Monday, March 19, 2012

Finlands of the Mind



Kiwi Foo is a private gathering that takes place every year at Mahurangi College in Warkworth. It has no entry fee. The event is run on the model of the unconference, with a fluid agenda and topics for discussion selected by participants as they go along. Invitations are extended primarily to technology industry people and policy makers. 

Mauricio Freitas was there in 2008. He looked around and saw ‘technologists, developers, thinkers, writers, entrepreneurs’. David Farrar was first invited in 2009. He thought that the first great thing about it was that there were no stupid people there. Stephen Judd went this year and wrote this lovely post about Luddism and tools of conviviality.

Well-known invitees of past editions include Finance Minister Bill English, broadcaster Kim Hill, Labour Minister David Cunliffe and his colleague Judith Tizard, Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes, journalists Rod Oram and Bernard Hickey. Collectively, the organisers describe the type of the Kiwi Foo participant as ‘doing interesting work in fields such as neuroscience, Internet applications, psychology, open source programming, art, business, physics, politics, and all manner of interesting science and technology’.  So you get the idea: we’re talking about a crowd consisting mainly of prominent urban professionals – la crème of the technocracy – interacting with politicians and colleagues and generally mucking about for a couple of days. Nothing untoward there, or even particularly noteworthy if you don’t happen to move in those circles.

Possibly more surprising, however, at least to me, was the revelation in this post by Russell Brown that proceedings this year included a long session led by David Shearer with the object of discussing the ideas in his opening speech as Labour leader. In fact I confess that the first time I read the post, my brain possibly occupied by something else Russell wrote about the welfare section of the speech not being as bad as some of his gloomier friends had predicted (I flatter myself that I might be one of those glooms), it didn’t even register. It did a couple of days later, when he added further details in the comments, including this:
I actually have a picture of the room: David Shearer and David Farrar are sitting next to each other!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exclamation mark used more appropriately. But let’s pause to survey the scene for a moment.


Elevated to the leadership of Labour in early December by the right wing of the party, Mr Shearer spent the first three months in his new job dodging questions about major industrial disputes, cautioning against ‘politicising Christchurch’ and sending signals through the press that he was going to move the party closer to the centre (or, in standard English, ‘the right’), most notably on welfare. This generated quite some trepidation amongst the least neoliberal-friendly elements in the party and the political Left more generally, but growing questions about the new leader’s selective silence – for he somehow found the time to out-xenophobe the Tories on the subject of farm sales to the Chinese – were met with the reassurance that he was busy strategising and preparing his first speech, which wouldn’t disappoint. It turns out that there was obviously some truth to that, because here is in mid-February, two months into the process, soliciting ideas for his first major speech as Labour leader at a refreshingly non-partisan gathering of elite knowledge economy workers, sitting side by side with one of the country’s principal conservative political commentators as well as director of National Party pollster Curia.

I wasn’t in the room, so I don’t know what it is that they talked about. I know people who were, and I could ask them, but I'm not interested in the actual contents of the conversation ­– it's not where I'm going with this. Perhaps Shearer wanted to sound them out primarily on ICT issues, as his rival for the leadership, David Cunliffe, had done when he held that portfolio. However Kiwi Foo aims to offer more than just tech industry expertise. Tim O'Reilly, the co-creator of the original Foo Camp, describes the goal of his company as ‘changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators’. This is the intellectual milieu, and that is one of the keywords of Shearer’s speech: innovation. Now of course if you want innovation you lock yourself up in a room with forty of the best and brightest at Kiwi Foo. Those are your innovators. Whereas there would be no point in talking to, say, unionists, or the Alternative Welfare Working Group, because those people are awfully political, and besides what innovations could possibly come from them?

So this would be my question: as his public silence became a media story and the rumblings within his own party were mounting, whom, if anyone, did David Shearer listen to besides those forty people in Warkworth? And what ideas did he get, in Warkworth or elsewhere, other than that of being willing to listen to more ideas, wherever they come from, but only accept the best of them, and to question the comfortable assumptions we make, in order to be ready on Day One – it’s really written like that in the speech, with capitals – to forge a new New Zealand? For that was the only concrete commitment in the eventual breaking of that silence, the closest thing to a policy platform in his opening statement. David Shearer: he’s all ears. 

Let's do it again some time

To put it another way, the question is just whom is David Shearer prepared to listen to, therefore not so much an issue of where he has been – in this instance we have a confirmed sighting, at Kiwi Foo – but also where he hasn’t, the crowds he won't mix with, and what this rhetoric about listening means and the kind of politics that it produces.

For an initial assessment it seems reasonable to look at the first concrete manifestation of this strategy, that is to say the speech he finally gave last week, and here, even before being confronted with the actual content, one is compelled to note – as my esteemed colleague QoT and others have done – that it is a terrible piece of writing, and in ways that are themselves revealing. This particular non sequitur has stood out the most amongst bloggers, tweeters and such
A vision is a marvellous thing, but it's a bit like Excalibur. You have to know what you're doing with it.
But uncannily the next sentence is even worse, and mixes the metaphor for good measure:
It's overused, it's often misused, and for a politician, it can be one of those "kick me" signs that you tape to your back.
Who writes like this? Unless theirs is a clumsy, condescending attempt to appear folksy and plain spoken, like when they write of a future that is 'hugely doubtful' or invite the nation to 'bite the bullet' (but not 'the magic bullet', because we dont believe in those. Except wait, we just said that education was kind of like a magic bullet. Oh, nevermind!).

And then, besides the embarrassing fluff about a 'new New Zealand' that, as Shearer himself has to grace to admit, we've all heard before, there is the Finland thing. Really, what’s up with that? Did some brilliant mind at Kiwi Foo say ‘we should be more like Finland’? I doubt it, those are smart people. And besides Shearer didn’t even just say Finland in broad policy or economic terms, no, he explicitly compared himself to Esko Aho, the one term leader of a centre-right coalition who responded with austerity measures to the financial crisis that hit the country in the early Nineties, and was promptly voted out of office at the next election. That’s his model, that’s his inspiration. And here’s the part where I get genuinely impatient with some of my friends in Labour when they suggest that the speech didn’t signal a shift to the right. Of course it did. When Shearer says that the party will be ‘thrifty’, he means that it will prioritise balancing the budget over social spending or stimulating the economy. When he says that he will reassess the fiscal proposals that Labour took into the last election according to whether they fit within his vision of a future-oriented New Zealand, he’s ruling out any redistributive reform of the tax system on the grounds that it would lack a strategic focus on growth.

This blurry man could be your next Finance Minister
Then there is the section on welfare. It wasn’t so bad, right? Shearer said this:
We all have an instinctive sense in New Zealand that everyone deserves a go, and that everyone needs to pull their weight and contribute.

Labour believes that. It always has.

Don't let anyone tell you different.

We say two things:

Number one: our community must take care of the needy. They deserve a share of the pie.

And if people fall on hard times, we will help.

But equally importantly, number two: everyone who can help to make that pie needs to be involved, and fairly rewarded for doing it.

Now for a bit of comparison, when John Key gave this exact same speech, by which I mean his first as leader of the opposition, he said this:  
I have said before that I believe in the welfare state and that I will never turn my back on it.

We should be proud to be a country that looks after its most vulnerable citizens. We should be proud to be a country that supports people when they can't find work, are ill, or aren't able to work.

But we should be ashamed that others remain on a benefit for years even though work is available to them. That is no way forward for them and it is no way forward for New Zealand.

Have you spotted the difference yet? No? That’s because there isn’t any. Both want to reassure the voters that they are not extremists. Both blame need squarely on the needy, rather than on a economic system that renders some citizens unable to fully participate in society and that in fact even at the best of times demands that a reserve of unemployed people be maintained in order to keep wage inflation down. Both evoke the mythical figure of the bludger (‘those not meeting their side of the contract’ and who therefore need a ‘nudge’, says Shearer, the dog whistle firmly between his lips). But actually there is one significant difference: Key gave that speech at a relatively benign time for beneficiaries, whereas Shearer reprised it during the worst series of attacks on the welfare state since the time of Ruth Richardson, a circumstance that ought to have called for solidarity and forceful support from the leader of a party that insists, against all evidence to the contrary, to label itself progressive.

But the gutless opportunism isn’t the worst part. The worst part are the rationalisations, the endless string of ‘this is smart politics’ from the Labour supporters who are handier with a keyboard. Of course Labour knows that helping families on benefits is a priority, it’s just that the country won’t hear of it. And besides you should wait for the actual policies, why are you so impatient? As if the rhetoric of this moment didn’t matter; as if Shearer’s speech wasn’t defining, wasn’t political; as if it didn’t signal what’s to come (in which case it would be an even more inept speech than it already is, almost unaccountably so); or as if abandoning all opposition to the Tories’ new round of radical reforms didn’t give the game away, four months into the new election cycle. As if it didn’t set the stage for three years of even greater pain.

