Questions face the West; the East is rising – and New Zealand looks on

Today, by the time you read this, British Prime Minister Theresa May will know whether she is staring down the barrel of electoral defeat or living, albeit badly wounded to fight another day. It is hardly inspiring to look at the fog of mystery enveloping the United Kingdom as it struggles with Brexit in all its uncertainty. Do the Conservatives or Labour know what they are doing or meant to be doing? Most likely no more than the shop keeper, the bus driver, the school teacher, or police officer doing their daily duties.

Will the U.K. be ready for Brexit on 29 March 2019 or will it have to delay?

But if we look across the English Channel to France, where the Yellow Vest revolt has entered its tenth week and has forced President Emmanuel Macron to have second thoughts about some of his more controversial policies, are things any better? France rejected the left and the right when it elected President Macron after a failed term of Francois Hollande on the left and Nicolas Sarkozy on the right, in the hope that a centrist might make more sense. Nearly two years on, it is hard to tell whether Mr Macron has had any success or not.

Will the Yellow vests become like the protesters of 1968, who ground France to a halt?

And then there is America, partially immobilized by a Trumpian shut down that shows no signs of ending and is now the longest on record. Hundreds of thousands of Federal workers who were furloughed got no pay last week. Thousands of them will be starting to seriously think about looking for alternative work in order to keep their household upright; others will be digging into their savings and wondering how long they can keep going like this before joining the thousands who will have already started looking for other work. It will not be the Democrats or the Republicans that decide this, but the thousand of furloughed workers.

The question facing America is how many vacancies in Federal jobs will have opened up due to furloughed workers quitting by the time this ends?

The dragon is rising. China is actively expanding its sphere of influence by building fake islands and then militarizing them. The old imperial vision of being a ruler of the high seas like Zheng He was in the age of imperial China is growing on President Xi Jinping, whose own ambitions are to create a dynasty not constrained by time limits rather than a President. As the dragon rises, so does the dystopian surveillance state that profiles hundreds of millions of Chinese using a vast array of computerized algorithms.

How much tighter can the Great Firewall of China get? Apparently the answer is quite a lot.

Nearer to home, one must wonder what will become of the Government of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Riddled by scandal, crippled in the House by infighting, petrified of Aboriginals, asylum seekers, environmentalists and the Labor Party, Mr Morrison’s Government is struggling to make it even to the last day that it can call a General Election, due this year. But even if Labor wins, it will have a huge job ahead rebuilding Australia’s reputation on the world stage, addressing the socio-economic circumstances that have made places like Sydney among the most expensive in the west.

But can it get rid of the following, whose departure is necessary for Australia to rehabilitate itself: former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Minister for Environment Greg Hunt, current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, among others?

Looking at all of this unfolding from afar it is easy to be smug in New Zealand. However we have little reason for smugness. We have far too many people dying on the roads; a weak justice system, education and social welfare reforms badly needed; stronger leadership on waste and other environmental issues and as the Queen and Prince Philip grow ever older, constitutional reform looms as an indecipherable shape on the horizon.

How will New Zealand address these many challenges? Will it continue looking on with a smug “she’ll be right attitude” or will we notice Godzone could do with a bit of work herself?

Elizabeth Warren announces U.S. Presidential bid: A New Zealand view

Ms Warren who identifies as a fraction native American and hails from Massachusetts, announced her intention to stand as a Democrat candidate at the weekend.

At the moment I cautiously welcome Ms Warren’s candidacy. This is the Senator who worked for former President Barak Obama to introduce the Dodd-Frank laws intended to reduce the vulnerability of the banking sector to such huge failures as those witnessed during the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis. The collapses happened at Fannie Mac, Freddie Mac, Lehman Bros and other large financial companies that were considered too large to fail – yet did exactly that.

Through out the tenure of Mr Obama and the now nearly two years of current President Donald Trump, Ms Warren has been a constant activist for long term, comprehensive change in the banking sector. During that time talk of another G.F.C. type melt down by financial institutions that survived the first one more because they might not have had the asset profile that those that failed had, has been growing. Stock markets are once again showing signs of readying for a large scale failure, which I am sure Ms Warren has noticed.

