The Environmental Cataclysm in Australasia

This is the first post of the year, and probably the last year of the blog. Hard not to be totally disheartened, firstly by events in the Northern Hemisphere, but mostly by the complete and utter ecological disaster in Australia. While it seemed that the fires in the Amazon region were bad, and the Brazilian reaction appalling, this is eclipsed down under.

I put Australasia in the title because the fires on mainland Australia are affecting the whole region. Certainly the smoke and haze has drifted across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. The remains of the Australian forests have landed on the South Island glaciers, and added to our own loss of alpine environment. And only the strong winds in the North Island prevent the smoke affecting the inhabitants here, at least the humans.

The Australian cataclysm is primarily that of the livestock and wildlife that have died in millions. Firefighters are trying to protect humans and their properties, but can’t save the animals, fauna and flora. The drought made it hard for farm animals anyway, but they were still being fed. The climate emergency that white Australia mostly ignores was already threatening wildlife and its habitat, but now it is being wiped out cruelly. Everybody knows about indigenous Australian species, especially the marsupials, kangaroos and wallabies, that can at least hop away to safety sometimes. The koala bears and wombats attract sympathy and are sometimes saved by humans, but what of all the other species.

The Australian Liberal Party was re-elected on an anti-environmental policy, and weren’t they proud of it. In the key areas of Queensland and Tasmania, where they would react to strong Green lobbying, the coal communities and loggers ensured that the Labor party lost the key seats that would have made the difference. The anti climate change brigade are still in full denial mode, and are currently blaming the ‘greenies’ for the extent of the fires, if not the cause. Inland Australia swelters in the heat of over 40 degrees celsius, and even the coastal holiday resorts are in peril, but the climate change deniers in the Liberal and National Parties claim it is the other side that are the ideologues. These gang of fools and right wing zealots still have a propaganda arm at Sky News Australia to dissemble.

Life in Australia carries on as normal. There are international cricket games to play, and an international tennis tournament to go ahead in Melbourne. The cricket tests were against New Zealand this year, the first time since the 1980s that our test team has toured in the holiday period, and played the Boxing Day test at the MCG instead of England. Our guys played poorly overall, and were affected by illness during the third test in Sydney. The Australians were as aggressive as ever, and continued to ‘sledge’ on-field, which is form of invective and swearing to intimidate the opponents, and trying to injure them. Not cricket at all, as played in other areas of the world, but the Australians always have to win.

In a previous post I criticised some of the reactionary policies of the Australian government, concerning refugees, and the deportation of petty criminals to New Zealand. All of these things have cost us, as does the upcoming trial of the Australian terrorist who killed 51 people in Christchurch last March. But since then a number of tourists have died in the White Island eruption, including Australians. Their politicians could have criticised the decision to allow tourist to go onto an active volcano, and right into the crater, when it seemed inherently unsafe. But any such criticism was moderated and efforts to assist the victims was the focus. So maybe there is still an underlying ANZAC spirit. In any case it is in our interests to send firefighters to Australia now, since the impact of the fires there are so widespread, but the environmental crisis is too far gone to change, even if the climate change deniers did not hold power in Australia.

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How the insidious smears infect public broadcasting, even in New Zealand

Everybody is still writing about the UK election. Didn’t he do well, that Boris. When he wasn’t hiding in a fridge, running down the clock, like the ice sculpture at the TV debate that the Conservatives didn’t see as a priority. Seriously, given the opinion poll lead they had, were all the evasions and dirty tricks campaigns necessary? Obviously the attention span of the electorate is now so low, that all they had to do was repeat that 3 word slogan (GBD). True, it was a bit more effective that ‘Strong & Stable’, or ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

What does Brexit mean? Nobody knows, but they will know when it’s over, and the Tories’ new friends in the North of England go back to being forgotten. What a very British farce, when is the next referendum? Of course, when Scotland leaves the UK and joins the EU, and that’s when the English finally get to go it alone, with some northern Welshmen. It’s all about the people now: and the problem for Labour is that it only represents the metropolitan areas; despite the millions residing there, you have to win in the provincial towns.

