Saturday 31 August 2013

Rainbow's End with Roving Spheres

With the passage of the GCSB Amendment bill by just a couple of votes, such a move towards mass surveillance has polarised New Zealanders. Those in favour of this creeping illiberality typically invoke the hoary old "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" argument, which has been popularly attributed to a number of repressive dictators in history. It's been mentioned as early as the late 19th century:
"If these people had done bad things they ought to be ashamed of themselves and he couldn't pity them, and if they hadn't done them there was no need of making such a rumpus about other people knowing."
Just to rub it in, the NZ Police have declined to press charges involving the GCSB wilfully straying outside of its lawful jurisdiction, claiming there was no evidence of 'criminal intent'. To privacy advocates, it gives the impression of a Government agency given carte blanche to be a law unto itself.

Not surprisingly, hacker collective Anonymous has announced it's expanding its operations in NZ. Already they've defaced the web sites of the GCSB and various Government ministers who voted for the law changes, and have promised more. Kim Dotcom, a cause celebré of the Internet privacy movement, has come out against such defacement, saying it only gives supporters of cyber-snooping more ammunition.

On the other hand, with the Key Government seemingly unstoppable and a political Opposition still to get its act together, JFK's wisdom comes to mind: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable." Only this time, there are no guns or bombs, only laptops and the Internet.

Already, those who increasingly speak out against the Government - Natasha Fuller, Mike Joy, Jon Stephenson - are come down upon with the full force of its propaganda machine. Recent proposals to ban protests against offshore oil drilling only consolidate such intolerance of dissent. If Singapore is "Disneyland with the Death Penalty" according to William Gibson, then NZ is increasingly becoming Rainbow's End with Roving Spheres.

And then there were three...

It was only a matter of time before the Leader of the Opposition, David Shearer, would throw in the towel. From Day 1, he gave the impression of being parachuted into the role, and struggled to come across as coherent. And the timing of his resignation was a bit off. Yet if he makes it to Cabinet, he'd probably be effective in the Foreign Affairs portfolio, his old stomping ground.

Jostling for the newly vacated seat are David Cunliffe, Grant Robertson, and Shane Jones, who each represent different segments of the public voter base.

David Cunliffe

Cunliffe comes across as the "broad church" candidate who happens to be very focused about his policy platform, with a Fulbright scholarship and Harvard MPA (not MBA) to boot. He manned up and unbundled Telecom's local loop in 2006 in the face of resistance from the finance sector, which had profited handsomely from a cartellised telco market. To his detractors, he comes across as an aloof prima donna, and seems to be far more popular with the party rank-and-file and public than within his own caucus. Still, much of the NZ Labour caucus is weighed down with dead wood, and he probably has the best chance of taking on John Key at his own game.

Grant Robertson

Robertson is seen as the "beltway insider". I'm not a big fan of the term "beltway" in a NZ context, because it's been invoked to dismiss burning issues like the GCSB as not being on the public radar. He has a good grip on how the machinery of Government works, and holds his own in the Parliamentary debating chamber. Supposedly counting against him is his open homosexuality, following the controversy over the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Such arguments are playing the man instead of the ball (and Robertson is a keen follower of the rugby scene), though, and I'm firmly of the view that Robertson's sexual orientation is a non-issue. If anything potentially counts against him, it's his Wellington insider status which only those with a fascination for politics are seen to be interested in. He's still a solid candidate who's done the hard yards in his electorate Wellington Central, and would make the perfect deputy leader.

Shane Jones

Jones is the "red-blooded" or "Waitakere Man" candidate who was in the news for the wrong reasons not too long ago, namely for charging porno flicks to the taxpayer. He has swing voter appeal, where modern elections are supposedly won and lost, and like Cunliffe went to Harvard and has a grounding in business. However, his red-bloodedness has gotten him offside with environmentalists and women, and his relations with the Green Party will prove rather interesting if he becomes a Cabinet minister.
While Jones is an outside chance for the leadership, he'll still be effective on the front bench despite his personal flaws.

More pork

Finance Minister Bill English doled out a NZD $30 million subsidy to mining giant Rio Tinto, in order to settle an impasse over the future of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter, which has been under the threat of closure and hence massive job losses and the associated divider effect. Another side effect of Tiwai Point's closure would be a sudden drop-off in power usage - the smelter consumes about 14% of NZ's total electricity generation - which would flood the electricity market and cause power prices to fall.

As there's no guarantee the smelter will remain open after 2017, the subsidy isn't about smelter jobs and the Southland economy. It's really about fattening up Meridian Energy, the provider of electricity to the smelter, for floating on the sharemarket. While public services like the Department of Conservation are laying off staff and we're lectured about the cupboard being bare, the Government of the day somehow manages to find large sums of money to subsidise highly profitable multi-nationals. Bill English, from an old-school Treasury background, is telling us to do as he says, not as he does. If it isn't socialism for the rich and austerity for the rest of us, I don't know what is.

If a Labour-led Government was in the same position, it might have screwed down Meridian Energy or put in a jobs readjustment plan for a post-smelter future, both of which would be anathema to the increasingly discredited and hypocritical Wall Street orthodoxy that those currently in power cling to at all costs.