Monday, February 19, 2007

Bugger the Billboards

Auckland City’s attempt to control advertising signs and billboards around the city deserves a cheer. There aren’t too many bouquet’s for the move in the media, with the political right working itself into a self-righteous slather in defence of the right of the advertising industry to invade our public space, and the Herald running one of its small-minded campaigns in defence of those noble nation builders of the outdoor advertising industry.

The Councillors who have proposed the by-law changes have primarily justified the move on the basis of improving visual amenity in the city. Quaint Edwardian facades clearly lose something of their gentle charm with Dan Carter’s crotch competing for attention next door. While there is definitely some merit to this argument, my main reason for supporting the by-law has more to do with the right of citizens to go about their business in public space, without the constant and aggressive mental intrusion of advertising.

The purpose of advertising (as distinct from store signage that identifies where a shop is and promotes it generally) is to influence your mental processes and convince you to buy something, that presumably you would otherwise not. We are driven (in part) by this advertising to believe that consuming more and more will make us happier, when in fact the evidence continues to mount that mindless commodity fetishism is a self-perpetuating cycle by which we become disappointed by the failure of new products to truly satisfy us, yet convinced that the only solution is to buy more (think – “140 000 troops won’t do it, I’ll try 20 000 more").

I object thoroughly to the advertising industry’s role in this cycle, and am increasingly sickened by the quasi-scientific approach taken by professional marketers to scientifically target messages to certain people in an attempt to create a pavlovian impulse to buy.

Sickened as I am, I can live with it in spaces that we have some control over. We can chose to change the channel when the ads come on (or not turn the TV on at all), we can decide not to buy 250 page glossy magazines that devote 165 pages to advertising, pop up settings can be changed on our browsers, and spam filters installed.

However, when the advertising industry moves into our public spaces such as streetscapes as billboards and signage increasingly have (and semi-public spaces like buses), we lose that control. Every person has an equal right to be in these spaces, and in my view to be there without being mentally pestered at every turn. I have no doubt that the constant pressure to buy created by the advertising industry at every juncture of the day is a contributor to feelings of stress, anxiety, and inadequacy in our society.

Why should we tolerate this in our public spaces? Pestering people to buy more crap is not a fundamental human right.

Brian Rudman also very helpfully points out that the by-law is unlikely to actually affect the business of genuine local traders.

My hope is that the hearings process will result in a by-law that remains firm on the key tenets of the proposal, while allowing some sensible compromise and refinement on the rules governing store signage. You can join me in submitting here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Progressive Christian Resources

I've added a new menu down the right hand side that lists Progressive Christian resources on the blogosphere/web that I find interesting or go to from time to time.

If anyone else has any sites or blogs they would recommend then just let me know.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Helen Duncan

Some sad news came through yesterday with the death of former Labour MP Helen Duncan. Helen had been battling cancer for quite a few years.

I didn’t have a huge amount to do with Helen, but met her and Alan on a number of occasions at Labour and union events. Helen was warm and engaging, and extremely down to earth – despite her status as a government MP, she had no aires or graces about her.

In particular I recall her kindness when as a rookie candidate in 2002, I was at some kind of large scale business/ethnic sector event. One of those ones where you don’t know anybody, and apart from engaging in some banal small talk there is little for the Labour candidate for Pakuranga to do. For whatever reason Helen and Alan were there, and Helen no-doubt recognising the signs of a bewildered and slightly at sea candidate, proceeded to very diplomatically take me under her wing as we moved around the room. A small but telling kindness.

A good story, dear to my heart also emerged from the Transport and Industrial Relations select committee, of which Helen was a member, that heard the Employment Relations Bill 2000. The then Head of Westpac Employee Relations (the people who deal with the union) was submitting, and commented that Westpac had over 6000 employees and that changes to employment law had significant consequences for them. I’m paraphrasing here, but Helen said something like “6000 people to negotiate with, wow, that’s a huge commitment in time, people and resources”. “Yes” said the ER Head, “With 6000 employees, running the negotiating process is a huge commitment”. “Well” said Helen, “having more of them come under one Collective Agreement as this Bill promotes will save you a lot of time and money then won’t it?”. “Ummm, well, if you look at it like that, I, ummm, suppose so” continued the beaten bank lobbyist. Touche Helen!