The reality, you see, is that people like the reforms. And to be fair there is some evidence for this, for instance in this poll from last year indicating that as many as one in four Labour and Green voter supported National’s policies in this area – this at a time when centre-left support was at a historical low, suggesting that the actual proportion come the hoped-for upswing might be even greater. But this fact is hardly neutral. It comes on the back of a quarter of a century of neoliberal consensus amongst the two main parties. It comes on the back of Labour having long since stopped to even talk about the structural causes of social injustice, let alone address them, and labelling ‘haters and wreckers’ those who do. This is what the abdication of leadership – both political and moral – will achieve over time.

And of course another effect of saying that people like the reforms is to conceal the politics and displace the blame. The people – those bastards! But not us. Because the ethos of Labour’s bourgeois support could best summed up with the motto ‘middle class liberals being kind to each other’. So you don’t want to suggest that their motivation might be anything less than pure, their love and concern for the poor anything less than total. Or that they might be looking after themselves, and at the expense of somebody else. They’ll get pissy at best, or at worst come up with more technocratic objections: extending Working for Families to beneficiaries is the wrong mechanism; cutting GST on fruit and vegetables would make the tax less simple to administer; making the first $5,000 tax free is a tax cut for the wealthy (yeah, that one’s also stupid). So let’s continue doing nothing instead. Or let’s give the poor education, so they can move into the middle class and then we can look out for them by continuing to look out for us, since we seem to be doing that pretty well.

But self-interested faux pragmatism alone doesn't quite explain why the leadership of the party and a substantial number of its supporters go along with measures against the less privileged that are petty and vindictive. It’s as if middle class liberals hadn’t yet forgiven the working class for Rogenormics, as if they hadn’t forgotten what they forced them do to save their own skin during the great crisis. Unmoor them from society, cast them off like that. It must have been horrible – and I don’t mean for the actual victims of the reforms, but for the self-image of the liberals, for their consuming need to see themselves as fundamentally decent and fair-minded folks.

This political neurosis, which is shared by a sector of the conservative public, produces strange monsters and bizarre dreams of escaping the island. Forget innovation: that is what Shearer’s Finland of the mind is all about. There is a darkness in New Zealand that we cannot process or deal with, so let’s close our eyes and pretend that we were somewhere else. For John Key it’s Australia in 2025. For David Shearer it’s Finland in 1991. For Phil Goff it was a mythical, edenic pre-Rogernomics New Zealand. These aren’t just refuges from the staggering lack of imagination of two generations of New Zealand politicians; they are also places to rewrite our personal histories and mend our sense of self. They are like retreats where we meet a range of interesting, well-connected people and discuss new ideas, except the ideas aren’t really new, or if they are it doesn’t matter because then we’ll turn around and say old, tried things about rights with responsibility, about fiscal restraint, about the need for bold leadership and investing in the nation’s future.

A politics that is about listening instead of saying and doing. An interminable, non-partisan, informal conversation, perfect for the age of social media. We can probably sell that.




111 comments:

merc said...

Shearer, the love child of Thatcher and Blair. Our dark Georgian secret, where shall we house the staff?

George D said...

As if the rhetoric of this moment didn’t matter; as if Shearer’s speech wasn’t defining, wasn’t political; as if it didn’t signal what’s to come (in which case it would be an even more inept speech than it already is, almost unaccountably so)


I'm more charitable than you. Shearer is the leader of a party that Does Not Know what it Stands For, at least at the caucus level. (There is a gaping hole between caucus and membership, as evidenced by many things, including Brian Edwards public musings on the weekend, or the electorate chair who told me last night she was resigning). That its leader is adrift from anything resembling a coherent party, searching for inspiration from books about Asko, Blair, and camps of the technical class. There are faults in the membership, to be sure, but the problems are structural. In the absence of a tight leadership driven by Clark, the party is entirely adrift and will remain that way until it is shaken up and reconstituted, or destroyed.

Russell Brown said...

I can't comment on whether Shearer failed to consult with people he ought have; I just don't know enough about that.

But I can only, as I have to you privately, urge caution on reading dark motives into the discussion. Talking about innovation and how to foster it is pretty much a Foo set piece, so Shearer was always going to get some takers when he proposed it. (He did so in the same way anyone else gets up a session at Foo -- by writing a title and brief description in a vacant slot on the wall.)

Yes, David Farrar joined in, but so did David Cunliffe, Rod Oram and a couple of dozen others, none of them likely to qualify as Hollow Men. The idea that Farrar should be declared an enemy combatant and banned from a good-faith discussion would be abhorrent.

Disclosure: I play a minor role in organising the event each year. Although there are always many geeks, this year we also welcomed half a dozen teachers, artists, librarians,sustainability experts, Dave Dobbyn and the marvellous Robert Neale, who spoke of poetry.

Rich said...

In Venezuela, it had a name: puntofijismo - a formal system that alternated power between parties. In the UK it was (is) Blairism. Then there was the Fourth Labour Government.

Either way, it's about ensuring that even if the formal Right lose, the opposition pursue policies acceptable to the wealthy.

Also, you reckon Bomber and Minto get invites to the Business Round Table to "sit in" as they hash out NACT positioning?

Ben Wilson said...

I was at that Foo. I'd have gone to the session with the Labour people if I'd known it was on. I can't blame anyone for that, though, most likely I was hanging around with all the teachers, and a bit drunk. Shearer did walk up to me and made eye contact, so I shook his hand, but I realized I was actually just blocking access to the beers, and slid away into the darkness.

I had been hoping that they would stay for the rest of the Foo and at some point I'd run into them, or sit in on a session they were in. But they were gone after the first night, so the only politician I did end up next to, during one of the education sessions, was Nikki Kaye. There was a large education sector contingent there, and I went to practically every session they held like a groupie. It was a bit of a pity, considering that shaking up education formed a significant part of Shearer's message, that none of the Labour people stayed for any of that, leaving it to the cute Nat to do it.

But actually, I have mixed feelings about politicians at such occasions, really. They change the entire nature of a discussion, the spirit of which is meant to be about idea generation and discussion, but when there's a very powerful politician in the room it just becomes an opportunity to talk to them, to advocate at them. I don't object to them being there, but I would probably avoid them, personally, worried that I would stand a big chance of breaking the "don't be a dick" rule that is the basic law of a Foo camp.

That said, Kaye did a very good job of not becoming the entire focus of a room full of teachers. I developed respect for her on that day - I can see how she won, and then held Ak Central. Not from brilliance, but from the courage to just be there and represent, to risk sounding a fool, to listen to opinions.

Russell Brown said...

Also, you reckon Bomber and Minto get invites to the Business Round Table to "sit in" as they hash out NACT positioning?

I could tell you that's not what happened at all, but I suspect there's no point.

Russell Brown said...

It was a bit of a pity, considering that shaking up education formed a significant part of Shearer's message, that none of the Labour people stayed for any of that, leaving it to the cute Nat to do it.

Yeah, it was. But they were somewhat belatedly invited and had other commitments during the weekend. It was good of them to make the time they did.

I wish I'd caught more of the educators' sessions: they seem to have been the hallmark of this year's event. Still, seeing Tara Taylor-Jorgenson pour scorn on National Standards while she balanced a bourbon and coke is a good memory.

Stephen said...

they were somewhat belatedly invited and had other commitments during the weekend.

I think this is a point worth stressing. It's not a case of Shearer and Cunliffe basing their policy directions on a Foo workshop at all -- this was one event among many for them and its influence is unlikely to be anywhere near decisive.

But I also think that Foo is a distraction.

For me the issue is about these words like narrative and story and messaging that people discussing Shearer's speech toss around. Yes, the speech is establishing a narrative, telling a story, sending a message -- it is not layout out policy. But what kind of story? What kind of message? As a left person inside the Labour tent, the story and the message I hear is one that comforts the sensible right media (the Armstrongs and Smalls and Watkins and O'Sullivans). It is not a message for me.

The central problem for the Left that preoccupies me is how to overcome the world view embedded in the official national discourse. Having talked to numerous Labour pols in the last couple of years, my perception is that the fear of being trashed in the press drives everything.

Stephen said...

Not LAYING out policy.

John said...

I'm (relatively) new here, and probably denser than normal. Could you help me understand why the middle class blame the working class for Rogernomics?

Thanks in advance.

Stephen said...

John, I believe Gio means that nice middle class people who benefited the most from reforms are cross with the poor people who suffered the most for making the middle class people feel bad. And there is an emotional truth in that.

