Sunday, 27 March 2016

Working Class Zero

Protesters outside McDonalds (in Auckland, probably).
An era of this nations' labour laws have come to one end, as New Zealand parliament has now passed legislation ending zero-hour contracts. For those who don't know, this means that employers are now required to specify that an employee is guaranteed a certain number of working hours. Obviously any left-leaning legislation passed gets a lot of bitterness from this nation's conservative backbone. 'Bleeding heart libs like you must be so happy about this! Another incentive killer has been passed thanks to you latte-sipping left-wing scumbags!'

Well, I am happy, but not for the reason you might suspect. I'm not ecstatic about this because the workers are no longer being held hostage by uncertain schedules while their bosses whip them to a bloody pulp with a steel cat o' nine tails screaming 'work harder, you worthless scum! Who cares if your sisters' funeral is today!' Rather, I'm happy because it's disproven something that the cynical public have long since come to believe: that the two main parties, or 'The Reds and the Blues' aren't able to work together and come to an agreement on an issue. It may have been a long, bloody Pyrrhic victory, with the government calling it nothing more than a 'compromise', but all that matters is that it got passed. Bipartisanship is a possibility. Yay for democracy, right?

But that sounds awfully boring, doesn't it? Politics is not entertaining when people agree – it's entertaining when people stubbornly and violently disagree. Yes, but that's also what makes politics so frustrating, especially when you're somebody who enjoys studying the topic. When you do, you come to appreciate that it's not always angels on one side of the house and devils on the other. It's much more complicated than that, and when we've spent the last 7 years with a government that stubbornly dismisses almost everything the opposition does, and often vise versa, seeing them finally agree on something is damn refreshing.

Well, okay, a fistfight in our parliament would be refreshing too, especially a brawl of Labour's Senior Whip Chris Hipkins vs National's Junior Whip Jami-Lee Ross, who is competing with Stephen Harper for the coveted 'Most Punchable Face in Politics' award, currently held by Ted Cruz.

'Whip me, Tim McIndoe, Whip me Good.'
Oh come on, let me have some fun - this is my blog. No one reads it anyway. Besides, I'm not a violent man. I'm not a party man, either. I don't consider myself a 'liberal', or even 'left wing'. To tell the truth, I party voted Green last election, mainly because it's the faction I agree with the most. That already puts me at odds with the two-party red vs. blue system prevalent around the world, especially in a party which is mainly divided over the question 'should we be more left-wing or more tory-friendly?'

This dilemma is nowhere more apparent than in the Greens. In September 2014 party co-leader Russell Norman declared they could work with National if they won the election. There was an outcry, of course, but it was shut down soon later, when John Key decisively ruled out working with the Greens.

All this happened a week after a conservative friend complained to me that Greens should be more willing to work with the government, and in an epic event of poetic justice, it was proven that it was not the Green party being stubborn, but the government itself.

'Why the fuck are you holding me up?
You're the one with the cash... Oh wait - I just got it.'

So why am I saying this? Well, I'm not loyal to the Greens, and I don't care if they shatter their reputation or alienate their voting base if they face the opportunity to pass progressive legislation. This happened with the Maori party, didn't it? Many have argued they've lost their integrity, they're not the same party, they're a bunch of sell-outs, but I don't think you could suggest that they've done nothing good for Maori since joining the Nats. But remember, I can't predict the future. Can you sell out a bit of your independence, without losing your values? Can you still have an immensely positive effect? I think some sort of progress can arise from slowly changing the playing field. In the United States, independent senator Bernie Sanders was forced to embrace the two-party system in joining the Democrats, because he wouldn't be able to participate in presidential debates otherwise. He's had to compromise, but I don't believe he's sacrificed his integrity as a result, has he?. I don't believe he has to, and I don't believe the Greens would have to. Likewise Labour, which is a centrist party, did not have to make any major sacrifices to pass this bill which everyone can be happy about. Andrew Little even sent Douglas an email in celebration!

I wanted to make sure you were one of the first to know: we’ve put an end to zero hour contracts!
After over 56,500 Kiwis took action — by signing petitions, writing to Parliamentary Committees and emailing the Minister responsible — we did it. Together with the unions campaigning to end zero hours we’ve managed to change the law.
And it’s all down to people like you. Without you, we wouldn’t have been able to put huge pressure on National, forcing them to come to the negotiating table at the last minute. Because of our campaign, National were compelled to make the change that all of us demanded: banning zero hour contracts.

