.

Melissa Lee will sink without trace. Jonathan Coleman the ministerial handler for Lee is unlikely to be looked on kindly by his colleagues, and is stuck with the thankless task of immigration reform.

Judith Tizard was dragged through the mud, after the ignominy of loosing her previously safe seat. A mayoral campaign will not be on the cards.

I'd say that Kiwiblog and Whaleoil, and their inflence on the major media, are going to come in for more scrutiny in the future given their role in the Tizard beat-up, and Whaleoil's obviously ill-informed commentary on National's chances. This can only be a good thing.

And where was the Labour party President during all this? Either Andrew Little was too busy with his day job (General Secretary of the EPMU) or he was forbidden to show his face in the electorate by Goff. Either one reflects badly on his prospects. Duncan Garner, in reviewing possible future Labour leaders, commented that Little had missed his chance by not entering Parliament in 2008. Who knows, but his appearance on Q and A this morning was hardly scintillating.

Despite a strong personal showing by Russel Norman, the Green party should have done much better given the circumstances. 12% of the vote in an urban electorate, in a by-election, (which should be good for third party candidates,) with one of the major party campaigns totally imploding, that doesn't seem like a win. It certainly doesn't square with inner city support for the Greens in Australia for example.

The standard analysis of the Green position appears to be that in a recession Green issues recede. I would argue that the Green's long term problem in New Zealand is two-fold. Firstly environmental issues have become totally mainstream and both main parties have to spend considerable times on issues like climate change. As this trend continues the Greens will become less relevant, while green lobbies in both main parties will grow in strength. So, for example, pretty much every party in parliament supports Government subsidies for home insulation. That was a great idea and the Greens got a lot of credit for getting it in the budget but one gets the feeling they didn't have to push very hard. Secondly there is the problem that now that Donald and Fitzsimons are gone, it's very hard to convince yourself that many senior greens are motivated primarily by a passionate interest in environmental issues. Given these states of affairs many voters may ask themselves if they are really furthering the cause of the environment by voting for a party that is always going to be locked out of the Executive.

At least in this by-election voters definitely seemed to feel that they were choosing between the two main parties.

Backroom campaign managers: Winner is John Pagani. This is an interesting one since Pagani is actually a Progressive. The situation on the ground for Labour may not have initially been that favourable, I'll paraphrase Linda Clark on TV3 "It's a myth that Helen Clark had this inpregnible party machine in Mt Albert", she credited Pagani with running the show and getting the on-the-ground operation running. I'll also note the local organisation was quite probably less enthused when once head office made sure that the LEC Chair's daughter lost the nomination to its hand-picked fly-in candidate. It was a very convincing win so that goes to show that if you really need to win a single electorate badly enough you get quite good at it.

On the other hand the loser was clearly Mark Thomas. There was this great shot on TV3 of him glumly trying to get attention at the bar at National party headquarters after going over to concede to Shearer. This wasn't a great night for what Dim-Post calls his "lifelong unreciprocated loyalty to the National party"; there was even a jab from Whaleoil.

Thomas was a candidate in a very memorable contest in Wellington Central back in the day, and was famously shafted by his party's Prime Minister Jim Bolger. Is there any chance of getting Tony Sutorius' wonderful doco "Campaign" up on New Zealand on Screen? The whole thing is great, but it's worth it just for the bit where they are in the car with Thomas when he hears Bolger on the radio telling National supporters to vote ACT.

UPDATE: It turns out that I can't spell "loser" what does that say about me?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

This is Just to Say

So Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was forced to resign today which is doubtless not ideal timing for the Government.

His resignation letter is pretty strange, it's sounds like a dog ate my homework excuse a teenager would tender and is bound to lead to journalists sniffing around at length.

Read the following, and ask yourself, how many meetings take place in your office without your knowledge?

You will be aware of a question in Senate estimates last night regarding meetings between Humana, my brother and the Ministers for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel.

Having read the transcript of proceedings I decided to thoroughly examine the nature of any contact between Humana, my brother and my office.

Having done so, and despite having made it clear to all parties that it was important that I not be involved, I am not satisfied that contact between the various parties leave it clear that I have entirely conformed with your ministerial code of conduct.

In particular, I have learned that one meeting between the parties was held in my ministerial office. Further, I understand that members of my staff sat in on a number of meetings ...

On that basis, and to protect the integrity of the Government, I have decided to resign as a member of the Executive, effective, immediately.

Compare this to Richard Worth, a minor New Zealand Minister outside Cabinet who resigned in unfortunate circumstances earlier this week. He approached the matter by saying much less, but this didn't keep the journalists off his back either.

It is with deep regret that I have resigned my role as a Minister.

I am resigning from the role for personal reasons.

I tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister last night and he accepted.

It has been a privilege to have been a Minister in this Government.

I will not be making any further comment to the media.

I have been granted two weeks’ leave of absence from the House.

William Carlos Williams it ain't, but there is something poetic about it nonetheless.