For me it seems well in accordance with the principles of social psychology, the just world fallacy, and cognitive dissonance: if we had to hurt poor people, they must have done something to deserve it.

Apologies, Gio, if I have got that wrong.

Lew said...

so let’s close our eyes and pretend that we were somewhere else

So if Key's in the Lucky Country and Shearer's doing the Helengrad to Helsinki timewarp -- where and when are you, Giovanni? I think, in this, you affect a unique hard-nosed realism; a commitment to the actual here-and-now. But everyone's got their happy place.

L

Deborah said...

I suppose what I find disconcerting is that Foo is an invitation-only event, so it is a bit self-selecting. Yet people who were selected to go there because they knew the right people had an opportunity to offer ideas and influence policy development that very few other people have. It feels like just another kind of old boys network, but dressed up in fancy techy stuff.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I suppose what I find disconcerting is that Foo is an invitation-only event, so it is a bit self-selecting. Yet people who were selected to go there because they knew the right people had an opportunity to offer ideas and influence policy development that very few other people have. It feels like just another kind of old boys network, but dressed up in fancy techy stuff."

It is that, but then so are independent think tanks, and uncharacteristic as it may sound I think we need more of them, not fewer. Nor am I suggesting, in response to Russell, that Kiwi Foo attendees are Hollow Men. I know some of them. I consider Stephen not only a friend but also a political and intellectual ally. However we can't pretend that Kiwi Foo is an apolitical forum, or that it doesn't represent a specific set of interests, with the odd exception. Therefore the problem becomes whether Shearer went there in the normal course of talking to a broad range of groups inside and outside the Left, or whether Kiwi Foo is in fact his main reference group, the kind of people he is ideologically most inclined to talk to and listen to. At which point the exercise would become a little hollow-menish. No question.

So I am asking: who else did David Shearer talk to in the last three months? And who is he planning to talk to in the future? So long as he is keen to portray himself as a listener, I think it is going to be very relevant information.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"So if Key's in the Lucky Country and Shearer's doing the Helengrad to Helsinki timewarp -- where and when are you, Giovanni?"

I live in an Italy of the past but also, I like to think, in a New Zealand of the present, my view of which is strongly influenced by my political lens, naturally, as well by a daily involvement with a low-decile school and by having a child with an intellectual disability and another with a chronic illness. There is little in the current Labour leadership that makes me hopeful that either the working class as a whole or the narrower sphere of the people that are close to me will see any impovements in their lives if the party is returned to power.

Rob said...

I was disappointed with Shearer's speech too. I've been disappointed almost every time he's opened his mouth since the election. Absolutely agree with you, Gio- and Stephen- that the rhetoric matters. It's not just the waffly ineptitude, or the lack of any answers, or the vague daft hope that innovation will save us all. If the leader of Labour is not willing to stick up for workers, beneficiaries, unionists- then sticking up for us drops, just a step or two more, out of the national dialogue. It becomes unsayable.

John said...

Stephen, thanks for that. Another form of 'survivor guilt' and projection, it seems.

In related reaading, things have come to a pretty pass when the head of the OECD is reported to be advocating policies more 'left wing' than the leader of the NZ Labour Party.

Lew said...

Giovanni, a straight bat. Thanks. After writing I reflected that my question could be read as unnecessarily trollish.

There is little in the current Labour leadership that makes me hopeful that either the working class as a whole or the narrower sphere of the people that are close to me will see any impovements in their lives if the party is returned to power.

This is where we differ.

But let's leave aside the matter of whether National and Labour are or aren't the same; what I want to work out here is why you think that can be determined merely from a new leader's early rhetoric and positioning. You see in the mom+pie statements and fuzzy aspirational language no evidence of a will to enact a leftwing agenda and infer a rightwing agenda. But in truth they can signify nearly anything in actual policy terms. Rhetorical crossover is a fact of middleground politics, and a high degree of crossover is a good sign that both parties understand the electorate (as opposed to just one party, the one recently re-elected). Of course, Labour should not ape National; the thing is that you can't tell whether it is or not from the available data -- you'll only be able to tell that once they enact policy.

You refer to the practical -- "improvements in their lives". But your critique is couched in principle, as if pure principle leads to effective practice. And it can't, because with all the will in the world a principled opposition can't govern unless they win, and loyalty to principle does not in itself deliver a decisive (dare I say, Excalibur-like) electoral advantage.

So my imagined world, and I'll concede it's a particularly fanciful one, is inhabited by a left movement that gets that (first win, then govern) and gets that you win by playing smart, practical and adaptable. In the generalities where you see a right-wing default agenda I see next to no policy relevance -- only a strategic commitment to saying things that won't scare the hell out of an electorate that, all said and done, actually *likes* the Key government and their non-ideological approach, while keeping options open for policy and later positioning that matches the fluffy generalities but differs from the status quo in important, substantive ways. It's a game at the margin, not a winner-takes-all stake.

I might be wrong; maybe it is Rogernomics 2.0 or the Nokia Underpants Gnomes after all. I have no inside information. In fact, none of us have any real information yet, and I'm puzzled at anyone who thinks they can draw such strong conclusions from such a lack.

L

Con said...

Shearer's speech is so disappointing mostly for its impoverished ideological base.

How far is Shearer from engaging critically with the most serious political issues of the day? For instance, at a time when global capitalism is undergoing its most serious crisis in 80 years, where is his critique of the parasitism of the banking class? At a time when the majority of the population (and not only working class people) have been thoroughly disillusioned with "actually existing capitalism", and the easy assumptions about the role of the market in effectively allocating resources to meet social needs have been so thoroughly discredited, why is Shearer not "on message"? can he do no better than mouthing platitudes about innovation? It has to be because he (and his party) are not actually subordinated in a practical way to working class activism.

I wonder if there's some chance of a collapse of the neo-liberal consensus in NZ? I find it fascinating that there's one region where neo-liberalism has taken a beating, and that's Latin America, perhaps the first casualty of the "Washington Consensus", so long ago, well before the NZ working class got Rogered.

Certainly it's hard to imagine such political leadership coming from Shearer. He appears unable to conceive of any radical critique of the system. All he's got to offer is some "business-as-usual" managerialism, and frankly that's not nearly enough.

Lew said...

Another thing. In my darker moments, I do blame the working class (in which I grew up) for Rogernomics; not for implementing it in the first place, or making me feel guilty about it, but for not coming out strongly enough to dismantle it before it became entrenched.

At the strict individual level, those reforms, and the ensuing developments of the 1990s, did benefit me. (We were fortunate; my mum (bootstraps and all that) got off the DPB before the 1991 benefit cuts. I still get angry when I think what might have been if it had been otherwise.) Among my social group we used to often talk about why we -- who would get along perfectly fine under the Nats, thank you -- bothered to support the left when the folk with the most to gain for doing so were voting for the Nats and NZ First for bogus socially-conservative reasons -- or not voting at all. And still are, or not.

When my judgement is less clouded, though, I think differently in two main ways. First, it makes no sense to blame the working class for that; aside from patronising "they know not what they do": false-consciousness nonsense, they're the ones carrying most of the can for it, and if they want to weight "culture war" issues above material issues then that's unfortunate, but they're entitled to their own political sovereignty. Second, and more deeply: the reason we, who are nominally better off in the individualised neoliberal world, vote for progress out of it is that we are not actually better off. individual prosperity matters, yes; but the health of society matters, and the actual health of its people, and their education and intellectual life and sense of belonging in it all matter too, and those things need not be mutually exclusive.

L

Russell Brown said...

I suppose what I find disconcerting is that Foo is an invitation-only event, so it is a bit self-selecting. Yet people who were selected to go there because they knew the right people had an opportunity to offer ideas and influence policy development that very few other people have. It feels like just another kind of old boys network, but dressed up in fancy techy stuff.

Sigh ... for a start, let me put the politicians part in context. Over six years nine (I think) MPs have come along, most of them for only a part of the weekend. It is not a lobbying shop. Its chief value is that campers get to meet and hear from people in fields of work other than their own, and talk. And talk some more.

Yes, people are invited, often on the recommendation of other campers -- much as you'd invite people to a party. It's the only way to keep the numbers manageable (i.e.: about 180 people). Some of them might qualify as members of the technocratic elite, but others are simply seen as excellent in their field, whether it be music, primary school teaching or disability activism. They tend to come out fizzed up and full of ideas, which is the idea.

I was delighted to be able to take my Asperger son this year, because there were people know knew him (like Ben) and most importantly, others on the autism spectrum. He shone in a session about his special field of interest -- video games.