'Well that's all 50,000 emails personally written and sent out. Chris told me I could've just
typed it out once and sent it to multiple recipients, but fuck you, I'm doing it
the Labour way.'
But this all has kinda defeated Key's 'Dr. Dolittle' claim that Little isn't really accomplishing anything. And it will be good and bad for Little, won't it? In 2017, when Little and Key are on the debate stage (if John hasn't OD'd by then), Little won't be able to say 'Key has done nothing about zero-hour contracts – I will', because the deed is done and dusted. He won't get any glory from that, because the glory has already been slowly siphoned out through the bureaucracy of the boring, old fashioned way - presenting a bill to the House.

But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter, because this isn't about politics, it's about ensuring that workers have that extra security. I'm going to create a quote right now – it's probably been said plenty of times before in different ways, but I'll take it through Squatter's Rights alone. It's 'there's bigger things to politics than politicians.' Which I think is true for all governments, whether in democratic parliaments or narcissistic dictatorships. Unless, of course, you're one of those gargantuan, radioactive 30 foot tall politicians, in which case, you are probably the biggest thing about politics.

'Stop, Big Little, think about all the bad that will happen
if you destroy the fair city!'
What this means is that it's so easy to take a piece of legislation or a bill, and turn it into the centrepiece of the 'red vs. blue, angels vs. devils' situation we discussed earlier. That's the problem with political parties – they factionalise politics. A chamber of representatives, whether it be our House of Representatives, the U.K's House of Commons the United State's Congress or the Planet of the Apes' Ape National Assembly, or the Galaxy's Galactic Senate, they all have one thing in common: they all suffer from the same party-dictated tribalism, instead of what they should be – a gathering of representatives from across the country, stuck in a big room, hashing out the big issues of the day. I'm not saying we should abolish all parties, or by which means we should replace them, but I am saying we need to remember what the purpose of these houses are. The way I see it, this triumph against zero-hour contracts is not a victory for marginalised workers, but it's a victory for democracy as a whole.

Because that's what frustrates me the most – 'scarcity of democracy', as Frances Moore LappĂ© described it. That's what drove me crazy about the asset-sales, the TPPA and the Iraq deployment, all of which National decided the public did not need to vote on. John Key takes great relish in criticising Labour's divided attitude towards the TPPA, but all that really shows is that Labour is more or less comprised of actual human beings with their own individual thoughts, as opposed to a unified, mobilised squad of mentally-insulated robots. You can argue realpolitik – you can argue that trade deals are always done in secret blah blah blah, but you can't argue that a bunch of people are disillusioned and feel that just tiny little bit more alienated from their elected officials. And we can all agree, no matter where on spectrum you are, that alienation sucks. We should have the right to trust our politicians just as much as we do our teachers, our policemen and our doctors, and the robots who will one day serve us at restaurants to not get our orders mixed up.

I think if we elected these guys to the House of Representatives
not much would change but they probably wouldn't binge on
as many tax dollars.
But Joe, you're talking about this from such an alien perspective, why not discuss the way this has helped working-class people? Well, yeah, it has helped. Only stupid people will deny that, but I'm trying to look at the big picture, and then my my view of the big picture (I don't always succeed) but I think the big picture is worth discussing, because, as someone who has become so cynical over the political process, it is refreshing to see a bipartisan victory. But I'll talk about the bill anyway, because I do have views on it.

First of all, congratulations Mr. Little on helping this bill come forward. You've been outspoken over this for a long time, so you can now say you've seen an end to it under your time as opposition leader, and let's be honest: the amount of zero-hour contracts would most certainly have skyrocketed under this National government. That's why we always hear about the government bringing in jobs, but we never hear about good jobs, and secure jobs, and well-paying jobs, because that's what really matters. During the 2014 Northland by-election, National candidate Mark Osbourne refused over and over again to go into detail about the 7,000 regional jobscreated under the government. Having spent some time in Northland recently and getting to know the scene, I'm assuming almost all of these jobs would be seasonal harvesting (WWOOFers from Germany, I'm watching you) as well as hospitality roles, many of them with zero hour contracts. I'm assuming here, but it's a fair assumption to make.

So what's the big deal with a zero-hour contract anyway? Well, I know plenty of people with zero-hour contracts – and they are far more common than we think, but we don't discuss it. Most people don't even call them 'zero-hour' contracts. After all, it's not something that's printed blatantly on your contract or job listing.  Simply put, you're told this is a 'casual contract' and you go from there. The first zero-hour contract worker was my brother, who would easily top 60 hour weeks in labouring work without being guaranteed any of them. He would take every opportunity given, out of concern that any day now, the work might dry up. Uncertainty does play a significant role in zero-hour workers, and it's on of the biggest and fairest arguments against them. Simply put, people like to know when they are needed, and when they aren't needed for work, because then they can freely plan the rest of their lives. It's not just an issue of convenience. It's the foundation of a good, balanced lifestyle, and a decent pay check.

