Supposedly, New Zealand’s destiny lies in Asia, and that was one of Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s rationales for his bungled reforms at MFAT. OK. So, if that’s the case why didn’t Prime Minister John Key – who was already in South Korea – stay in the region so that he could attend the state funeral on Sunday of Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew? Instead, Key returned to New Zealand to campaign in the Northland by-election, and Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae will represent this country in his place. Bad call. Key has put the domestic interests of his party ahead of New Zealand’s wider interests on the world stage.
So New Zealand has using the GCSB to spy on its friends and allies in the Pacific – and has not only been passing on the results to the NSA, but has apparently passed on the details of the Pacific’s relations with Taiwan to our other best friends, the Chinese. On the side, the Key government has also been using the security services as a National Party toy, to gauge the chances of Trade Minister Tim Groser landing the top job at the World Trade Organisation. Nothing to see here, move on, says Prime Minister John Key. Ludicrously, Foreign Minister Murray McCully has alleged to our spied-on friends in the Pacific that Edward Snowden may have made it all up.
So far, one of the government’s cover stories is that (a) our Pacific friends don’t mind and (b) the New Zealand public don’t care. All praise then to last night’s edition of RNZ’s Dateline Pacific programme, for showing how royally pissed off the actual officials who have been spied on are still feeling.
For anyone with memories of the apartheid era, there will be mixed feelings about the news this week that South African mercenaries are playing a key role in turning the tide against Boko Haram, in northern Nigeria. Years ago, many of those same South African fighters were engaged in domestic attacks on activists in the anti-apartheid movement, and led sustained campaigns against liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere. Under the name Executive Outcomes, they were also involved in the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Having media crews in a disaster zone can help to (a) pinpoint areas of need and (b) provide some re-assurance to the victims that the outside world has not entirely forgotten them. Over time, the media coverage can also motivate First World viewers and listeners to dig into their pockets and donate to relief and reconstruction projects. That’s all to the good. Vanuatu needs all the help it can get, after being hit by the worst storm in living memory.
At the same time, the fact that media crews can readily get in and out of the devastated villages in Vanuatu only underlines the chasm in the resources available. Read the rest of this entry »
For decades, the ringing statements on human rights by various European and US governments have been undermined by the diplomatic support they’ve given to the regime in Saudi Arabia. It has been a straight forward deal : we will sell arms to the House of Saud and turn a blind eye to its barbaric public executions, floggings, religious extremism and suppression of women. In return, the Saudis will (a) give us cheap oil and (a) police the region on our behalf.
That cosy arrangement has been unraveling somewhat, of late. Last year, the German government refused to sell Leopard tanks to the Saudis and – more significantly – the new left wing government in Sweden has just decided not to renew a ten year old arms deal that has been worth half a billion dollars to Sweden between 2011 and 2014 alone. Read the rest of this entry »
The sole upside for the government in its release of a three month old threat to contaminate infant formula is that the story knocked Winston Peters off the front pages. In case that sounds like a conspiracy theory, the government was in a no win situation here. If it went public with every such threat the moment it was issued, it would be creating a pretty dire incentive for every crackpot and attention seeker in the country. That’s why, as Prime Minister John Key said, other countries tend not to publicise threats of this kind.
Yet with the blackmail letter’s end of March deadline looming, a policy of complete silence probably wasn’t still an option, either. If the threat was carried out – even in a bungled form – wouldn’t the government then be justly accused of being asleep at the wheel, and of leaving the nation’s mothers and babies at the mercy of a known peril?
Along the way, the incident has exposed just how vulnerable this country is to what Key described yesterday as an act of ‘eco-terrorism’. The New Zealand economy is almost comically dependent on milk powder exports. That’s why a couple of letters sent three months ago can still knock a few points off the dollar, drive down the share market value of some dairy companies, send the industry into a testing frenzy and put us into full diplomatic re-assurance mode in our key markets overseas. That’s even before we know whether the threat is genuine.
If a couple of letters from a disgruntled single-issue crank can do all that to New Zealand’s economic lifeline… gosh, thank goodness we’re not doing anything unnecessarily on the world stage to attract the attentions of any real terrorists. Thank goodness we’re not offering to do stuff – say, in Iraq – that will make no difference, serve no achievable goal, and where no exit strategy is in place. We are? Yesterday’s incident only served to underline just how foolhardy the Iraq deployment really is.
How scary is too scary ?
As a child prone to night terrors who grew up to be a parent over-protective about the scary films his children watched – and it can’t be accidental that one of them grew up to love horror films – I was interested in the recent online firestorm about the guy who screened the James Cameron film Aliens to his 11 year old son (and some of his son’s 11 year old buddies), and then wrote a story about their interesting / amusing reactions. Matt Zeller Seitz’ original story is here.
The best discussion of the outraged comments that followed can be found in Tasha Robinson’s article on The Dissolve website, available here.