Helen’s background was with NZEI where she was President between 1993 and 1995 and played a major part in some key union battles at that time. She was at the forefront of the fight to keep the primary sector collectivised in the early 1990s as the ECA began to bite, fought against the introduction of bulk funding, and was President at the time NZEI won the historic right to pay parity with secondary teachers.

My thoughts are with Alan and the rest of Helen’s family.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Maori Party and Maori Political Power

Since the formation of the Maori Party, its relationship with National has been a topic of media speculation, and a cause of much angst on the left. The debate was sparked again last week with twin kicks in the guts for the MP from John Key who confirmed National’s policy to abolish the Maori seats, and to not support the first reading of the MP’s bill to repeal the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

The media analysis of this issue tends to be shallow and transitory. Instead of focusing on the talks that National and the MP are having talks this week about issue x, we should instead look at why it is that the MP is behaving the way it is in the Parliament, and where the MP will position itself in the long-term:

Maori Power

While the catalyst for the formation of the MP was the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, the networks, ideas, and activists that are brought together in the Party did not spring up wholly formed at that time. Rather, Maori have been organising, and growing their political power over a number of decades.

Activism and protest, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s gave Maori a voice in the body politic and brought Maori political issues to the forefront of public consciousness. Most importantly, this activism and protest delivered results. The establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal, key legal victories that secured Maori rights, the Treaty Settlement process, and just as importantly thriving Maori cultural, NGO, and business sectors, all stemmed from the activism and protest of the 1970s and 1980s. Through this, Maori won a degree of political power.

The Limits of Activism

As the organised labour movement of the early Twentieth Century found however, activism and protest have their limits. The New Zealand Labour Party was formed against the backdrop of crushing defeats for the labour movement such as the Waihi Miners strike, which led union leaders such as Savage and Fraser to realise that the labour movement needed to win power through the democratic process in order to fulfill their political ambitions.

The Foreshore and Seabed Bill and the associated hikoi was a case in point. Sure, 20 000 people took to the streets of Wellington to vent their anger and apply pressure, but ultimately the Bill had the numbers and got through. Defeating the Bill actually required a parliamentary presence that could organise 61 ‘no’ votes (I incidentally support the Act as a pragmatic balancing of interests).

Transition to political power – contradictions and compromises

In winning four of the Maori seats and taking seats in Parliament, the Maori Party has moved to establish this political power to compliment the powerbase of Maori across marae, iwi organisations, NGO’s, and businesses across New Zealand, and sometimes seen on the streets. It is in this context that the Maori Party’s behaviour needs to be considered.

Parliamentary representation brings with it a range of contradictions and the need for compromise. For instance, how does the Maori Party reconcile the fact that it was born out of opposition to a Labour Party Bill, with the fact that Labour’s programme has delivered huge tangible gains for Maori? On all of the key indicators – unemployment, income levels, access to healthcare etc, Maori have moved ahead under this government at a faster rate than the general population.

Well, in the Maori Party’s case you basically ignore it. Instead you focus on issues of culture and sovereignty that provide a contrast to Labour’s position. The MP has had precious little to say on macro-economic policy or (more surprisingly) even on economic development. Naturally this is frustrating for a Labour government that has invested hugely in the economic and social development of Maori, but it is simply a natural consequence of the MP finding a political voice in parliament that is distinctive.

Compromise is also a necessary part of building political power in a parliamentary environment – particularly under MMP where no one party can do it by themselves. All parties are bound by this iron law, and it is wrong to criticise the Maori Party for doing so. Equally, in order to exert maximum influence, a small party like the MP is almost bound into engaging with both major parties. It is the subsequent dalliances of the MP with National that cause the most angst for Labour activists.

Watching the MP cavort with a cabal of people who represent the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and whose record is of throwing the working people of New Zealand onto the socio-economic scrapheap is stomach churning, but (swallowing words) it is understandable. In any negotiating environment – union/employer negotiations, cutting a business deal, getting the right person elected as Chair of the PTA, you increase your power by having other options, or at least giving the appearance of other options. The MP cannot be blamed for this.