Pro-zero hour contract subliminal messages are everywhere in our music! Once you hear it, you can't un-hear it.
So what if you aren't looking for a good, balanced suburban lifestyle with 700 bucks a week? What if you're a ramen-munching student living on support and you just want your foot in the door? Well, this is the argument that the pro-zero group will pitch, and it's a good argument, I'll admit, because it works. My last job was a full-time technical I.T support role, and many of my co-workers were students of Computer Science at UoA, AUT or MIT. Most of them were living off student allowance, family support or some other form of support (as every student is these days) and the zero-hour contracts being handed out liberally, definitely helped them. It was fair. Nobody seemed left out – they were all given plenty of shifts, and they were all happy with the amount of work they were getting. Eventually, the company changed their policy from zero-hour casual to part time contracts, where each employee was now guaranteed at least a few hours. Most of the students worked as many hours as they could muster, so the conversion to part-time contracts made no difference. The only change was a reinforced sense of security, but being students with ever-changing schedules, that extra security didn't really matter.

It's a good argument, but this example isn't representative of most people on zero-hour contracts, and it's important I point that out, because that lifestyle may be fine if you're a caffeine strung student juggling your calendar commitments between studying for a technical career (like I.T) and a well-paying job that relates to your field of study (technical support). The playing field changes a lot if:

1. You're no longer studying and looking to settle down
2. Your job is a low-paying, dead-end contract that doesn't support your career.

Because both of those are equally important. So, Mr. CompSci Office Worker, things may be good now, but what happens if you graduate, and you aren't getting enough hours? Likely they would have given you a better deal by then, especially if you're a good worker (assuming all these people are good workers, right?) but what if you aren't so fortunate to be working in a job that relates to your study? What if you can't find one? What if you have no choice but to flip burgers at McDonalds?

'I flip patties, not burgers, dumbass. I know what I'm doing.'
I 'll bring up a few anecdotes and hopefully try to sound as un-racist as possible, so here we go: I remember the first time I travelled across the country, astonished that in the Midlands, in Waikato and Manawatu, that none of the petrol-station and fast-food workers were Indian. Of course, Auckland is one of the best cities for students, and it attracts plenty of foreign students. Foreign students don't have the support that citizens do, so they have a greater motivation to find any work, anywhere. I'm not saying foreigners work harder than locals (some of the worst customer service I've ever received has been from foreign petrol station workers) But most of the foreigners that work in these jobs are students. So what if you're in their position, and you're studying law, or economics or commerce or whatever, and you simply… can't find a relevant job? You're still working at that petrol station, but you're not getting decent hours, your support from abroad or your allowance is drying up, and you simply can't find more opportunities? But this is when things delve into the government interference vs. personal responsibility debate. One side will say 'work harder and your boss will give you more hours', and 'search harder and you'll find the relevant job'.

I seriously need this button on my keyboard.
Well first of all, since when was it a requirement that you work so much harder than is expected of you? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying people shouldn't try to do their best – I love the 'above and beyond' philosophy, and I've applied it to every job I've had. But I regard it as what it is: a motivational philosophy, not a rule by which we must follow and risk our hides for. If someone gets fired, you can say 'you didn't do your job properly'. Yes, you were supposed to put the patient to sleep before slicing him open and removing his kidney, not afterwards. You're fired. Fair enough, but you can't say 'we fired you because you gave 100% instead of 110%.'
'Sorry, it's not you, it's just - well, yes it is. We don't like white people.'

Well, you can in America, but not here. I don't think.

The second idea is that you need to search harder to find a job. Well, likewise, we are taking this attitude and putting it in the wrong context. Yes, you should be a vigilant, optimistic job seeker. Think positive, think confident blah blah blah. I think it's important that we teach these qualities. But the problem is when we mistakenly treat that like a rule of nature, instead of what it really is: just another motivational philosophy. Positive thinking has power, but it won't move mountains. The Titanic was built under the very positive tagline that it would be 'unsinkable' before quickly proving to be anything but. The designers of the Titanic could have done with a bit more pessimism. The 'she'll be right' attitude can get you the approval of your mates, but it might not work with the safety inspector.

'Sorry to interrupt, folks but I'm here to teach you
the power of positive thinking, which I'm sure
you could do with right now.'
Labour, in this case, is the safety inspector. Because this is what we must realise: abolishing zero-hour contracts is not a big ask of the business world. It's not like automatically putting the minimum wage to 20 bucks/hour. Like my example with my co-workers, changing from zero-hour to part-time made very little difference in their lives, they still worked the same amount of hours, except they were now required to show up for 5 hours on Sundays. But this isn't about them. When we talk about the benefits of students getting their foot in the door through zero-hour contracts, we're proving there is a good side. Sure. But what we're not doing is proving anything to dispel the bad side of these contracts, which is if you're that commerce graduate working weird hours at a petrol station, where the only commerce you're learning about is consumer choices in bubblegum, you may not have enough to get by, and you're so shackled by the uncertainty of whether you're needed or not that you can't pursue better things in your life than standing in a petrol station.