I was going to write about media bias, and the hapless BBC, who have had to come out with their heavy hitters to assure the readers of the quality press that they weren’t played by the Conservative Party. In fact, they were played, perhaps willingly, by the tabloid press. In the previous post I described how the BBC have a tendency to invite a so-called journalist from the Tory press on for commentary. They must realise that the tabloid person is going to smear Corbyn, usually for links to terrorists, and sometimes to ellide any nuance at all, and just call him a terrorist. This does have an effect, as we saw from John McDonnell’s speech on election night, in his electorate. The camera feed that was broadcast on CNN fixed on a heckler, who called his new MP a terrorist, alternating with calling him a liar, until the inevitable brawl broke out. The BBC never mentioned it.

In the election aftermath the BBC’s Emily Maitlis, fresh from snookering Prince Andrew, had some fun berating Labour spokespeople for their humiliating loss. Not getting the required humble apology she moved on to the triumphant Tories. When no more Labour people opened themselves up for a slagging she had to have two Tories on. For example, she had one man from a Conservative friendly think tank, and one woman from the tabloid press: the Tory man went into some convoluted technical reason why the Labour manifesto was naive and unworkable; while the tabloid woman called it ‘communism’. If Maitlis had felt witty she might have called the 2019 Communist Manifesto. I decided to make a formal complaint anyway, after navigating the BBC website that seemed to make it impossible to make a complaint from overseas, even though BBC World TV was broadcasting the domestic news channel. I might post the reply if I get one.
Public broadcasting is free in New Zealand, but only exists in radio form, a station known as RNZ. And RNZ National has a very popular programme called Nine to Noon, which is hosted by Kathryn Ryan. Ryan is a former political editor for RNZ, and they have traditionally been right-leaning, establishment types. But when she took over Nine to Noon it became clear just how right wing she is. Not only does she admire Sky News Australia, but, in the longstanding weekly segment on British politics she has ensured that there is never anyone from the Guardian. The usual commentators include Kate Adie, formerly BBC of course; Mr Dathan from The Sun; and former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris. In the past it was Dame Ann Leslie who initiated the Corbyn-bashing.

A few years ago Ryan was made international radio personality of the year, probably by the BBC, but I stopped listening to the British segment because of the Corbyn-bashing and Tory worship. It’s such a colonial thing, this underlying allegiance to the British Conservative Party. But last Thursday I did listen, knowing that Mr Parris would be on. He seems to have gone all Liberal Democrat on us, because he doesn’t like Boris, but he obviously still loathes Jeremy Corbyn. He made it clear to the New Zealand audience that Corbyn was a Marxist with terrorist tendencies, without a shred of evidence. He was probably frothing like Mark Francois, way over there in chilly High Peak, a place known for a good smear or two. But there are also locals who enjoy the old terrorist trope.

RNZ have the local politics discussion slot on Monday mornings, but this week it was all about the effect of the British election. The slot is dominated by Matthew Hooton, a P.R. consultant from Auckland, and former ministerial staffer for the National Party. Hooton is the bullying type of right winger, and the National Party are not right enough for him. He also likes to be contrary, so when Ms Ryan asked him about the implications of the British election he said there was no direct comparison, because no local politician had “terrorist connections” like Corbyn has. The other man in the discussion, a Labour Party hack, said nothing about Corbyn at all, certainly not in his defence. Meanwhile, Hooton comes from the Auckland milieu that created Prime Minister John Key’s dirty politics squad, formed around a Cameron Slater. Slater has recently been mired in defamation suits, but the more recent Auckland alumni include Messrs Topham and Guerin, who have been the key additions to the Conservative Party’s dirty tricks social media team.

Postscript: 19/12/19

It was reported yesterday that a High Court judge has found Matthew Hooton guilty of defamation. Hooton was writing for the National Business Review, not RNZ. The complainant was none other than Steven Joyce, the former cabinet minister in the last National Party government; Joyce is also known for setting up commercial radio stations, and is another wealthy man in the National Party. Although the NBR only has to pay costs it is still significant, despite being a case of friendly fire. Or perhaps Mr Hooton is an equal opportunities slanderer, but only someone wealthy can afford to stand up to him.