Anyone can form their own group, the way Ludwig Wendzich founded a similar event, Auckland Bar Camp, while he was still at school (he's been along to Foo a couple of times since). It grieves me that we always clash with Camp A Low Hum (which is mostly about music), because I'd love to invite some of those people too.

Russell Brown said...

However we can't pretend that Kiwi Foo is an apolitical forum, or that it doesn't represent a specific set of interests, with the odd exception.

Sorta. I still don't think you understand how community-minded it is. And, y'know, hackers are people too.

Therefore the problem becomes whether Shearer went there in the normal course of talking to a broad range of groups inside and outside the Left, or whether Kiwi Foo is in fact his main reference group, the kind of people he is ideologically most inclined to talk to and listen to. At which point the exercise would become a little hollow-menish. No question.

I would certainly hope Shearer had talked to a range of people and groups over three months -- it would be odd if he hadn't -- but as I said, I don't know. I presume it's easy enough to call his office and just ask. He turned up in Warkworth for about five hours, which doesn't seem long enough to get a conspiracy going. Basically, depicting it as "hollow-menish" is a paranoid distraction. I'll leave this for now, because I'm feeling annoyed.

Stephen said...

For the record, my contribution to the last session at this year's Foo was to urge that we go outside our normal networks to recruit potential invitees in the interests of a more (gender, ethnicity, professional) heterogenous set for next year. Didn't see any dissent in the crowd. You're not meant to keep going year after year. It's supposed to turn over so many people get the chance.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Yes, people are invited, often on the recommendation of other campers -- much as you'd invite people to a party. It's the only way to keep the numbers manageable (i.e.: about 180 people). Some of them might qualify as members of the technocratic elite, but others are simply seen as excellent in their field, whether it be music, primary school teaching or disability activism. They tend to come out fizzed up and full of ideas, which is the idea."

Russell, I love your work but if you're suggesting that Kiwi Foo is anything resembling a cross-section of society my mood is going to get slightly altered. It's a gathering of tech industry people and policy makers, just like it says on the box, with the odd teacher and librarian thrown in. And people get invited because the influence they have and/or who they know, which is pretty much what Deborah said.

I also struggle to understand how "we need to keep the numbers manageable" morphs into "let's make sure we always invite David Farrar". The guy writes for Fairfax *and* the Herald, makes regular appearance on radio and television and has the second or third most widely read blog in the country. Do you feel that he's lacking for influence or exposure? Are you trying to help him catch his big break? Come on now.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I presume it's easy enough to call his office and just ask. He turned up in Warkworth for about five hours, which doesn't seem long enough to get a conspiracy going."

Yes, I am clearly alleging a conspiracy. Somehow.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"For the record, my contribution to the last session at this year's Foo was to urge that we go outside our normal networks to recruit potential invitees in the interests of a more (gender, ethnicity, professional) heterogenous set for next year."

Which presumably there wouldn't have been a lot of point in doing if the attendance had been sufficiently heterogeneous in the first place.

Stephen said...

Indeed. But contrariwise, it isn't deliberately homogeneous either. I share Deborah's concerns. It's hard for any group to not end up like that without a lot of effort to resist the trend to recruit people like you.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"But contrariwise, it isn't deliberately homogeneous either."

That's neither here nor there. I spent the last week reading reports from people who have been to Kiwi Foo. The place is plenty homogenous, and is not that by accident. It may be less so now than in the past, but at the end of the day it's stil the tech industry, journalists, influencers, politicians. It makes no secret of this *on its own website*. And there is nothing wrong with that. I'll take a special interest group over a special interest group that claims to represent the whole of society any day of the week.

Giovanni Tiso said...

In fact, it could be a worthwhile project - so long as Kiwi Foo is interested in becoming more inclusive - to survey participants to this year's edition and get some statistics on industry, gender, ethnicity, role in the respective organisations, place of residence within NZ and average income.

David Farrar said...

Interesting discussion thread. For my 2c Shearer (and Cunliffe and Curran) were doing exactly what people ask politician to do - sit down and have a two way dialogue with some people who have an interest in innovation and the economy.

Kiwi Foo is one place they did it. I am sure it is not the only. We should be encouraging more Kiwi Foo type conversations, not complaining that they occur.

My sitting next to DS was chance, not management. The overall discussion was about the exact opposite of neo-liberal economics. It was very much about what the Govt can do to help innovation etc.

Russell Brown said...

Yes, I am clearly alleging a conspiracy. Somehow.

Well, it sort of seemed that way, especially when you said it was "hollow men-ish".

I appreciate the way you've been at pains to privately emphasise this isn't anything personal. But I honestly think it would be useful if you did actually just ask and find out where Shearer has been and who he's seen -- it's all in his Parliamentary diary -- rather than fixating like this on one event you know he briefly attended.

And perhaps also take a break from fixating on Farrar. They've managed it at Red Alert, for the better.

FWIW, I had a look at this year's invite list, and there were more teachers and educators than journalists and more scientists than either. It's still a bit of a sausagefest, but there were about 50 women. Gareth Hughes from the Greens was there for a while too. But I'm not sure what I'm trying to justify or why by this point ...

John said...

And we've got off the main topic anyway, which might be over-simplified as 'What does the Labour Party under David Shearer stand for?'

While I can understand all the sophisticated stuff about positioning and strategy, that also comes close, in the end, to another word beginning with 'sophis'. I have to say, that far from being non-ideological, the current government seems to be nakedly ideological in their actions: they've just learned to talk about it in a marginally more populist manner. In which case, having had the experience of the 1990s, why the hell isn't the leader of the Labour Party standing up publically to strongly condemn attacks on the poor, workers, public services, etc?

Or is he too much like a bad general, busy fighting the last war instead of the conflict currently before him?

Giovanni Tiso said...

"And perhaps also take a break from fixating on Farrar. They've managed it at Red Alert, for the better."

I've mentioned David Farrar twice in 170 posts. I think I'm okay with that average, and I'm not expecting it to increase.

"But I honestly think it would be useful if you did actually just ask and find out where Shearer has been and who he's seen -- it's all in his Parliamentary diary -- rather than fixating like this on one event you know he briefly attended."

See, I'm not sure that that's going to do it. This comes in the context of rumblings from sectors of the Left about David Shearer's silences and absences - that's the back story. And then at the end of this long period he produced a speech that studiously avoided the concernes of said sectors. So it may turn out that he met with some unionists during this time, or his presence at the POAL march - where his speech didn't impress many people - might count as offsetting Kiwi Foo, but it's not quite as simple as that.

You've been playing it down ever since, but what you wrote in your post is that he led a long session at Kiwi Foo for the express purpose of discussing the ideas in his speech. That is qualitatively different from just being in the same room for an hour with somebody who might hail from one Labour's other constituencies. So a meeting schedule won't tell the whole story. There is the other side of it, which is how listened to the people he met might have felt. And it's an ongoing one.

Russell Brown said...

I'll take a special interest group over a special interest group that claims to represent the whole of society any day of the week.

I'm not aware that anyone has made that claim, but feel free to go ahead and convict the accused.

Sacha said...

Foo is not set up as a 'representative' forum, so mandating isn't an issue like it should be in some other gatherings.

Demographic diversity is one value, just like depth of expertise and ability to converse are. On that last factor, you'd actually expect women to have the upper hand on average. Tech events are known for being pale sausage-fests, and it sure needs to be addressed.

It will come as no surprise that I don't agree with Mr Farrar's politics or his rather loose stewardship of his blog. However, David has also been strongly involved in internet policy circles for many years. I'd expect him to be invited on those grounds, not the political hats he wears.

Sacha said...

"Or is he too much like a bad general, busy fighting the last war instead of the conflict currently before him?"

That seems to describe his advisors, yes.

Anonymous said...

Good article,
Poor Labour struggling like Kodak.

Vision - to properly look after the poor, social housing tenants in Wellington we need to do what the UK has done for decades... TMO (tenant management organisations).

In my experience the inefficiencies, bungling, dishonoured promises, wastes - (read an endless list) mean that public money is not effectively getting to the right places to help our poorest citizens... TMOs will close these gaps.

So please note *** Mr. Shearer/ Foo et al *** it is only a matter of time - this bungling leading to lies and corruption will be outed and replaced by a better, more transparent/ honest regime.

Barry Thomas
Artist, 4 term Aro Valley Community Councillor, film maker

Stephen said...

Russell, I think if you re-read what Gio wrote about special interest groups, it was to praise Foo for being open about its special interest nature, not criticise it for pretending to a generality it doesn't have.

Russell Brown said...

You've been playing it down ever since, but what you wrote in your post is that he led a long session at Kiwi Foo for the express purpose of discussing the ideas in his speech.