'You've gotta be fucking me. I have to sell Vegan pies now?'
Some people are raised with a gushing fountain of positive thinking, and some with an erupting volcano of negative thought. The latter seems to be the point of blame for everything that's wrong with this world, from 'lazy, employable millennials' to 'ant-business naysayers' but guess what, there's a reason we evolved to (or God made us) think negatively, because it's damn handy. It would've been handy in the case of the Titanic, and it's handy in the year 2016 because it's helped our parliament to realise: just because your daughter is doing well with a zero-hour contract, doesn't mean everybody is.

Sometimes it's good to 'Think Little'.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The House Always Loses

Auckland's boring uniform subdivisions
Last month we gathered together all the news of parliament and tried to make it a bit entertaining. Most of the news not included, however, was about housing, an issue I feel strongly about as a lifelong Aucklander born and raised. Soon I decided to make an entirely new article about the current events of housing. Well, here it is, I hope you enjoy.

For a start, we had three bills were rushed (as usual) through Parliament, and as is normally the case with rushed bills, the issues get raised afterwards, not beforehand. What makes this interesting as that it wasn't just the opposition party in a fit, as usual, but external commissions were having their voices heard as well. That's what I want to talk about today, because I've discovered a whole new world of the select committees, who have helped me to understand a whole new kettle of fish in the parliamentary process that goes unheard of by much of the media, except RNZ's In Parliament podcast. I recommend this to anyone who wants to keep up with political news but also has better things to do. It's great listening as I'm driving or doing housework.

Let's start with the Social Housing Reform Transaction Mandate Bill, which gives new powers to two MP's (Paula Bennett and Bill English) to sell state houses to... well, anyone. Obviously Labour oppose this bill because, in the words of housing spokesperson Phil Twyford:
Phil Twyford
'[The bill] gives ministers unprecedented and extraordinary powers to sell billions worth of public land and housing built up and paid off by generations of New Zealanders through taxes and state-house tenants with the express purpose of putting a roof over the heads of our most vulnerable citizens.... we are utterly opposed to dismantling and privatising that system of housing and social support... This bill is a charter for corruption... It gives [English and Bennett] the power to sell billions of dollars of land and public housing to overseas corporations, to merchants bankers, property speculators.. There is no requirement for them to be not profit, no track record for delivering social housing... Anyone can rock up and say "I'm a community housing provider".'
Keep ur ideologies
offa ma chamberz!
National Party MP Todd Miller dismissed this comment as:

'abject... ideological nonsense [Labour is] caught in a paradigm that says only the state can own a house... when we have community housing providers already in existence.'

Now, this is usual red vs. blue 'Tories are selling our future' vs 'everything will work out fine, you pessimistic commies!' But to much surprise, the Maori Party voted in favour of the bill, with Marama Fox stating:
'This is not a vote for a wholesale sell-off of state houses... we have been asked by Iwi around this country to support this to ensure they can get into the market, because Housing New Zealand have done an appalling job, and they believe they can do it better.'
Marama Fox
Okay, so I agree with Marama Fox's theory – in theory. It makes sense that housing should be a local issue, not the problem of Housing New Zealand. But here's the real issue: National's Nick Smith is responsible for Housing New Zealand, so if anyone's to blame for their fuck ups – it's him. This is what frustrates me about small-government theorists - if the government screws up, 'it's because the government is doing something that should be done by the free-market'. It's so much easier than saying 'the minister screwed up', because that opens door to the possibility that the party is filled with incompetent politicians. Handymen have a saying: 'a bad worker blames his tools'. In this case, government programmes are tools, and politicians are the bad workers.

Besides, there's one massive logical leap of faith we are ignoring: If HNZ is currently administered by a government not in favor of state housing, then of course it's not going to do an adequate job of it. Shouldn't that be obvious? It's a bit of a Catch 22, isn't it? Maybe the Maori party chooses not to focus on the issue of HNZ because they don't want to be the monkey wrench causing a broken government. I can't see the Maori party having beef with Nick Smith - that would make them no better than the 'divided, squabbling' Labour Party. It's seems like the National Party model is 'if it's broke, don't fix it - just privatise it and get the hell out of there before anyone notices you were gone.'