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U.K. electoral campaign reaches it nadir

I don’t bother with social media any more, unlike during the previous UK election in 2017. Prospective electoral candidates should avoid it too, since writing rubbish on Facebook is bound to catch up with you. But there was something awfully familiar about this graphic from the Tory Party’s twitter feed, as seen on the Guardian‘s live blog yesterday:

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It reminded me of something the New Zealand National Party came up with in the 2005 general election, when they tried to get redneck votes by playing the ‘race card’, as we call it:

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By way of explanation, that is Helen Clark of Labour on the left; and Don Brash of National on the right, Brash being the former governor of the central bank who got back into politics to complete the so-called Neoliberal revolution. It is a brutally effective sign, once you know that ‘iwi’ refers to the Maori word for tribe, and the referent is to the legal conflict at the time over the ownership of the foreshore. What might have been a technical legal argument became a major faultline in New Zealand politics ; Brash did not win the 2005 election, but he got very close, paving the way for another finance man, John Key, to win in 2008, and to remain in power until the Panama Papers were released.

Anyway, back to the British election, it might have been slightly more effective if Corbyn was on the left, but it still puts the dichotomy at its most stark. And, of course, it is abhorrent that the latest terrorist attack in London has been politicised by the Tories. For all the talk about Jeremy Corbyn being anti-Semitic, and associating with Palestinian groups and other terrorists, this had just been words before the UK citizens died in London.

Now we also see the blatant bias, and partisanship of the UK media, including the BBC. Not only is Corbyn portrayed as ‘soft’ on terrorism, but the trope of his links with muslim terrorists is back in play. To give an example that the BBC’s international viewers would have seen, take the BBC World News programme Newsday, which screens at around midday in New Zealand. Yesterday the London presenter was Kasia Madeira, and she had on a guest from the Sunday Times, Katherine Forster,to discuss how the terrorist attack had become political. Apparently this was because Corbyn had put the blame on austerity, and specifically on the cuts to spending on the Parole Board and related services. With facilitation from Madeira, Forster then went on to state that Corbyn was known to ‘side’ with terrorist organisations such as Hamas in the occupied part of Palestine, and of course the I.R.A.

Now ‘sided’ sounds a relatively innocuous word. But it is much stronger than ‘sympathiser’ for example, or supporter, and much closer to being a ‘collaborator’. So there we are, back to the Tories’ favourite trope, identifying Corbyn and Labour as the enemy within, not just soft on terrorism. Of course, Kasia Madeira never challenged the use of the term ‘sided’, or the claim that Corbyn abets terrorists. This was either because the BBC does not do that to guests chosen from the Tory press, or she is as right wing as Ms Forster.

But, unlike the Tory press, the BBC is meant to be objective and balanced. Having a smear artist like Forster on proves that the BBC is both biased and partisan, on behalf of the Conservative Party. There is certainly no balance on any of the BBC World News programmes that screen here in the evening, and there is a lot of commentary coming from business guests who are, if not inevitably Tory, then certainly not sympathetic to Labour. In a binary system the side with the most money usually wins, but having media stooges also helps.

 

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Johnson’s Sophistry and the slow boat to China

More on the British election from a New Zealand perspective. Boris Johnson continues an incredibly erratic performance, and the Conservative Party are full of tricky manoeuvres and funny games on social media. Johnson launched the Welsh Conservatives campaign and the broadcast highlights included a diversion on the prospective trading relations with China. He asked the audience to check on-line if Wales was closer to China than New Zealand, ‘as the crow flies’. It turns out this was true, as the crow flies. Why he thinks that this makes any difference to the trade in sheep meat, who really knows. The fact remains that New Zealand is closer to China by sea, and already has a free trade deal.