The massive online reaction basically fell into two highly polarized camps, as in (a) Were you out of your mind? What do you think you were doing showing a film like Aliens to an 11 year old kid? Closely followed by (b) Hey you pussies. I watched Blair Witch Project/ Nightmare on Elm Street etc when I was nine, and I’m totally FINE today! In essence, this was the age-old argument about which films are age-appropriate for children to watch. To her credit, Robinson steered her way between the two warring camps, and tried to reach a sensible solution – one that respected the child’s adventurous curiosity while taking seriously just how awful a child’s night scares can be. The images imprinted on the brain in childhood can last a lifetime, for better or worse.
Among her observations: there’s no single ‘one size fits all ages’ standard for any film, or for any child. Kids are individuals with different levels of resilience and differing amounts of healthy curiosity. More to the point, it seems impossible to predict what kind of image will scare a child. Again, from experience: the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird had seemed a reasonably safe bet, Boo Radley notwithstanding. As it turned out, Boo wasn’t the problem. At about the age of eight or so, my older daughter (and future horror fan) was scared by the shouting face of one of the townspeople as Atticus Finch drove away from the courthouse. One anger-distorted, shouting face framed in a car window. Bingo. Robinson’s sensible and well-written piece is worth reading by any parent mulling over this issue.
Mighty Mighty Ravensdark
Warning : this classic black metal video by Immortal could scare any impressionable six year olds in your life….. that’s if they’re not rolling around on the floor laughing at it.
And here’s something really scary, for adults. In a brief two and a half minute video, Robert Reich – who was Secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration – explains why the Trans Pacific Partnership is great for corporations, but a terrible deal for the ordinary public.
Incredibly, Winston Peters is back at centre stage of New Zealand politics, and in the role he likes best – as the virtuous underdog, fighting the forces of entrenched political patronage in the Northland by-election. Currently, a rattled Key government is throwing all the election bribes it can at the voters of Northland to fend him off. Yesterday for instance, the government suddenly found it could afford a $69 million bridge building package to create a short-lived jobs programme in Northland on behalf of its candidate. The symbolism seems perfect. Once the by-election is won and the bridges are built, a National government will allow the needy in Northland to return to their usual state of irrelevance.
Peters’ only concern right now may be that he has peaked too soon. Read the rest of this entry »
As many have noted, the Hager/Snowden revelations of the spying by our security agencies on our Pacific neighbours and allies is a virtual re-run of the pre-election debate.
Unfortunately, it is also a forerunner of the kind of “ debate” we can expect during the upcoming review of the security agency powers, in June. It is a situation where the government (a) stonewalls, (b) baldly asserts that mass surveillance is not occurring despite the Snowden evidence that it is, and (c) claims that the GCSB actions were lawful. Yet as Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman says, this can be true only if the legislation passed last year by the Key government has made the mass surveillance of New Zealanders – and the related handing over of their private data to the NSA – lawful.
The quashing of the convictions of Teina Pora for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in 1992 has shone a spotlight once again on a major gap in the New Zealand justice system. To all intents and purposes, access by New Zealanders to the Privy Council has now been closed. Yet the number of times in recent years when the Privy Council has quashed the findings of New Zealand courts has demonstrated that we are regularly (a) jailing the wrong person or (b) arriving at guilty verdicts on grounds sufficiently flawed as to raise serious doubts that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. Sometimes – as the Privy Council ruling on the Pora case has found – the decisive factor has been subsequent advances in forensic evidence. With Pora, this advance was over the reliability of false confessions.
There had been a fortnight of fevered buildup. Yet here we are in the aftermath of the February 28 showdown between the new Syriza government in Greece and the European Union “troika” and… no-one seems entirely sure what happened. Did the asteroid miss Earth? It seems to have. The EU still exists. Syriza is now claiming a victory of sorts. It doesn’t help that the only people who do appear to be sure (the Greeks buckled) are claiming the exact opposite to what the other group (the Greeks won!) are saying. Plus, there are bets either way e.g. Bloomberg News: “Its too early to say who caved in to whom.”
Offhand, I can’t think of another major news event where the outcome seems to have been so confusingly under-reported. You’d think with the stakes alleged to be so high – the survival of Greece’s left wing government vs the future of the European Union – that we wouldn’t be still scratching our heads in confusion.
By and large, the Australian economist John Quiggin thinks the Greeks did pretty well out of last week’s game of chicken and his reports here – and here – include a helpful outline of what led up to the February 28 showdown. As he says, the German-dominated EU bureaucracy remain supremely sure of the reasons for the current crisis. In their view :
The problem is one of profligate spending by successive Greek governments, who evaded the Maastricht rules meant to constrain government debt. Their folly having caught up with them, the Greeks are now seeking to shift the burden to the long-suffering taxpayers of Northern Europe, and, in particular, Germany. The only solution is to get debt and deficits under control through deep cuts in public spending.