'Yeah nah think we should get the Fulton Hogan boys onto it'
But moving on past HNZ, Marama's theory is fine, for all reasons except one: if we're delegating this to community housing for the benefit of locals, then why are we not placing any prerequisites for who actually gets to own those homes? Everybody agrees the purpose of state, municipal and community housing is to benefit those who cannot get into the housing market. Why, then, would we not place sanctions preventing speculators who are only going to raise the prices? It's quite simple: You can only buy this house if you are an NZ permanent resident, doesn't already own a home, blah blah blah

Now, I'm not asking for NZ First level of restrictions here. I'm not asking for racism or xenophobia. If a Chinese investor wants to buy up a third of the houses in that new subdivision, fine, go ahead, whatever – but we're not talking about some new flashy subdivision by the beach – we're talking about state houses. What do we expect, Bill Gates to buy a new state house and start up a tech company to contribute millions to the local economy? We all know what's going to happen – these homes are going to get bought up and rented out - often by foreigners (in the sense of foreign to the country, or foreign to the community) and guess what, Maori party: your constituency is going to be more dependent than they were beforehand. I'm not asking that every home buyer go through some vetting process, but if we're talking about selling state houses, I think the bare minimum should be that they are New Zealand residents, or that only the occupants can buy, with HNZ working with MSD to provide financial assistance in the form of loans to help them purchase the houses. Everyone wins. People get to own their own houses, no speculators raising the prices arbitrarily, and the government doesn't have to do jack shit but approve the odd loan every now and then. Wouldn't something like this work? Would it really be that hard? I don't know - I won't pretend to be an expert on NZ's housing problems, but I just don't see the logic behind opening up state houses to be purchased by anyone on Planet Earth. That's just me. I'm no xenophobe - I love immigrants and most of my friends are foreigners, but most foreigners in New Zealand agree there should at least be a buyers register. I'd love to bring up the link to that report, but I can't find it. If anyone can, let me know.

Trust Me, I'm Not an Expert
'I'm a construction engineer -
I think I know a thing or two about how dolphins work.'

One of the tangible things I dislike about the government (and I won't pretend this doesn't happen with every government) is their arrogant dismissal of people who are more qualified to discuss a topic than they are. Sometimes they pass legislation with such confidence that you feel obliged to trust them if for no other reason - except when it comes to bite them back in the butt when they have commissions and organisations openly expressing doubts and concerns. When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) openly criticised our government for it's actions during the Maui dolphin sanctuary exploitation, the IWC were dismissed by the then conservation minister - Nick Smith (he seems to pop up a lot in this post - he's a little gremlin he is). The point is: when it comes to the subject of marine life, who are you going to believe - the International Whaling Commission, or an engineer/politician who has been in charge of the country's department of conservation for less than a year? Remember, Nick, the IWC devote their entire lives to the subject. You were given your position because of a cabinet reshuffle. You are not a professional - you are a representative, and as such, you are obliged to listen to experts, but you choose otherwise.
'I have calculated that this water has a high density of liquidization'
Case in point: Earlier this month we had a review of the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill which requires smoke alarms and insulation in residential rental properties. Sounds good, you say? Well, everyone applauded Nick Smith for passing a 'generally alright bill', but here's the problem: every single person who had anything about it was essentially asking Mr. Smith the same question:

Because if there's one thing worse than a terrible bill, it's an incredibly average bill that only half solves an issue. And no, I'm not joking, because at least a terrible bill acknowledges that it's terrible. A mediocre bill, on the other hand, has the audacity to pretend it's solving the issue, when it really doesn't. Then, when people complain about it some time later, Mr. Smith will say 'hey look, I did this bill  I made an effort,'

We had Dr. Russell Wills of the Children's Commission appearing before the social services committee, expressing his concerns:
Dr. Wills
'In New Zealand we have 42,000 admission of children a year to hospital, with illnesses attributable to poverty - ammonia, athsma, bronchitis,... these deaths and hospitalisations are avoidable if we choose. Minister English and his budget of may 2013 ... we hoped we would see real progress. Government made a promise ... this is not a warrant of fitness. If your rental house is below the 1978 standard, your required to insulate to the current code, however if it is above the 1978 standard, you are not required to upgrade - no further work required.. do we think the 1978 standard is good enough? (There should be) a single standard of insulation, a heating and ventilation standard, and a monitoring for enforcement regime. Surely our children deserve no less.'
A Porirua home is
kinda like living in a public pool:
wet, mouldy, dilapidated and state owned.
Then you get a fellow politician, the Porirua city mayor telling us:

'We're positive about the changes... but generally this legislation doesn't go far enough. We are confronted as a city with... people living in damp, cold homes and significant health issues. As a council, we are often forced to sit idly by and advocate that there's nothing really practical we can do. The legislative tools we haven place are not effective... We would like to see the development of national standards.'