This means that New Zealand farmers will always be able to out compete little old Wales, no matter what the geography is according to BoJo. And in today’s LBC radio interview, Johnson also claimed that there were more  free trade deals in the pipeline, besides the U.S. one, including with New Zealand. That’s news to us, but maybe the New Zealand government has got high up in the queue. Even with the Labour Party in government here, the free trade fetish continues. Indeed, in the last election campaign they misled progressive voters into believing that they would no longer pursue the Asia-Pacific trade agreement known as the TPPA. This was before Trump threw out his toys over it. But, after the election the Labour Party returned to form, and agreed to a bowdlerised version of the TPPA, the CTTPA, or a similar acronym. The key part of this was that it would not include the clauses allowing for corporations to sue governments that were not allowing domestic market competition, including for pharmaceuticals.

So the major controversy with the TPPA had been over pharmaceuticals, and the role of American drug companies. New Zealand has an organisation called Pharmac which organises the purchase of drugs for the public health system, and therefore can obtain the best prices through this form of collectivism. Of course, this was anathema to the Americans drug companies, who want to extract monopoly prices for their patented medicines. Pharmac is therefore similar to the British organisation that is called Nice, and any free trade deal with the U.S. would always have drug purchases on the agenda.

Therefore the British Labour Party didn’t really need the leaked document, detailing the trade talks with the U.S. Government, to know that the role of Nice would be up for discussion at the very least. But having got an un-redacted version of the Tories trade talks, it would have been nice if the media have covered it, rather than banging on about anti-Semitism, which appears to be far more important than the health of millions of poor people. In the broadcast version of events seen here, via Sky News Australia, Sky’s Diana Magnay was asked every hour about the veracity of Labour’s claims. She was apparently with Corbyn’s campaign in Falmouth, but it could have been anywhere, Magnay stated that the document did not back up Corbyn’s claims, even though she can’t have read it; and went on to say that everything had changed under BoJo. Besides the partisan bias, Magnay could not provide a coherent statement, despite doing it all afternoon for the Sarah-Jane Mee Show. Magnay used to be a CNN correspondent, so really has drawn the short straw being assigned to Corbyn. By contrast, Kate McCann gets to luxuriate on BoJo’s campaign bus. And Sky continued to show footage of Johnson meeting with nurses in Cornwall, but not the audio part of the event, especially when one of the nurses asked where he would get his ‘nurses tree’ (for new nurses).

The other mention of New Zealand last week was also in the context of health, and it happened during the feisty Question Time Special, where a partisan audience got to roast their enemies. Johnson was accused of being dishonest in his first question, and was later called a racist, but otherwise appeared to be doing fine. But the questions on the NHS were difficult. One of the audience was a GP (general practitioner) who stated how onerous the conditions for local doctors were, and compared it to Australian and New Zealand GP practices, which had similar earnings but far less stress. It might be true that health is less of a political football than in the UK, but the picture is not so rosy. The vacancies for GPs are in rural areas, where shortages mean doctors do have to work long hours. In the cities the hospitals have similar maintenance issues, and problems with treatment times for cancer, which vary on a geographical basis. And there are similar shortages of doctors and nurses, even though it is nowhere near as bad as in the UK.

Johnson’s best bit of sophistry must be his claim that there will be 50 000 new nurses over his next term. This was despite the lack of trainees caused by the Tory removal of the student maintenance grant, and the effect of student loan debt; and the claim that more nurses would arrive as immigrants from the EU, despite the fact that Brexit means less immigration to most BoJo supporters. But the real doosie was the claim that 19 000 of the 50 000 figure would be contrived from the number of nurses that would be retained, when they would have otherwise left the NHS. So 19 000 nurses already in the NHS are counted twice, or are not really ‘new’ nurses at all. Maybe they will be receiving offers from American drug companies that they cannot refuse.

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Immigration and the end of the ANZAC Spirit

I got an email yesterday from Amnesty International in Australia, entitled ‘Behrouz is finally free’, with a photo of the Amnesty man greeting Behrouz Boochani at Auckland airport. Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian Kurd, an asylum seeker who has been held at one of Australia’s offshore detention centre for years. An award winning journalist, who wrote a book on a smuggled smart phone while stuck on Manus Island (in Papua New Guinea), Behrouz got a visa to visit New Zealand for one month, including an appearance at a literary festival in Christchurch, and is never going back in to Australian detention again.