What they can be blamed for, is taking it much, much too far on occasion. The initial decision to back the 90 Day Bill, and the more recent stance on Work for the Dole moves the MP’s position from negotiating, to selling out the interests of the people they represent. Quite appropriately, it was mass mobilization by the union movement that caused the MP to drop their support for the 90 Day Bill. The MP over-stepped the mark on these occasions and urgently needs to sort out a strategy for avoiding such situations again.

What Now? An Opportunity for the Left

The Maori Party is here to stay, and is here to exercise power. This needs to be accepted as a reality, and an historic opportunity for the left. The 2005 election results confirm this. While the MP succeeded in taking 4 seats from Labour, voters in those same seats actually increased their support for Labour over the 2002 result. Maori voters did not reject Labour – rather, they voted strategically, splitting their votes, in order to increase their political influence.

Polls consistently show that a Labour/Prog/Green/Maori block has a natural and comfortable majority in the Parliament. I doubt if any poll since the formation of the MP shows this group falling below 61 seats. While the MP has danced a merry dance with National, this is not a combination that will ever work. If for no other reasons, how on earth would the two reconcile their positions on the two touchstone issues of the Maori seats (National: abolish, MP: enshrine) or the RMA (National: Private property rights over-riding all else, MP: A greater say for local Iwi). My gut tells me there are enough smart people in the MP to realise that it simply cannot work in practice, and that it would be punished by Maori voters.

So, what needs to happen? Here’s what I think:

The Maori Party
- Needs to develop an analysis of economic policy and clearly go on record to state that National’s neo-liberalism was and will be a disaster for Maori. Use this analysis to assess where they stand on policy coming out of National and Labour, rather than developing positions on the hoof.
- Should talk to natural social partners more. Develop a deeper relationship with unions, churches, non-Maori NGO’s, and talk policy with them (while obviously preserving a central relationship with their core constituency).
- Engage with Labour. Yes, the MP arose out of a dispute with Labour, but so did the Alliance, and NZF out of National. Politics demands that you move on if you want power. There are encouraging signs that this door is now opening.
- Without closing off any options for the remainder of this term, make a clear strategic assessment about whether a partnership with National and ACT is a goer. Maori voters said no resoundingly in 2005. Base the 2008 strategy around this assessment.

The Left
- Recognise that the Maori Party is here to stay and represents an historic opportunity to lock in a centre-left majority (some contradictions and differences in focus notwithstanding).
- Develop the relationship at a soft and personal level. Again, this seems to be starting to happen.
- Work with the MP to develop a broad consensus around common principles. An attack on inequality and the role of the state in ironing out these inequalities, a rejection of neo-liberal ‘trickle down’ theory, a policy for increasing the wages of poorly paid workers (many of whom are Maori), the role of a strong and well-funded public sector in delivering core services etc…
- Find some common projects and start working on them, be it some mutually agreeable legislation, a union campaign on low wages in a sector with a high Maori presence – something that builds a bridge.

Getting this right is in my view not just a question of what happens in 2008, but a question of building a progressive political coalition that has a comfortable structural majority.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Progressive Christianity

One of the intentions of this blog is to generate some discussion about Progressive Christianity. There is a significant gap in our public discourse for people of Christian faith who believe that the Christian message is one of social and economic justice, tolerance, and compassion. While there has been a long history of Christian Social Justice campaigning (think about Michael Joseph Savage’s “Applied Christianity” of the Hikoi of Hope), the loudest Christian voices in public debate across the Western world tend to belong to those who want to exclude and judge anyone different, and ignore the poor.

Because Progressive Christians, in stark contrast to conservative Christians, have on the whole been ineffective at publicly enunciating what we stand for, I think that most people outside of the Church would struggle to identify just what Progressive Christianity is. If pushed I imagine that the term conjures up a fairly wishy-washy version of Christianity – nice accepting folk, living and dressing for the late 70s, and not really believing in much aside from being pleasant to one another.