For The Benefit Of Mr. House

The media does a criminal job of paying as little attention possible to the ongoings of these select committees, yet I find them fascinating to listen to - for once I'm hearing the voices not of robotic politicians loaded with scripted answers to scripted questions - not of the lazy ministers who are so-called 'responsible' for these ministries, but rather I'm hearing the actual key people who operate these agencies and departments. Most of all, we hear the voices of commissions, like that of Russell Wills above. When you hear concerns raised by members of commissions devoted to whatever, whether it be to preventing workplace sexual harassment or ensuring young people aren't getting their hands on Gold Cards, and you have commissions raising concerns, you can respond two ways. You can say
  • They're raising a legitimate concern
  • They're just complaining in order to look useful - they have to complain about issues, even when there are none - otherwise they have no need to exist! What a bunch of idiots
Okay, even if you believe the second bullet to be true, fine, but two points from me. First, I think it's a part of a healthy democracy that we have institutions, not just individual people, actual institutions devoted to raising these concerns with government. Even better if these commissions are experts in their field of knowledge. Here's parliament's actual definition of a select committee (the people  the commissions appeal to):

If you're a visual person, imagine the committee as being a high court, and the commissions as members of the public united in some cause (too many kids stealing our gold cards, whatever). After the case is done and the members leave the courtroom, the journalists are waiting outside, snapping their cameras and struggling desperately to get a word out. When we hear whatever bullshit is coming out of parliament, we are like those journalists whose questions are received with the response 'no comment'. Parliament is full so many blatant lies, it is no longer considered abnormal, even when the member is openly caught out, and we wonder why people feel alienated from politics.

These commissions & committees ideally work for the benefit of the public, yet instead we have to deal with a loud bunch of morons we call our 'representatives' (see above). Why can't we just cut out the middlemen? Cut out the spin? Shouldn't our media be focused more on what happens in those committees? Why not? Our democracy will be better, our government will be better. We will be better. Our intelligence won't be insulted every time we decide to give our elected officials the benefit of the doubt and listen to their nonsense.

It's assumed lefties like me have this impulsive distrust of politicians for the sake of it. The truth is, I don't want to hate my elected officials. I get no joy out of it. I would give anything to live in a country where I can actually trust them to carry on the will of the people. But unfortunately, we do not live in that kind of world.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Fragging the Flag

How can you tell if you're desperate? Let's say you're chasing some guy/girl, or you're some caryard suit trying to make the big sell. You don't wanna look desperate - we all know that. The moment you look desperate, you're dead.
'Take this car. I don't care what you do with it - JUST TAKE IT! TAKE IT!'
So how do you avoid this? How do you know when you're approaching desperation? Well, it's simple really. Just ask yourself: are your attempts proving counterproductive to the goal you're trying to achieve? A desperate guy is more likely to find a date if he doesn't look like his whole life depends on it. A car salesman is more likely to sell a car if he doesn't seem to care if you want that 1994 Honda Accord complete with freshly installed speed holes. As I was once told, if you push for something too hard, it won't go on the direction you want it to. I remembered that advice very well, and I've learned that it's best to act like you don't fucking care - even if you do. You can win whole debates by acting as if you're not as frustrated as the opponent. Just watch the debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. Most of the time, it's what you don't say that counts. Heck, it can win you whole elections:

I'm saying this because in the past few months, John Key has been extremely counterproductive over this flag change issue: He has contradicted his typically impartial and relaxed demeanour and has given me another reason to vote for the original flag. All of those things have been expressed in this one single article. The article's headline is features John Key in Muldoon-esque fashion giving us the cold, hard facts: this is our last chance for a while. We won't get another flag vote until we become a republic.

Funnily enough, that works well for me, because becoming a republic seems like the only suitable time for us the change our flag. What better time to adopt a Union Jack-free flag than during our abandonment of the monarchy? Doesn't that just... make more sense? Now, some argue that it should have been changed already - that the flag change is just a long overdue enactment from the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act in 1947, and we still haven't caught up with the time for change. Well, that would be fine if we didn't delay that momentum for change by about... nearly 70 years, which the polls are happy to prove. Yes, 1947 would have been a great year to change the flag, but unfortunately, a flag change needs to have a rallied public, able with the burning fervour of political change. Those things were present when Canada changed their flag, so for us, that momentum for change won't happen again until either:
  • We elect a Trump-like figure
  • We become a republic
Hopefully, we'll only face one of those scenarios. Anyway, let's go back to Key, who's looking very paranoid:  
'Get some guts and fortify your electorate -
the green commies are coming for our daughters'
'If Labour and Green voters decide they're going to vote for the current New Zealand flag, solely on the basis they're giving the Government a black eye and hurting me personally, then they're completely and utterly failing, because we poll a lot, we poll in electorates, we poll across the country, and what I can tell you is our numbers have virtually never been stronger and my personal numbers are very strong.'