This was a publicity coup as well as being a personal liberation. Behrouz quickly flew down to Christchurch with Golriz Ghahraman, another Iranian refugee, who is now a Green Party MP, and met the mayor. She gave him a greenstone (poumanu) pendant while the local news media filmed. Rather surprisingly the news item was high up on evening news bulletins, despite the fact that the refugee aspect of the punitive Australian immigration regime has not been covered well here, in comparison to the Australian practice of deporting New Zealand born residents who have committed a crime. Speaking of crimes, arriving in Christchurch was symbolic, given the massacre there by an Australian citizen in March this year. The media speculated that the release of Behrouz would annoy the hard-line far right Australian government, but the story was actually covered on Sky News Australia, the only Australian TV channel carried on the pay TV package here.

Behrouz later appeared on the Al Jazeera channel from his Christchurch hotel room, where he described the Australian detention practices as ‘barbaric’, and claimed that the remaining adult refugees in detention were starving. Many have attempted suicide, and most have developed psychiatric illnesses; some have even been assaulted by the indigenous people running the island prisons, whether on Manus or on Nauru, another island territory that is paid by the Australian regime to hold asylum seekers indefinitely. Nauru has a long history of colonial intervention, and used to have its minerals harvested for Australasian farmers to spread over their fields as fertilizers from planes (this was called Superphosphate).

It would have been a long time since Behrouz was on an airplane, and he barely survived the boat journey from Indonesia to Australian waters over seven years ago. There has been much comment about the USA and the United Kingdom imposing an Australian style ‘points-based’ immigration system. But rather than debate how the points would work for desirable immigrants, it needs to be understood that the Australian system is admired by conservatives for its systematic brutality and punitive aspects. Long before there was Trump and his wall on the Mexican border, a small Australian man named John Howard was winning federal elections for his Liberal Party with a policy of ensuring that asylum seekers would never get on to the Australian mainland. This has always been justified on the basis of not rewarding people smugglers.

In more recent times it has been a man named Peter Dutton as Home Affairs minister in the Liberal-National Governments that has been the face of the detention policy. An ugly man, with even uglier policies, Dutton hails from the state of Queensland, known for its corruption, but which heavily favoured the Liberal Party at the last election, based on an anti-Climate change agenda. Dutton was even the preferred candidate when the far right wing of the Liberal Party tried to depose the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, last year; but the party preferred Scott Morrison, an evangelical Christian, who is a better retail politician. Nonetheless, the Liberal Party were prepared to lose their seats in the aflluent areas of Sydney, where the soft ‘liberals’ objected to the harsh treatment of those detained offshore, even though some of their sick children were allowed to leave the islands.

The brutality of this immigration policy is that the detention is indefinite. Dutton does not really want any detainees to leave, even when there are genuine offers to take the refugees off Manus Island and Nauru. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has offered to take 150 asylum seekers per year, but this has been rebuffed. The flimsy excuse for this has been the belief among Australians that, once the refugees become New Zealand citizens, they will then be able to travel to Australia eventually. It is of course hard to believe that anybody would still want to go to Australia after detention in ghastly camps on offshore islands, but the Australians refuse to budge on Ardern’s offer.

There used to be something called the ANZAC spirit, which is a sense of co-operation between Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC refers to the army tradition, begun in the First World War, when Australasian troops were flung into a hopeless attack on Turkey at Gallipoli. The senseless slaughter there led to the dawning of an identity separate from the imperial masters in London. But it is now time to admit that this is an historical remnant only, and should really only be seen in a military context. At a government level the Australians simply don’t respect us or our Prime Minister (who is ridiculed on Sky News Australia), whether that be on immigration or climate change in the Pacific.