He did not mention a speech of any kind. I managed to find a record of the schedule and the title was 'NZ -- An Innovation Society?' So yes, he was interested in hearing ideas on that topic, which did indeed later feature in his speech. I'm still at a loss as to why this is a bad thing.

The session was at 9.30 at night and I'd guess there were a couple of dozen people there in Room A3, most with drinks in their hands. (The others on at the same time were a session on privacy by Francois Marier, a free software advocate, and 'Looking back on 30 Years of China' with Alex Dong.) The majority of people were drinking and talking in the school common room.

Honestly: you've airily dismissed the idea of actually finding out who else Shearer had talked with, listened to or met, on the basis that that wouldn't reveal how the people he met with felt about it. Yet you're obsessing about and reading dark motives into this one discussion to a degree that went beyond ridiculous some time ago.

Russell Brown said...

To clarify, I meant the topic later featured in Shearer's speech. I have no idea at all whether anything said in the meeting did.

Chris Trotter said...

I really think you're on to something re: the middle class's anger at having to put the boot into the workers, Giovanni.

It would explain not only the actions, but the mood (if that's the right word) of so many Labour people.

Something to do with how exhausting being an absolute bastard can be, and how nobody has even the slightest sympathy.

Great posting.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I should always get Stephen to write my replies, he's much better at it than I am.

How would you like to become my spokesperson, S.? The pay is terrible but... yeah, that's it I'm afraid.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Also, to follow on from Stephen's latest, and under the heading "Kiwi Foo isn't S.P.E.C.T.R.E.", Catalyst is supporting a digital humanities project that would have got started about a year ago if I didn't suck as a person. And the humanities? Also a special interest, in many respects.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Russell

“The session was at 9.30 at night and I'd guess there were a couple of dozen people there in Room A3, most with drinks in their hands. The majority of people were drinking and talking in the school common room…”

In your post you wrote “I sat in on a private discussion of the ideas in this speech at this year's Kiwi Foo Camp. It was Shearer who ordained the discussion, but Cunliffe who demonstrated a grasp of policy and a striking articulacy in talking about it”. Later in the comments, that there were 40 people in the room, that you were there for an hour but that it lasted quite a bit longer. Whilst not being interested in the particulars (“airily,” apparently) I ventured to speculate that the overall point of it might have been sounding the participants on innovation, and you’re confirming that it’s precisely what he did. I think you’re just quibbling now and that what I wrote in the post stands.

“Yet you're obsessing about and reading dark motives into this one discussion to a degree that went beyond ridiculous some time ago.”

And yet nobody else who’s responded to this post seems to think that.

Russell Brown said...

and under the heading "Kiwi Foo isn't S.P.E.C.T.R.E."

Well, thank christ for that. I'm sorry I lost my temper somewhat Gio -- I was determined not to -- but I did, to put it mildly, have a lot of trouble with the conclusions you were drawing. And especially your use of the description "hollow men-ish". It did actually start to get personal.

But you do, er, realise that your benefactor was an enthusiastic contributor to the fateful discussion?

Sacha said...

"And yet nobody else who’s responded to this post seems to think that."

If you hadn't devoted so much of this to the one event, I would have publicised your articulate post by now myself. I like the same aspect Mr Trotter highlighted.

Russell Brown said...

Later in the comments, that there were 40 people in the room, that you were there for an hour but that it lasted quite a bit longer.

I had a look at the photo. There weren't that many people there.

And yet nobody else who’s responded to this post seems to think that.

Stephen expressed the view that the whole Foo thing was a distraction quite early on in the discussion. I'll very much agree and leave it at that.

Giovanni Tiso said...

They could have been two separate posts, yes. It's just that I only write once a week, so it wouldn't really have worked that way.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"But you do, er, realise that your benefactor was an enthusiastic contributor to the fateful discussion?"

Of course I am. And as I have written, I thought fairly clearly, the "hollow men-ish" thing would apply if it should turn out that Shearer is only prepared to listen to innovators as defined by the range of people who attend Kiwi Foo, which is not coextensive with society, or with anything resembling Labour's traditional constituencies. And this still wouldn't make the people in that room "conspirators". It would reflect solely on Shearer's leadership.

So I am asking the question: who else did he solicit for ideas? Alternative welfare working group? The teacher unions? The guy had three months. There are a lot people who in this time have felt not listened to, if I've read their rumblings correctly. And it is not a question for me to answer but I think it should be asked.

M. Jansen said...

He listened to Gabriel Makhlouf who is suddenly an expert on education: get rid of all them bad teachers.

Loved the post but hate it when you argue with Russell.

Russell Brown said...

So I am asking the question: who else did he solicit for ideas? Alternative welfare working group? The teacher unions?

And I'm asking -- perhaps being a bit journalistic and literal, I know -- why don't you just find out?

But anyway, I keep saying I'll bow out, and I really should.

Giovanni Tiso said...

And I've tried to explain that it's not a question for me to ask to David Shearer or to his PA. It's a question for the party and the Left to ask, and keep asking, to themselves and to David Shearer.

Con said...

I think people here are reading too much into the Foo business. As I saw it, it was more of a marker - a kind of rhetorical device serving as a counterpoint to counterpose Shearers failure to take on the concerns of workers. Not quite a MacGuffin, perhaps, but ...

To me the question it highlights is "why Foo (for example) rather than some other forum?" Why does the ostensible leader of a Labour Party prefer to look amongst middle class intellectuals for technocratic solutions to political problems rather than looking to the labour movement? Isn't it true that, whoever he listens to, he's disposed to hear the views that are not challenges to the neo-liberalism? Isn't that what his dog-whistling, realpolitiking speech is telling us?

George D said...


So I am asking the question: who else did he solicit for ideas? Alternative welfare working group? The teacher unions? The guy had three months. There are a lot people who in this time have felt not listened to, if I've read their rumblings correctly. And it is not a question for me to answer but I think it should be asked.


The question - who could Shearer have talked to in three months, in order to produce a speech so entirely devoid of both political and ideological content from the left - is an entirely reasonable one.

Russell, I think Giovanni's interpretation of what you said took you at face value. I though, from what you said, that he had asked either directly or indirectly about a speech. Subsequent comments have made clear that was not the case.

I don't think the speech lost content because it was shopped (in a roundabout way) at Foo. It lost content because it was written by a man who has a particular outlook. His seeking commentary on his ideas is only a small part of this.

Russell Brown said...

10:52 So I am asking the question ...

11:08 ...it's not a question for me to ask ...

But you have asked it, repeatedly. The appearance is that a large part of your post, including the first 400 words, is predicated on an urgent question whose answer you have no interest in knowing.

I'm not annoyed any more (belly full of curry), but I am, sir, challenging the construction of your argument.

Good evening!

Giovanni Tiso said...

"10:52 So I am asking the question ...

11:08 ...it's not a question for me to ask ...

But you have asked it, repeatedly. The appearance is that a large part of your post, including the first 400 words, is predicated on an urgent question whose answer you have no interest in knowing."

Erm... What I actually wrote was "it's not a question for me to ask TO DAVID SHEARER". Which is why I'm not asking it TO DAVID SHEARER.

Con, George: thank you, and yes.

merc said...

Indeed thank you Con and George, very requisite.

Anonymous said...

Our own exclusive TED!

Vincristine said...

Well maybe the disappointment was more with what is missing , Lew, rather than what was said. Labour people were hoping for direction I think. Lost after the trouncing in November, wanting to know "What does Labour stand for now?". Ive been to the recent meetings, the 'consultation with the membership". Cynically I wonder if its throwing out a line and hoping to pick up a good idea, maybe a principle we can cling on to, some direction? Any?

There seemed such surety of the direction in election year. But that didnt work, so all those policies appear to be washed up.

I was not reassured. And I am disappointed, about what appears to be missing. Principles. Direction. A strong foundation.

I think the membership have a stronger idea of what Labour should be than the caucus do. But the disconnect to me looks vast

How sad is that?

Anonymous said...

The Art of Distraction - let's get all angsty about Foo instead of dealing with the most inept, heart-sinking-to hear-speech that I've heard from a Labour leader. Read Key's first speech as Opposition Leader and weep. By comparison, Key strikes all the right notes in portraying himself as one of us, an ordinary (yet extraordinary) bloke, who really wants to restore a decent society. Lies of course, but a powerful speech nonetheless.
The dominant feeling I get from this incarnation of Labour is that they think it's ok to lie. They've missed the obvious point that many swing voters and non-voters just don't trust them. When we most need our elected representatives to be expressing our frustrations and downright anger, we get wibbly-wobbly jelly.