Not surprisingly her announcement has been met with derision by Republicans and conservative commentators. The fact that it has been made so soon indicates that this is not a joke bid like those of other politicians, as it gives her time to consider her political platform, to talk to potential donors and work out what kind of campaign she wants to run.

But what of Ms Warren as a candidate?

So far she has done little – granted it is still very early in the set – to differentiate herself from Mr Trump. From a New Zealand perspective a number of questions will need to be asked and – in due course – answered:

  1. Will she view New Zealand as a stable reliable partner with which her United States can do honest business with?
  2. Because she campaigned against the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement does she still believe it and its successor, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, to still be the rotten lousy stinking deals they actually are?
  3. How will she conduct foreign policy – obviously Americans will want her to show a strong hand on national security; will she mend ties with European and other allies?
  4. Will she support a Universal Health Care system for Americans?
  5. Will she end the war on drugs which is fuelling a lot of the crime in the United States?
  6. What will Ms Warren do about the various environmental emergencies unfolding before ours and America’s eyes?

All of these are obviously questions that will be answered in some way or another over the next year whilst we wait for the primaries to start. We will also see whether former candidate and former First Lady Hillary Clinton stands again, as well as whether the Republican house under Trump still supports their man or demands a new President.

Before then though we have a potential National Emergency waiting to decide whether it will unfold on the American stage or in Mr Trump’s head. We will have to see whether a roller coaster stock market manages to stabilize or get even worse. We will be waiting to see whether Robert Mueller’s investigation is shut down by Mr Trump or shuts down Mr Trump.

Because two years after all is a long time in politics.


Treading the South Pacific foreign policy tight rope

Over the years New Zealand has been involved in many events on the world stage. Most for the right reasons and a few for somewhat questionable reasons. New Zealand has – depending on the Government of the day, said we have interests overseas and closer to home in the South Pacific.

When one looks at the major problems around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Europe, New Zealand is a comparatively minor player. Most of those problems are not ones worth investing our time, money or resources in. Our time, money and resources are best invested in the South Pacific, which is our proverbial back yard. And there are good reasons for doing so.

China has been expanding its interest in the South Pacific for years. It has turned a blind eye to the Frank Bainimarama regime of Fiji committing human rights abuses against Fijians. In return for such activities being ignored, South Pacific nations have permitted Chinese mining and forestry companies to set up businesses on their lands. One might ask what the problem with this is?

Simple. These island nations will not see the economic benefits. They might be employed to work on building the roads, but there is unlikely to be any sharing of the royalties taken from the business. It also remains to be seen how much tax if any that the Chinese companies will be made to pay to their Governments so they can provide basic services for their people.

It is not to say that Western companies are any better. The Ok Tedi mine where tonnes of pure copper sulphate solution was allowed to pour straight into the local river, completely destroying the ecosystem is one example of a mine project gone bad in Papua New Guinea. The company responsible was B.H.P. Billiton. Whilst litigation of the case happened and resulted in a $29 million pay out in the 1990’s the environmental, economic and social costs of the damage will take an estimated 300 years to fix.

These countries have very weak legal systems, and endemic corruption at all levels. Because of this, several South Pacific Island nations are potentially at risk of becoming failed states with governance that simply does not work properly any more. The corruption means that there is a risk that organized crime or militants linked to terrorist groups might use these nations as a back door into Australia and New Zealand.

A good example of this was Papua New Guinea’s decision to import 40 Maserati vehicles for A.P.E.C. which was held over the weekend just gone. Despite not being able to properly fund its social welfare, education or health systems, Papua New Guinea, with China’s help was able to somehow spend tens of millions of dollars on a three day talk fest that wound up being a farce.

A.P.E.C. was meant to be a summit to talk about the economic challenges facing the Asia Pacific region. Instead it became a U.S./China debating competition. The tensions rose to the point that Chinese officials barged into the Papua New Guinean Prime Ministers office and demanded changes to something that had been agreed to and only left when threatened with arrest. No joint statement was agreed to by the delegations and the other nations including New Zealand were reduced to being spectators to a super power argument.