The most egregious examples of Australian contempt comes with the deportation of petty criminals, who are technically New Zealand citizens. Due to free movement in the past, many working class New Zealand families have re-located to Australia, usually in search of better paying jobs. But if they do not become Australian citizens they also do not get welfare payments, even after paying tax for years. And if they happen to commit a crime, which is often the result of domestic disputes, they will be punished twice: a custodial sentence will result in sequestration in an offshore detention camp, and then eventual deportation. Often these men have not been in New Zealand since their childhood, and have no relatives left here, or any other kind of support, let alone job opportunities. This approved deportation of petty criminals leads to crime here in New Zealand, and is against any residual sense of  ANZAC co-operation and goodwill that might remain.

So, to take a recent example, of the serious bush fires raging in Australia, we have sent firefighters to help them. Why should we continue to send our people over to Australia, and potentially sacrifice them in dangerous situations? Even if there is some financial compensation, or some other benefits, such as it being good training, we should no longer just automatically send our people. I don’t recall the Australians reciprocating, but maybe they have in the past. But until they treat New Zealand and all our offers of help with respect, let alone observing international human rights and norms with regard to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, we should not be sending help to them.

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Sporting codes and political success: is it really the time of the ‘Workington Man’

It’s Saturday the second of the November, and today was meant to be the day that New Zealand won its third rugby world cup in a row. Instead, it will probably be England. So conventional wisdom is that if the All Blacks win the world cup the incumbent government goes on to win the next election. This is something that the National Party was convinced of here, which is why they spent so much time associating themselves with rugby union, the game that unites the provincial areas with the larger urban areas.

You would think that if England win the rugby union world cup then the Tories are a shoo-in for the December election, being only a month away. No doubt Mr Johnson and the other old Etonians will be crowing about the victory, rather than Brexit, for a good week or more. But will it unite the country like a football world cup win would? And if rugby union is so important to them, why are they trying to target the ‘Workington Man’, the latest caricature that the Tory think tanks believe is the quintessential Northern voter, and those that will desert the Labour Party. But the problem here is that the ‘Workington Man’ follows rugby league not the rugby union code.

I personally enjoy watching rugby league, rather than union. But to those not familiar with the two rugby codes there is not a lot of difference, other than the thing called a ‘Line-out’ is not used in league; and the game is stopped for each tackle until a team has had six, when they must kick the ball or just lose possession to the other team. As I understand the people who created rugby league, they were working class, and became professional players, whereas rugby union prided itself on being amateurs until relatively recently. Rugby league was an entirely Northern game, as the names of the clubs indicate: Wigan, St Helens, Bradford, Leeds, Hull; all in Lancashire or Yorkshire. Except for Workington, which is the North-West, in Cumbria, not so much Labour held.

All of the big clubs seem to be in Labour constitutencies, with Warrington South having returned to the fold in the 2017 general election. Just because these areas voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, it didn’t mean that the seats were lost the next year, so why do they think this will happen in the 2019 election. Maybe it’s just Workington, given that the adjacent seat of Copeland went to the Tories in 2017. It’s fair to say that rugby league is still the working class game there, as it is in New Zealand, and many Kiwi men have played or coached in England. Most of these players would be from the Auckland area, such as Henry and Robbie Paul, who were involved with the Bradford Bulls. Robbie is now manager; Henry actually went on to play rugby union for England (splitter).

But rugby league is also played in Christchurch, and on the West Coast of the South Island. And of the players from Christchurch, Gerard Stokes, went to play in Workington in the 1980s. He returned to Christchurch, but went back to Workington to coach the club. Gerard Stokes is better known as the father of Ben Stokes, the English cricketer who took the cricket world cup off the valiant New Zealand team earlier in the year. Though born in Christchurch, Ben Stokes obviously stayed in England after his parents returned home. The merciless English tabloids have recently exposed their family tragedy. But the English cricket team have returned to New Zealand to play T20 internationals, and again beat our side yesterday, in Christchurch, albeit without having Ben Stokes playing.