So the voting for the new flag began a couple of days ago, and I thought I should make this post. I had a few articles brewing up relating to this controversial issue, but piecing it together has been a nightmare. I've got lots to say, as you can imagine, but I'm not sure how to say it. It can be hard to conceptualise a complicated issue as it's still happening, and this flag change debate is much more a complicated issue than it should be. By the time this article is finished, it will be halfway through the referendum process, but I'm writing this under the assumption that original flag will have won, as polls indicate. This whole thing has been one big headache.

Before I get to my own opinions on the flag, I'd like to set the background for the current climate. As we know, debate is getting heavy - which I like. I like it when debate gets heavy, no matter what reasons. I always have said that discussing politics is infinitely better than not discussing it. Kinda like conspiracy theories - I hate people who believe in crazy things, but at least they believe in something. So it's becoming a social issue, a national issue, and sorry Mr. Key, the flag change is a political issue, whether you like it or not, and it's an awkward topic for both sides of the spectrum. If 8 years ago you gave National voters a crystal ball, they would have struggled to believe it would be their party pursuing this impulsive referendum, with the Labour party taking the more pragmatic and conservative approach. Surely it would be the other way around, right?
Now, in 2016, various national personalities have emerged on both sides of the fence, with Dan Carter supporting the flag change, and Stan Walker opposing it. But our celebrities' two cents pale in comparison to the mainstream media's input, which has been - excessive, to say the least. Virtually every impartial reporter have turned their regular contribution routine into a personal diary on their thought of the flag change. NZ Herald releases on average 6-8 opinion articles a day, and have 14 opinion editors, but our craving for opinion articles are leaking beyond the allocated section on our news websites. Nearly every article has the word 'Opinion:' at the start of it, although steadily more and more articles are excluding that vital first word, as opinion-driven news becomes the norm... which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In our case, it's a bad thing, because generally speaking, journalists are not as intelligent as we like to think they are. As a current events blogger, there is an overwhelming sense of relief when I realise they're no smarter than I am, and often, much less smart. It's kinda like when you first start learning to drive - it's intimidating until you slowly begin to realise that the other drivers are no better than you. (Unless, of course, everyone's bumping their car into yours because they really, really, really don't like you and you drive a Ferrari and everyone else drives a Toyota from the 90's)
'Outta the car, buddy, you're the fifth runt this morning to bump into my girl'
The problem is that journalists are paid for their ability to gather and present news impartially, but more and more, every journalist wants to be a pundit these days. The more you run your mouth, the more people listen. It's a good thing and a bad thing, so it wouldn't be fair to say the mainstream media has this big, beefy agenda, but there are certainly many people who want to see this debate turn in some certain direction, and often it's so explicit that it gets in the way of a relatively simple issue: that the majority of this country doesn't want a flag change, no matter what we think. And here's what I want to talk about, because I see it as the media, for lack of a better word, fragmenting an issue that doesn't need to be fragmented.

When Len Brown had the most stereotypically sleazy affair scandal ever, I was outraged. Even more so when I discovered that nobody cared. I was even more outraged when Len Brown won the mayoral reelection in 2013. Evidently nobody cared about values anymore! We're becoming a society of hedonistic satan-worshippers! I was much more traditionalist, back then. But everything changed when I learned about Cameron Slater and Dirty Politics. I realised that nobody would be talking about his affair had it not been for that one trollish, conservative Christian blogger who wanted to drive Len Brown out and replace him with a mayor more in line with his own political views. Then I realised, the affair itself wasn't the scandal, but rather, the means by which it was exposed. All of a sudden I was happy that Brown won the re-election, because it taught Slater an important lesson: you can't bully people out of office.

There is an overwhelming sense of relief the moment you realise nobody gives a shit
The point I'm trying to make is that in the case of Slater vs. Brown, the media were pretty well in line with what the public thought - that yes, it is worth acknowledging what happened, but no, I'm sorry, the public doesn't give a shit, and had the NZ Herald temporarily suspended it journalistic obligation to saturate itself with conservative pundits spouting the disgrace that Len Brown has brought to our fair city, then... we probably still wouldn't give a shit.

Because the old media (and by that I mean news outlets like Stuff, Newshub and NZ Herald) are supposed to present the news - the facts, and less on personal opinion, and many of these opinion articles do make good points about why we should change the flag, but they're missing one very important point:

I spent some time with an elderly Maori lady who enjoys many of her traditional cultural activities such as flax-weaving, Te Reo and discussing their oral tradition and history with the local Iwi. Being as cultured as she is, you would think that she would support the MCH (Ministry Of Culture and Heritage), but she doesn't - for the simple fact that there's no reason tax-payers should have to fund arts that majority of the public don't want. In Italy, the government doesn't fund Opera, for example, because it is so deeply entrenched in their culture that there's plenty of money to go around (well, there usually is). The point is there simply isn't enough desire for a flag change to go around. We're kidding ourselves if we think we do.