Shearer made a lot of noise about education & the Finnish system - one that could not possibly exist in the current NZ climate. Totally free, pre-school to tertiary, 96% schools having 50-500 students, free meals, counselling, stationery, trips, everything. Oh. And teachers held in the highest regard and trusted to be the professionals they are.
So. Sounds fabulous - how is Mr Shearer going to implement that? How will we pay for it? Clues??

Maybe he plans to out-key JK and sell absolutely everything not nailed down or parked with iwi.

I want my Opposition leader to speak out for the petrol station attendants who get their pay docked when some thief drives off without paying on their watch. Or those retail workers on 20 hour contracts + pick up any extras - your hours spread over 6 days and split shifts so bosses don't have to pay for your meal breaks.
I'd really like him to back teachers who deal with outright violence in schools every day, some of it directed at themselves, both in school and out of it.

Kerry.

Vincristine said...

I totally agree Lew. Quite a lot of people are better off, but there are a huge number of people increasingly disadvantaged - and increasingly desperate. It gets to the stage where you see it on the streets, in the schools. Gasp! poverty maybe even touch your neighbourhood, your children, your friends. People with nothing will start to appear in the peripheral vision of the fortunate more and more. There will be cries of "What is happening in society!".

People who have no idea will not be able to ignore what its like in the parts of town they avoid.

We cannot afford to throw so many people onto the scrapheap of our comfortable lives. Governments have a responsibility to provide meaningful work, voters should, must, demand it. Along with quality education and health. I think they should be our societal bottom lines and parties that do not offer this should be shunned.

But I'm a party of one.

I worry about how bad it is going to have to get before wider society sees the value of inclusivity rather than marginalisation.

Ben Wilson said...

>The Art of Distraction

I don't think that's what Gio was aiming for at all. It was more to suggest the kind of people Shearer seems to be taking his cue from. Foo certainly is aimed at entrepreneurial people - even those in education were the bright young sparks - not a bunch of grumpy old buggers like what at least half of my teachers were like at school.

But yes, I feel similarly to you about the speech, with one caveat - it might be strategically sound. It really depends on the extent to which the more left wing parties can grow their vote in the next 2.5 years. If they can manage to add 10% to their tally, we could see a rhetorically centrist (relative to the Lab/Nat blob) Labour in coalition with some strongly left wing parties, and no real prospect of improvement for National at all, which could find itself quite rapidly isolated. The overall movement could be a general leftwards swing.

So whilst I don't like the angle Shearer is taking, I can see the overall strategic wisdom of it. It requires the mental yoga of continuing to believe that Labour is generally a party "of the left", whilst accepting that their main purpose is to take the soft right wing votes off National, and allow their allies to lead the actual rhetorical charge of progressive change. MMP coalitions always justify a compromise on the official policy anyway, and never more so than when the coalition heavily relies on the partners. Which is, in my opinion, actually quite fair. It doesn't matter how strongly Labour campaigned on beneficiary bashing if they ally with Mana who simply won't allow that agenda.

Considering I don't vote for Labour anymore anyway, I guess I can see it from their point of view. In fact, I think I may have even given this advice to them on RedAlert at the time of the election. To partition the votes, so that voter confusion is reduced, and people finally have a really good reason to vote to the left of Labour, because it would be a vote for a powerful coalition partner. I was cognizant that this could actually cause Labour to not grow it's vote so much as it could by pushing left, but the overall chances of a coalition are much improved, which means Labour in power again.

Of course the danger is that Labour is not really "of the left" after gaining such power, and is actually no different than National. But I find it hard to believe that a bigger Labour working with a coalition of leftist parties (not sure whether to call NZF that, but on economics I think it's almost fair) wouldn't be a substantial move away from the crazy shit National is trying to pull this term.

The other danger is that the other parties can't grow their vote. Either because of incompetence, or because the NZ electorate that bothers to vote really is a lot more right wing than I'm giving them credit for. In which case we really will get the government we deserve.

M. Jansen said...

Your post is very cogent, Ben. I find it hard to believe that Shearer is Machiavellian enough to come up with a plan like that. In spite of his illustrious past he seems lacklustre and lacking in conviction.

Why didn't he speak about the Nick Smith/ACC scandal this morning. Why leave it to Andrew Little - who spoke confidently on the issue - as if his party sees him as too weak to act as their spokesperson in public.

Deborah said...

Possibly because he's trying to avoid being the Minister of Everything. He needs to build up the strength of his team, and fronting every issue is probably not the best way to do that.

Sacha said...

Totally agree. Speech didn't inspire me, but then I'm not really the target audience.

Labour really has to see itself as part of the Left under MMP, and stop treating the Greens and others as competition.

The biggest pool of available votes are probably those who stayed home in record numbers because they didn't see a viable alternative to vote for. Being dishonest about intentions isn't going to bring them back, so coherent communication and action is needed to rebuild trust and credibility.

I despair at the quality of advice Labour seem to retain internally, but this country can't afford the current government to continue even a whole term. The performances in the debating chamber yesterday aiming at Nick Smith's scalp were reassuring.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Being dishonest about intentions isn't going to bring them back, so coherent communication and action is needed to rebuild trust and credibility."

But - and I'm building up towards a response to what Lew wrote way upthread - the issue of dishonesty is really a non starter I think. Clark's government wasn't more to the left than its rhetoric. I have yet to encounter a government that is.

merc said...

When was the last Govt. whose rhetoric matched their actions. Serious question.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The first term of the Clark government played it pretty straight I thought. Good and bad.

Giovanni Tiso said...

In the meantime I have had a conversation with Ms Bradford and my suggestion in the post that Shearer might have wanted to talk to the Alternative Welfare Working Group is off base since the group no longer operates. My understanding was that it didn’t convene regularly but would be available to comment on the issues, however there was never enough money to keep it going and it has simply ceased to be (although the materials on the website remain available). This raises a problem in the comparison with Kiwi Foo because of course one group is able to attract corporate sponsorship, while the other one isn’t, and this will help determine the kind of forums that are available to the politicians who are purportedly eager to listen to a broad range of views. Bruce Jesson’s observations about the hollowness of New Zealand society in this respect ring truer than ever.

merc said...

Corporate sponsorship is the biggest impediment to open democracy we have. The level of funding for a voice or an ear is startling.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Finally answering Lew

“So my imagined world, and I'll concede it's a particularly fanciful one, is inhabited by a left movement that gets that (first win, then govern) and gets that you win by playing smart, practical and adaptable. In the generalities where you see a right-wing default agenda I see next to no policy relevance -- only a strategic commitment to saying things that won't scare the hell out of an electorate that, all said and done, actually *likes* the Key government and their non-ideological approach, while keeping options open for policy and later positioning that matches the fluffy generalities but differs from the status quo in important, substantive ways. It's a game at the margin, not a winner-takes-all stake.”

If you’re right and this is indeed how the game is played, then it’s utterly demoralising and we (meaning progressives) should never tire of saying so. The political centre in New Zealand is still where Roger Douglas and David Lange left it. So if you spend the first two and a half years of every election cycle positioning yourself close enough to it to be able to grow your support in the opinion polls, and then make a last minute policy dash that sets out the “important, substantive” differences with the Tories, then those differences will never be big enough to actually matter to anybody except the bourgeoisie. This is simply because a commitment to truly deviate from the right-wing default agenda of the post-Rogernomics years requires a patient and persistent political groundwork, a work of persuasion in which the Labour party would seek the support and the co-operation of popular movements and organizations, other left wing parties and its own base. It will take nothing less to change the narrative. But Labour is too scared, lives too much from poll to poll, and lacks the talent and the determination required for the very simple reason that its mediocre brand of politics attracts mediocre people.

That said, I actually think you’re right, in that it’s probably how the Labour strategists view their task and the demands of the electoral cycle. However I personally refuse to play the game. And so I will always read political content in a speech – because it’s there – even though the ‘game at the margin’ apologists will respond that those words are meaningless. They aren’t. You cannot spend two and a half years feeding the public what they have been persuaded that they want to hear and then turn around and articulate a progressive set of policies that contradicts all the speeches you have given up to that point. It just doesn’t happen. At that point you’re lucky if you can keep the other side out, that’s all. (In the case of David Shearer: very lucky.)

So it won’t be Rogernomics 2.0 – not under MMP – but it won’t deviate enough from Rogernomics 1.0 to matter to the people I referred to in my original comment. And for some personal context, I refer you to this old post of mine. That was a freeze frame of the situation after nine years of Labour in government. Nobody in Labour is charting a different course, nor even seeing a fundamental problem with how things work, with how society is allowed to continue disabling so many of its citizens and then harassing them and humiliating them to boot. Yet the change we need is radical, not a tinkering at the margins. We tried that.

Jordan Carter said...

It isn't true to say, Gio, that "nobody in Labour is charting a different course" - but it is true to say that it's going to take a while to turn the ship around.