I wanted to just write a bit more about class and politics, using the example of rugby league. It is mostly played in New Zealand by Polynesian men, often from some of the poorest in the urban areas, particularly in South Auckland. This is the home of the professional team, the Auckland Warriors, which joined the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition in 1995. The first captain was Dean Bell, a Kiwi international that played for Wigan, I think, the most well known club to New Zealanders. But many Kiwis had already been playing in Australia, often going to England later in their careers. One of the other local league teams is based in Mt Albert, the central Auckland seat, which was held for Labour by Helen Clark. As Prime Minister Helen Clark had, of course, to attend the All Black games just to be seen there. But she also knew the role of rugby league in the working class communities, and was patron of the Mt Albert rugby league club. Jacinda Ardern is now the MP for Mt Albert, and Prime Minister, if not patron of the league club. But league is still Labour heartland, or vice versa.

So, what of the role of Workington Man in the British election. It is unlikely that the Labour Party will lose that seat, but not impossible, and it would signal a landslide. But for that to happen they would also have to lose other seats across the belt of rugby league towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The clusters of these seats was joined up by the two seats won in 2017: High Peak and Colne Valley. The former seat is also an area where the local council is now controlled by Labour, one of their few successes in this year’s municipal elections. The other question about the stereotype of the Workington Man is gender: even if the men are dead keen on Brexit, are the women going to desert Labour? Lisa Nandy in Wigan; Holly Lynch in Halifax; or Emma Hardy in Kingston-on-Hull West & Hessle? Don’t be daft.

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Bercow Withdrawal Syndrome: a functioning Westminster Parliament?

Some short confessions of an Anglophile, I hope. I’ve had the misfortune to be fascinated by the Brexit process, and its lack of progress through the House of Commons. And I’ve lost sleep over it, given the time difference with New Zealand. Of course, New Zealand also has a Westminster system, and the Queen of England is the Head of State. But New Zealand politics is rather dull at the moment, despite Jacinda Ardern being internationally known. Our parliamentary procedure is much more rule bound than Westminster; and the Speaker can be more of a control freak, which suits the incumbent, a former school teacher. What a contrast with the House of Commons speaker, former Tory, John Bercow.

One does enjoy the wit of Bercow, and his chiding of his former Conservative colleagues, especially when interjecting from a sedentary position. But all good things come to an end. Even I have come to realise, however, that for all his wit Bercow is at the centre of a very British farce. Not because he is frustrating Brexit, but all of it is a very elaborate and verbose word game being played by the former public school boys of England. Bercow lets the representatives of the lower orders have their say. But you have to wonder when he uses his role to make impersonations of former MPs, including Whitelaw and Wedgwood Benn (the peer who renounced his inherited title). Not as bad as hearing Mr Rees-Mogg expanding on what kind of limbo the WAB is actually in, based on the derivation of the word and its religious connotations. This repartee went on for some time. But not as much time as Bercow allowed for the Tory men to tell him he was biased.

Of course, Bercow batted these very mannered condemnations away with trademark wit. But in New Zealand the Speaker would have told the member to put it in writing; or put up or shut up, even if in a standing position. Then he’d mention the relevant Standing Order to the member, and suggest that the House get on with its business. So the New Zealand Parliament is still functional, if rather utilitarian, and completely rule bound.

I woke up this morning to see some the UK Sky News, and Sophy Ridge with two guests talking about the Brexit impasse in Parliament, including a so-called former advisor to Boris Johnson. This gentleman stated that in the British system there had to be one party which had a Parliamentary majority, so the whole country has to vote on a wintry day in December to anoint a new Conservative Government, with another Queens Speech in the same year. Now, the Westminster system obviously operates as a binary one: there is a Government or Treasury benches, and the Opposition benches; but this does not necessarily require there to be only one party on either side. Indeed, one can’t say that there is still a two party system any more, despite the results of the 2017 election. In fact, the Conservative Party did have a majority, with the help of the DUP, and has just won a confidence vote in Parliament. So why doesn’t it just carry on with its legislation. Even if the Johnson Government resigned, it is possible for the Opposition parties to govern.