National: showing New Zealanders what they didn't even realise
they wanted since 1936
There's also a great irony or tragic justice to this whole flag change issue. For the last 7 years we've been represented by a so-called fiscally conservative, pragmatic government, yet this referendum flies in the face of that to every degree. You can argue the government is noble in their pursuit of this goal, but you can't argue that even National party voters are frustrated with their government's pursuit of it. The party knows they're losing support from their core voters, but they also maintain a philosophy of 'never back down' which is currently being stretched to the limits.

So what is my view on the flag change? Well, as you can imagine, I've been hearing plenty of reasons why the flag should change, but unfortunately, they're just not good enough. Yes, I'm aware that the flag looks like Australia's, but we should seriously be concerned about our eyesight if we aren't having to put up with the frustrations of nations like Chad and Romania...

Netherlands and Luxembourg
In fact, in this video of countries with similar flags, New Zealand and Australia aren't even included.

Let that video play, because the music will make you happy. So yeah, the Aussie and NZ flags are nowhere to be seen. Why? Probably because our flags don't look the same. Well, not if you have good vision, at least. Maybe we need to start printing flags in Braille. But who said they need to look different? Exporters? When I gatecrashed the flag change panel and spent the whole time arguing about why we're even having this discussion in the first place, they asked me why I had no support for 'the New Zealand brand'. Well, because this is my country, it's not a brand. So why change the flag? So we might not get confused with Australia? Maybe our flags are so similar because we are so very similar nations? We're both parliamentary constitutional monarchies descended from British colonies with majority white populations in the Tasman sea. Or, as my Uncle, now living and raising his family in Australia put it, 'Yes our flags look similar but that's indicative of our relationship. Two brother nations side by side. Let’s keep our flags to help remember that special bond.' If we changed our flag, it could be seen as a giant middle finger to centuries of diplomatic progress. It may shock New Zealanders, but the Tasman rivalry is strictly a one-sided affair. Kiwis may talk about how much Australia sucks, but Australians themselves do not possess any of this antagonism. At least the similarity between our flags could be regarded as symbolic of our closeness and similarities. Monaco and Indonesia have about as much in common as Fridges and Trees.

'Professor Oak, I think we need some time apart - I don't think this is working out.'
As soon as we defeat Boko Haram, famine, disease, economic
disaster, assorted rebels and our 14 year humanitarian crisis, we'll
then deal with the next important issue: changing our flag

A few years ago I would have been right behind the flag change, but what's changed since then is... probably my sense of national identity. I simply don't care about such trivial things. We live in a globalised world with global issues - terrorism, famine, war, climate change, resource depletion, refugees, etc. The first thing I refuse to care about is the self-image of one tiny, isolated, entitled and privileged island nation in the South Pacific whose only concern is that their flag doesn't serve a good marketing purpose. Shame on us, I say. Maybe once Chad becomes a first world country, then they can worry about changing their flag, which they won't, because they'll still have better things to worry about. The talking points used to encourage this whole flag changing business strikes me as tribalist, and sometimes, scary.Things like 'patriotism' and 'national identity' are not virtues that appeal to me in a country. In fact, they scare me. As a writer I was taught long ago 'Don't sacrifice quality in the pursuit of individuality.'  What that means in non-United States Founding Fathers terms is 'just because it's unique doesn't mean it's good'. I've learned that individuality rises from quality, not the other way around. New Zealand is trying to 'stand out' as a country through purely cosmetic means. We still tell people we are 'clean and green' and our airport arrival terminals are packed with as much Kiwiana as our souvenir shops. Our nation is becoming like a modern Simpsons episode - self-referencing style without substance, clinging on to the remnants of what once made it great without taking any efforts to maintain that same standard of greatness. What did make us great? Our pacifism, our social progressivism, our nuclear policy, our innocent backwardness, and other qualities are dying along with my pride in my nation.

So I'd love to change the flag, but I just don't care anymore. The government may be working hard to rally people into believing this actually matters, but I won't. That being said, I did think of my own flag design. It's essentially the Alofi Kanter silver-fern, except with the face of John Key in the middle of a shrewd discussion on export tariffs:

I chose this design way back at the start of last year, and I even put it up on a flag pole in Google Sketchup to give you an idea of how it would look. But alas, I left it too late to be included in the consideration panel. I think it would have done well. It combines the effective, tried n' true silver fern pattern we all know and love, with the pragmatic back-to-business cult of personality that is John Key we all know and love even more.