There is a grain of truth in this…..But in reality the financial tsunami that engulfed the world in 2008 did not discriminate between the prodigal and the prudent. Countries like Spain, which were running budget surpluses before the crisis were hit just as hard as Greece…
Right. The fact that Spain and Ireland – who had been virtuously balancing their books beforehand – were also left in need of an EU bailout suggests that the root cause was not excessive spending by Greece or by anyone else. Blame can be justly levelled at the huge GFC – related recession which exposed the extortionate trading relations between Germany and the rest of the EU. As others found, the austerity solution that the EU then imposed on Greece (and others) only made a bad situation worse.
The GFC, and the subsequent recession and banking crisis made it impossible for Greece and other national governments to service their debts, given reduced revenue and the need to rescue domestic banks. They were therefore forced to accept bailouts on conditions imposed by a “Troika” comprising the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission (EC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The core condition was the acceptance of a program of “austerity”, that is, deep cuts in public spending. The underlying theory, based on some sketchy research and a lot of wishful thinking was that such cuts would allow room for the private sector to grow, thereby generating tax revenue and assisting in the “financial consolidation” needed to reduce debt and deficits.
Austerity proved a disastrous failure in practice, to the point where the IMF concluded that it did not work as intended and was in fact highly contractionary
In the lead up to the February 28 showdown, the opening gambits had been predictably extreme. Greece was seeking an extension of the bailout, and a complete rewrite of the austerity conditions – while the EU was supposedly seeking total compliance. In reality, Syriza’s real aims were more modest. At crunch, it was seeking a rollover of the existing conditions and without necessarily tying itself to the previous austerity conditions. It got that. It had wanted a six month extension, but it got four months.
For its part, the EU had wanted an absolute Syriza capitulation to the existing bailout programme without any option to change the austerity measures further down the track. That is not what happened. Around the edges, Greece also agreed to a (reduced) programme of privatisation, and it won an increase – size as yet unspecified – in the minimum wage. As Quiggin says, Greece now has four months to come up with an alternative reform programme.
It remains to be seen how the compromise deal will play out. Opinions differ, largely in line with pre-existing views. Supporters of continued austerity see the deal as a climb-down by Syriza, sugar-coated with some softer language. This view is shared by those on the left who favour an immediate exit from the euro and the repudiation of “odious” debt.
Syriza supporters (of whom I am one) see it as a backdown by the Troika, paving the way for at least moderate fiscal expansion and a shift away from austerity. Only time will tell.
Spiritual Needs on a Tight Defence Budget
While the spiritual needs of the Islamic State fighters are being more than amply catered for, can one say the same for the Crusaders… I mean, for the coalition forces heading into Iraq to oppose IS? The NZ Army currently has 13 chaplains among its ranks, and 6 others in the reserves. So will a chaplain be sent as part of our 143 strong Iraq deployment ? When I asked the NZDF this question I got a resounding “maybe” in response from a spokesperson: “The final composition of the Building Partner capacity training mission is yet to be confirmed but provision of welfare support is a standard part of any deployment order.”
If a chaplain isn’t sent, how will the spiritual needs of the deployed troops be met? “Planning for the welfare support of deployed personnel, including spiritual needs, is underway and appropriate levels of support will be provided.” Fortunately, the Army chaplaincy doesn’t seem to depend entirely on divine protection. In the careers options on the NZDF website , it is made clear that chaplains receive full weapons training as part of their skillset.
While the vultures circle around Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the one thing he has in his favour is that if they sack him, then his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, would almost certainly need to be tossed overboard as well. But then who would present the Hockey-drafted Budget due in May? So, there is an argument for keeping Abbott/Hockey in place, and using the Budget fallout as the pretext for the leadership change.
That could be messy, either way. If Hockey’s survival instincts see him deliver a benign Budget, the rationale for removing him and his boss would recede. But if Hockey sticks to his guns, the Liberals would look like wusses for dumping the guy who made the hard calls needed to revive an ailing Aussie economy blah blah…So should Abbott’s enemies strike now and ride out the Budget consequences ?
Not an easy decision. Barely 18 months since taking over the Treasury benches the Liberal Coalition has become a lame duck government. That’s a disaster for them. Abbott can expect to have few friends, once he is banished to the wilderness.
Mr Spock RIP
On the weekend, Leonard Nimoy died, aged 83. Any number of Youtube clips celebrate Nimoy in his role as Spock, the half human, half Vulcan logician on Star Trek who found emotion to be… such a fascinating but rationally objectionable quality of the human race. Beneath that cool logical veneer though, one sensed that seething emotions were deeply buried… and any number of plotlines exist where Spock fell in love, cried, drank brandy and recalled the good old days on his home planet. “On Vulcan, teddy bears are alive. And they have six inch fangs.” Even Captain Kirk once ended up trying to goad Spock into a human response by calling him a “a mutinous, disloyal, computerised half breed! An overgrown jackrabbit! An elf with an over-active thyroid..! ” Here’s a great collection of Spockian pearls of insight:
Yet Mr. Spock wasn’t the only Nimoy creation. Think also of his rendition of “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” – which would be a strong contender in any contest to find the worst song ever recorded.