Few of the issues on the agenda that need tackling would have been.

All nations are quite vulnerable to climate change and the outlying parts of Kiribati, Tuvalu, Niue are at risk of becoming uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Over fishing and deforestation are also likely to impact on their economies.

This is where New Zealand and Australia become very important players. As the regional powers with the means to influence the United States and China, both nations have an obligation to look after their smaller Pacific Island neighbours and act as role models in terms of how their governance should be in an ideal world. The bulk of our foreign policy effort should be in the South Pacific. New Zealand should be showing that we are their best friends.

And in terms of understanding the underlying problems, the culture and the needs of these nations, New Zealand and Australia are best placed to do so.

Mr Peters will also be well aware of the growing influence of the United States on Australia. The United States is expanding the deployment of U.S. forces in Australia, which is part of a change in doctrine that President Donald Trump’s predecessor Barak Obama instigated to counter Chinese influence in the South Pacific.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talked about protecting the South Pacific nations maritime and sovereign interests. I found that interesting since alongside Chinese influence, the next biggest threat to their sovereignty is environmental degradation making the smallest of them uninhabitable – something the U.S. Government of Donald Trump all but denies existing.

So, tell me now. Who has the the South Pacific’s interests most at heart? The U.S.?
China? Or New Zealand and (maybe) Australia?


What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?

When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

The U.S. mid terms: a view from New Zealand

Every four years, in between the other every four year cycle in American politics, the United States and the world around it  tune in to see how the mid term elections turn out. These are the elections in which the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate are determined. Always as fascinating as it is mysterious, thrilling yet frustrating to non Americans, myself included, it helps to serve as a rule of thumb on what the President of the United States might be able to achieve (or not) in the next two years.

One of the many mysteries to myself and others no doubt is why only some House and Senate seats get contested each mid terms. Every other nation whose domestic politics I follow send all of their elected representatives to the ballot box at the same time. At any given time there seems to be some sort of electioneering going on in the United States. This raises a few interesting points:

  1. Such as whether or not the constant electioneering grinds on people and puts them off politics
  2. Is this actually the most efficient and effective way of running a political system in the U.S.?

Another mystery is how deeply embedded some of the representatives and Senators become in the system. Whereas in New Zealand unless one is high on the party list and/or in a secure electorate seat that has not changed party colours in recent times, the frequency with which electorates do move along their incumbent Members of Parliament is quite high.

The reasoning that could be behind the apparent embedded nature of representatives in the system is the use of classes of senators. There are three classes – one of 34 senators and two of 33. The idea behind the classes came about in the original drafting of the U.S. Constitution Article 1 Section 3 Clause 2, which stipulates that Senators get six year terms and are re-elected in staggered array so that the entire Senate is not emptied at the end of six years. Yet the founders wanted a timetable of frequent elections to stop a build up or purposeful combining for “sinister purposes”.

Still in 2018, it seems to me like the build up of Senators who are not fit for office or who have motives not in keeping with the spirit of the U.S. Senate has been achieved anyway. When people like Nancy Pelosi (Democrat), Mitch McConnell (Republican) are basically doing this as a well paid retirement gig and to serve personal ends, given that was probably not the intended spirit of the Senate when it was founded, should they not get the memo and retire? Apparently not, given that there are no term limits.

Contrast that in New Zealand. After the 2002 election rout, National set about clearing its caucus of “dead wood”. Members of Parliament who were seen to have done their time and not be serving a major useful purpose were encouraged by the party President to resign from Parliament. And following the thrashings of Labour in 2011 and 2014 similar calls were made for them to move their “dead wood” along.

So whatever happens in the 24 hours between this publishing and the article for Thursday, one can be assured that some interesting observations will be made of the United States mid terms. Whether the day comes when Americans observe electoral processes in other countries just as a matter of interest to see whether anything can be learned or not is another story altogether.