You won't find signals of that in speeches, but the interesting first hint I'd predict will come in the outcome of the organisational review the party is now undertaking.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I want to believe you, Jordan, but I find it hard to overlook the fact that your boss has given a speech pointing the ship in the opposite direction.

merc said...

"Nobody in Labour is charting a different course, nor even seeing a fundamental problem with how things work, with how society is allowed to continue disabling so many of its citizens and then harassing them and humiliating them to boot."
This says it all for me really, and I am stoked someone has written it.

Lew said...

Giovanni,

If you’re right and this is indeed how the game is played, then it’s utterly demoralising and we (meaning progressives) should never tire of saying so.

Demoralising it may be, but it is the role of Labour. If it is to pose a credible threat to further, and deeper reforms, a mainstream party needs to be electorally credible as a matter of priority. So much of the critique I see of Labour is from those of a revolutionary mindset, who wish Labour was really the Alliance (before it imploded) or the Greens as they might have been if Sue Bradford and Keith Locke had assumed the leadership. This is another 'Finland of the mind'; a utopian vision of a society where radicalism is democratically viable. It isn't. Other, more radical organs to push the ideological boundaries, and for their part at least the Greens are doing a good job of that (although they, too, are coming under fire for lack of ideological purity!)

I'd also note that I'm emphatically not advocating that toeing the National party line should be Labour's long-term strategy. I was extremely critical of Goff and John Pagani last year for continuing to do so into the third year of the term. A political party does need to lead, as well as follow -- it just needs to be smart about how it does so. But it is a useful opening bid, and buys time for the internal reforms, soul-searching and genuine strategic development that desperately needs to occur before the party can authentically and coherently begin to lead. I am assured by some people who ought to know that that work is underway, and I really hope that it is.

This is simply because a commitment to truly deviate from the right-wing default agenda of the post-Rogernomics years requires a patient and persistent political groundwork, a work of persuasion in which the Labour party would seek the support and the co-operation of popular movements and organizations, other left wing parties and its own base.

I don't see how this is at odds with the role I have articulated for Labour. If there's one thing I hope we see an end to, it's Labour's notion of itself as "the left", as if other parties are stealing its rightful votes. That will require coordination and deeper relationships, and that's something that Shearer has started.

L

Giovanni Tiso said...

This is another 'Finland of the mind'; a utopian vision of a society where radicalism is democratically viable. It isn't.

I'm not expecting Labour to embrace my politics. I'm expecting it to embrace its own. There is no trace of even a watered-down social democratic analysis of the economy and the body politic in its current iteration. Surely there is some sort of ground to occupy between "revolutionary socialism" and "National Lite".

Lew said...

I'm not expecting Labour to embrace my politics. I'm expecting it to embrace its own. There is no trace of even a watered-down social democratic analysis of the economy and the body politic in its current iteration.

And so we're back to the start: whether you can actually divine that from the evidence presently in play.

L

Giovanni Tiso said...

I can certainly divine it from the speech via the power of being able to read.

Ben Wilson said...

This is another 'Finland of the mind'; a utopian vision of a society where radicalism is democratically viable. It isn't.

If Labour had been more left wing, and openly and proudly so, they might have got more votes. I don't know about radicalism and revolutionaries - none of the little parties have particularly radical views, not compared to the idea of, for instance, selling off billions of dollars worth of state assets to fund tax cuts for the rich, reorganizing and gutting every government department except Treasury, and reorganizing local government so that it can't do anything without central government permission. And none of them are "revolutionary" at all.

Anonymous said...

i would seriously like to know what David Shearer, the Protector of the Dispossessed is going to do about these casualties of our current society - and the many more, just like them:
A 16 year old, trying to do ncea one, who loses his home and family structure, not because he is Trouble, but because his custodial parent shot the gap to Aussie and the other parent had no room at the inn with the new step-family. This kid had to rent a bedsit, look after himself, get to school, pay his bills etc all on an Unsupported Youth benefit. Naturally, he succumbed to despair.
Another 16 year old unable to live at home because one parent has been court-ordered not to have custody and the other has health issues which mean parenting is actually impossible. This young one lived with a relative who treated them as $$, charged them to live there, failed to provide 3 square meals a day and the usual niceties of life like health care, deodorant, shoes and clothes. Both these kids have very low self-esteem because they know that no-one gives a flying f... about them. No-one bloody loves them.
This is the real cost of this miserable, selfish, greedy place we have become. So do i expect Shearer and Labour to stand up and be counted for these kids? Bloody oath I do.

Con said...

The idea that radicalism isn't democratically viable is demonstrably false. There are plenty of countries (yes they're all overseas, but foreign countries are like that) which are examples of successful radical refudiation of neo-liberalism through electoral means. In fact, the whole region of Latin America is a stand-out in that regard. Avert your gaze if you wish to wallow in despair!

The example of Argentina is interesting. There, the Justicialist Party was thoroughly tainted by neo-liberalism, but political change emerged within that party all the same. There was a bitter political struggle within that party which led to the defeat of the neo-liberal faction and a significant leftward turn.

Of course it "helped" that Argentina had suffered a debt crisis not unlike the current European crisis was the trigger for the collapse of the neo-liberal consensus. But it took some political leadership to stand up and actually mount a real electoral struggle to break with the failed neo-liberal policies.

What's so different about Latin America that electoral challenges to neo-liberalism have been so stunningly successful there? Is it just that they were there first? How bad do things have to get before the Labour Party is prepared to countenance an explicit repudiation of the legacy of Rogernomics? I sadly suspect it will take some time.

In the meantime, if all that the electorate has on offer is neo-liberalism, why not go for the real deal from a party led by an actual finance capitalist?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Anon for putting it in another useful context. Wonderful comment.

And Con, I agree, with the addition that whilst New Zealand has been relatively insulated from the crises of the last four years thus far, a more significant impact - say, of the magnitude of what the UK is experiencing - is always around the corner, ready to radicalise our politics. We know how less constrained National Party would respond were it up to them to 'save the country'. But what about Labour? All its talk - which to be fair hasn't started with Shearer - of being the party of fiscal responsibility tells me they'd go down much the same path. I couldn't see where they'd begin to muster the intellectual resources to find a radically different set of responses to the austerity that the citizenry is being fed in smaller doses at the moment.

merc said...

"Australia offers a higher average wage and longer paid parental leave."
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10793720
Elephant in corner of the room playing pokies.

Ben Wilson said...

I couldn't see where they'd begin to muster the intellectual resources to find a radically different set of responses to the austerity that the citizenry is being fed in smaller doses at the moment.

Neither can I, really. However, I'm not ready to despair, yet. Not in NZ's case. We still have MMP, thankfully, the only really good outcome of the election. If Labour is going to push "centrist", and the "center" is this suckful despair inducing banality that has continued to lead to people turning from voting for years, there is a reckoning sitting right there, just around the corner, in which the other parties enjoy a surge of support from the disaffected, and neoliberalism as the choice of both GOPs turns out rapidly to be a lemon of a stock after all, and will die with the demographic that invented it.

Since both of them have decided to hide their heads in the sand about the capitalist crisis that western economies are facing right now, to pretend that this crisis is not a direct result of their very, very lengthy stay at the helm of this civilization, and to stick to their pathetically cowardly idea that the solution is to do nothing new at all, but rather to intensify the conditions that created the crisis, they might very suddenly find that parties with any alternative vision at all are making rapid inroads, and furthermore, sensing their swelling power they will be very unwilling to sell out to the "centrists". Indeed, I believe this did happen, at the last election. NZF found a big surge of support from apparently nowhere. The Green Party had their best result ever. And Mana was born, a party I personally believe could continue to build, since it started consciously with the very important foundation of being headed by the personification of the most disadvantaged class in this country, yet it deliberately decided to be a racially open church.

Maybe I'm a dreamer. Maybe people will come flooding back to Labour, once they've got used to Shearer and scared enough of National. But I'm just not feeling it. The kind of people who don't vote, that I know, have abandoned politics in disgust at the lack of options, the sense of powerlessness in the face of a conformant elite across the supposed spectrum. These people are there for the taking by anyone who can inspire them. They are not going to be bored back into voting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben, yes, I understand your point about Foo. Call it frustration on my part, I'm fed up with hearing how important techy innovator entrepreneur types are. Probably much like Gio. I was more annoyed with RB going on and on about it. It was an appalling speech. I think the msm have been restrained, kind even, to Labour over Shearer's leadership.
I no longer have faith that Labour in power will allow itself to be pulled any great distance to the Left.They alienated that support over 9 years of power, gifted National the Maori Party and maintained contempt for the lower orders. It's almost as if it matters not who is in power in NZ. The train keeps rolling on.

styler said...