This is unfortunate because there are clear and powerful principles underlying Progressive Christianity that have huge relevance for today's public discourse. What follows is not a manifesto, but a summary of some of the key points Progressive Christian principles that motivate me:

Moral Rights and Wrongs

The religious right like to contrast their unambiguous beliefs about a range of ‘moral’ issues with the more tolerant views of others, claiming essentially that this is evidence that they believe in clear moral rights and wrongs, and that contrarily, the rest of us are coasting on some post-modern acid trip on which anything goes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Progressive Christianity is in fact all about the fact that we live in a world in which there are clear moral rights and wrongs, and choices to be made. We just disagree (sometimes) on what the rights and wrongs are. Brian Tamaki holds that two consenting men having sex is a moral wrong that Christians should mobilise against. I hold that 21% of our children living below the poverty line is a moral wrong, condemned by scripture repeatedly, and something upon which we must act.

Progressive Christians in my view actually need to drop some of the more namby-pamby rhetoric, and in the spirit of the great Christian social justice campaigners of the Nineteenth Century label some of the great injustices of our world for the moral crimes that they are – and then act to change things.

The Centrality of Scripture

While Progressive Christianity is accepting of the right of other faiths to draw inspiration from their traditions, this does not mean that we forget about our own traditions, and the centrality of the Bible in that tradition.

Jim Wallis is a Progressive Christian leader from the USA, who comes from the evangelical movement, and has a long history in the civil rights and social justice movements. In books such as Gods Politics – why the American right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it, he repeatedly returns to scripture as a source of inspiration, to uncover truths about the human condition and God, and to search for solutions to our problems.

He rightly points out that the biblical imperative to act to end poverty and bring about social justice is overwhelming. Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the disciples raged about injustice, and our obligation to act. The Bible remains as central to the the faith for Progressive Christians as it does for other Christians.

Inclusive not Exclusive

There is an interesting passage in John 21-28 in which Jesus initially refuses to deal with a woman because she is a Canaanite and not a Jew. He compares her to a dog – nice. What happens next is the cool bit though. The woman challenges him, and he backs down. For good measure, he heals her daughter. The formally closed shop of Judaism is thus opened up by Jesus, who takes a message of unconditional love and acceptance out to the very gentiles who previously were excluded.

The New Testament message of love, and not judging others is impossible to ignore. If these principles are at the centre of your faith, then there is simply no question about excluding or condemning others because they have slightly different beliefs, sexual preferences, customs, or whatever. It just makes no sense.

Justice and Change

Jim Wallis powerfully talks about the call to social justice in the Bible, and the need for Christians to be a part of solutions. He notes that the bible talks about homosexuality twelve times over 1500 odd pages of small print, yet talks about the plight of widows, orphans, the sick, the homeless, and the socially isolated many hundreds of times.

Seeking justice by changing unjust social and economic systems therefore becomes a biblical imperative. Wallis was a leader of the Jubilee Debt Campaign – an inter-faith movement that led to the cancellation of billions of dollars of third world debt. The term ‘Jubilee’ came from a Biblical tradition of the Jubilee, a once in every 49 year event during which debts were forgiven, foreclosed houses returned, and slaves freed. Basically, unjust distribution of wealth was leveled out. Radical stuff.

While a new levelers movement is not about to be re-born in the middle-class Anglican parishes of Auckland, the Christian tradition is clear that we should actively attempt to bring about social and economic justice for all.

Different Strands

Of course, its nonsense to suggest that there is one Progressive Christian creed that is followed by everyone who will identify with the term. Just as the Catholic Church, the Buddhist tradition, or American Evangelicals all have different streams within them, so does the Progressive Christian movement.

Jim Wallis himself comes from the Evangelical movement. South American Catholic Liberation theology sits within the tradition, and in contemporary New Zealand, Christians across all denominations identify with Progressive Christian ideals.

Importantly too, there are people with very different personal theologies and conceptions of God who would identify as Progressive Christians. I’m with Richard Randerson and his agnosticism as to whether God exists in spirit form or as a guy with a beard – equally the obsessive interest of the fundamentalist right in Creationism is just something I couldn’t give a hoot about. As a Progressive Christian I am far more interested in discussing our tradition, drawing inspiration from it, and then acting to bring about justice and understanding in our country and world.


I am keen for discussion about Progressive Christianity to take place on this blog, so any comments are welcome (if you have made it this far). In the near future I intend to set up a list of Progressive Christian resources too – any suggested sites or blogs would be appreciated.