It is here that a comparison with New Zealand is interesting, partly because the second, and third, and fourth largest parties are in government. Indeed, the right wing National Party still has the most seats, but could not win a fourth term, because its coalition partners lost their electorate seats in the 2017 election. Some commentators still thought it should have had the first opportunity to continue in government as the largest party, but this is not a convention at all. I should at this stage indicate that New Zealand changed its electoral system in the 1990s, and opted for a German style method, the Mixed Member Proportional system. This involves a nation-wide party list vote, and it retains electorate seats, based on a separate vote. Together there is a 120 seat Parliament, but this involves more electorate seats than party list seats, usually 66 to 54 seats.

The key thing about the new system was that it has ensured that one party can not get a majority of seats, even though it is technically possible. But in First Past the Post, as in Britain, a party could get a minority of the overall vote, but a comfortable majority in Parliament. Nonetheless, commentators and especially the media, still operate under the assumptions of the old system, and it is still basically a two party system. Despite what I had hoped, the two old parties, National and Labour, still hold almost all of the electorate seats. National tends to get more, so is already ahead when the party list votes top up their number; then we wait to see if smaller parties cross the 5% threshold of party votes to get into Parliament. If they don’t we would be back to the old system. Moreover, when the opinion polls are published, the TV political editors like to see the smaller parties not reach 5%, so they can pretend they will not be in the next Parliament, and this means that the National Party can govern alone with a majority. So normal service will resume.

Although no party has ever got a majority of seats since the system was changed, the electorate seats still indicate the underlying pattern in politics. Initially there was more volatility in the electorate votes, and seats used to change hands. The Labour Party were more competitive in provincial seats with a regional city or major town, especially in the lower North Island. But now they only hold electorate seats in the major urban areas, a university city like Palmerston North, and the old mining area of the West Coast of the South Island. This seems to be a similar situation to Britain, even though the Labour Party’s majorities are much bigger in the large cities, and in some of the regional university cities like Cambridge, if not in the former mining districts in the Midlands.

In the U.K. Mr Johnson obviously wants a winter election, so the turnout will be lower than 2017, mostly affecting the Labour held seats in the provincial districts. But, even if the Brexit debate still dominates, he has to get out his own vote to stave off the Brexit Party. The received wisdom is that the Conservatives will lose most of the Scottish seats won in 2017, that were vital to shoring up Mrs May’s administration. But the Scottish vote is very volatile, with big majorities being overturned in some seats, but not in adjacent ones. It is also assumed that the Liberal Democrats will win seats, based on their polling numbers, but their existing seats are mostly marginal as well. A close look at the previous results shows that the Lib Dems are a distant third in most seats, and even when second, they would have to overturn large majorities, apart from in Richmond Park (in London), Cheltenham, and St Ives (Cornwall). There have been a large number of defections from the main parties, but it is difficult to see the rebels surviving.

As an Anglophile I used to love football. In the 1970s, as a kid, the New Zealand public radion stations used to relay the British football results at 9am on a Sunday morning. So, through a crackly line, the BBC voice would come over, and we would get to hear how Norwich City had done. At the time Martin Peters was playing for them, a member of the 1966 English World Cup team. Norwich are back in the top league, and struggling, but the world of football is completely different. However, if you look at the clubs geographically and compare them to electorate seats, almost all of them are in safe Labour seats. This is obviously because most of the clubs are based in the big cities. But of all the other teams, only Bournemouth is an area with no Labour Party MPs. Another coastal club, Brighton and Hove Albion, is an area with two Labour members, and the solitary Green Party MP.

I’m not sure if there is a professional football team based in Buckingham, Mr Bercow’s electorate which has been uncontested till now. Or in most of the other Conservative areas, certainly not in the Premier League, or in the Championship. Not only is it a working class game, but football is the most inclusive sport, as well as having successful managers from continental Europe. The Conservative Party obviously want to go back to the little England of enthusiastic amateurs, and little clubs of articulate, but verbose blokes who know their place, like in Westminster. Even if they can still gerrymander the results, so that the biggest urban areas are effectively not represented in government, they should still have to follow the rules, hopefully to be enforced by Harriet Harman.

 

 

 

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