I'm not so quietly offended that you perceive everyone at foo camp to be of a type. I've attended kiwi foo twice guess what not that type, you allude to. I'm craft girl and guess what i wasn't there as token craft girl but one of many makers, artists and creatives.

foo, allows people to step away from the bullshit of many things in their life/ work and just talk and do and dream big and dream small and listen.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I'm not so quietly offended that you perceive everyone at foo camp to be of a type"

Too bad I never said that I guess.

Sacha said...

"a crowd consisting mainly of prominent urban professionals – la crème of the technocracy"

...

"gathering of elite knowledge economy workers"

Giovanni Tiso said...

Neither of which sentence means that *everyone* at kiwi foo camp is of a type. Nor does the fact that this year there were apparently "more scientists than educators and journalists" contradict my broad characterisation of the event, which is supported by its own literature. So really I'm a little puzzled both by the perceived offence and by the ongoing quibbling.

Giovanni Tiso said...

In fact I'm calling time on both: there's a well-linked portion of the post and about forty comments on this issue alone. Let's move on.

Sacha said...

I guess we can all sometimes make over-confident statements based on a scrap of knowledge gleaned from the outside. What to do when others offer more information is often the art.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve actual researched this topic and the attempts in this thread to make Kiwi Foo appear something other than what it is border on the disingenuous.

This is the partial list of invitees as of mid-december from Kiwi Foo’s website. 117 people. Nat Torkington alone is listed as having invited 38 of them (but it’s not an exclusive gathering - oh no!).

I’ve excerpted the bios of the first thirty-odd. The rest of the list is very much on the same tenor but you can check for yourselves. If somebody is still inclined to question the phrases “elite knowledge economy worker” and “cream of the technocracy” on this evidence, they can do so on their own blogs because frankly this is getting ridiculous.

* (Event organiser)
* Mathematician, physicist, business owner.
* Corporate social responsibility (Westpac).
* Victoria University lecturer.
* Fearless Leader of Network Tools for Google. Opened the Wellington Google office.
* Creator of Mathletics, CE of 3P Learning who built it.
* Security, hacking guy. Co-organiser of KiwiCon.
* State Services Commission, wrote the NZ Government Open Access Licensing framework.
* Director of Exhibitions for Auckland Museum.
* Organiser (involved in Open Data Barcamp & Hackfest, & PublicACTA), former World Sci Fi Con committee member.
* Futurist. Policy analyst at InterneNZ.
* Young videographer and web designer.
* One of NZ’s leading lawyers and constitutional experts.
* Founder of a mobile phone software company. Product bought by Google.
* Botany Downs Secondary College teacher.
* Organizer of TEDxChristchurch, community guru for Minimonos.
* Entrepreneur, CS grad, excellent developer, great thinker.
* On-line application developer for Telecom.
* Creative thinker in advertising, did the pig for BNZ.
* Goat farmer in West Auckland, author of an ebook on Twitter.
* Consults on the continuum between future thinking, strategy and innovation to introduce opportunities to organisations to create advantage.
* Co-producer of Shell Tech Future.
* UK and US educated, and now in NZ working for Pingar. Expertise in Bioscience, User Interfaces, Text Mining, Search.
* Entrepreneur out of China.
* Founder trunkly, which was acquired by Delicious.
* Smithsonian Commons guru. Runs a company exporting Open Source development; and is organizing 2012 Multicore conference in NZ.
* Webstock minion, sysadmin.
* #eqnz volunteer and one of the brains behind Enspiral, a new kind of business incubator in Wellington.
* Runs an enormously successful German online ad business from Christchurch, doing many millions in revenue. Investor and entrepreneur.
* Coder par excellence, ex-Weta now SF.
* Autonomous forklifts, robots to help broken legs set, various awards won in NZ for his work.
* Technology guy for Consumer magazine and blogger at Public Address.
* Leading a NZ non-profit working for better people and projects around climate change.
* Permaculture farmer in Waikato, runs local farmers market, automating his farm with hardware hacks
* District Court Judge. Wrote book on Cyberlaw. NZ’s most tech-savvy member of the judiciary by a long way.
* Research Repository Librarian at University of Auckland Library, established the DSpace repository.

Russell Brown said...

This is the partial list of invitees as of mid-december from Kiwi Foo’s website. 117 people. Nat Torkington alone is listed as having invited 38 of them (but it’s not an exclusive gathering - oh no!).

Nat invites more people because he's the founder and primary organiser. He and Jenine do a lot of unpaid work. They're good people.

Please, re-read Sue's comment. As she notes, people who attend may not see each other in same context as you see them.

You said you were going to "move on" from this. Could we all do that?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Who’s saying that Nat Torkington or any of the people on that list are bad people? It’s like you see a value judgment in my observation that Kiwi Foo attendees are predominantly successful people from the tech industry. This is just a statement of fact. Read the guest list. Visit the website. Why pretend otherwise? And frankly the context in which you see each other is totally irrelevant to my argument. You enjoy an uncommon degree of access to politicians so you don’t get to be absolved from belonging to a certain socio-economic group and range of industries just because you are creative people or because I personally like you.

“You said you were going to "move on" from this. Could we all do that?”

You don’t seem too keen yourself. If people keep having more to say on this subject I’ll either delete the comments or respond, based on the merit.

Keir said...

You know, I'd almost say that Foo attracts the well adjusted if it weren't for the fact that that would be trolling Gio's blog in the most undignified way.

Instead, I will say that Shearer's speech is in the best tradition of non-specific roscharch blots of political speeches, and that I am very interested in the details of Shearer's vision. Trying to read this kind of speech seems to me to be somewhat pointless, because they are made to be, as Fried puts it,
inexhaustible not because of any fullness but because there is nothing to exhaust.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't believe for a minute that the speech is without content, but wouldn't it actually be more troubling if it were? What does it say about politics in this country that the leader of a major party gets elected, proceeds to say nothing for three months, then finally gives a speech and he's still saying nothing? When are we supposed to start hearing political statements from a leader? Because the norm in most countries is right away. Their citizens tend to insist on that.

And what does the Rorschach analogy imply in terms of the political process? Are these blots shown to the public so that the public can be polled and then a strategy and a set of policies developed based on what the public sees in the blots? And if that is the case, are we surprised that a public thus interrogated might not express a yearning for progressive reforms?

Russell Brown said...

You enjoy an uncommon degree of access to politicians so you don’t get to be absolved from belonging to a certain socio-economic group and range of industries just because you are creative people or because I personally like you.

I'm not looking to be "absolved" of anything, thank you. I'm just tired of a pointless argument.

Russell Brown said...

You know, I'd almost say that Foo attracts the well adjusted if it weren't for the fact that that would be trolling Gio's blog in the most undignified way.

Well, you've said anyway. You might as well make the sneer overt. High-fives all round, etc.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes. So long as we correctly identify the problem as the hurt feelings of Kiwi Foo attendees, then I think we're really going to get somewhere. For they are the real victims.

Stephen said...

I tried to make a comment along these lines this morning but Blogspot ate it.

Anyone who went to a New Zealand primary school knows that you must not show signs of considering yourself to be special. As a corollary, accusations of considering yourself to be special are very serious. YOU THINK YOU'RE SO SPECIAL YOU ARE STUCK UP.

The reason that objectively justified comments about the composition of Foo and the way people get there cause such anger is that they can be read in this way, which strikes at the core of the Kiwi psyche. Probably elsewhere in the world people would be pleased to be identified as part of an elite. There is much painful cognitive dissonance here as we struggle to square our egalitarian inclinations with the fact that Foo is by nature a self-selecting elite. Note I believe there is nothing wrong with being a self-selecting elite in itself but this goes heavily against the grain for me to admit.

I could be just projecting my own feelings here. I feel a bit hurt even as I acknowledge the truth of Giovanni's observations.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The reason that objectively justified comments about the composition of Foo and the way people get there cause such anger is that they can be read in this way, which strikes at the core of the Kiwi psyche.

I really appreciate where you’re coming from, but I’m not convinced it’s the whole explanation.

For one thing, just about every single report from Kiwi Foo (including your own post this year) makes a big deal of how the attendees are in fact special. Farrar put it most crudely of all with his “there are no stupid people here” quip, but most writers emphasise how it’s a smart crowd and most often a very successful crowd as well. Secondly, Kiwi Foo itself makes no secret of this. “Gathering of technology industry people and policy makers” is a direct quote, as is the extended one about the typical participant in the third paragraph of the post. In addition the guests themselves, for I must assume they had a hand in writing their own bios, are unabashed in listing their achievements and signalling their belonging to what is – on average and with few exceptions – unquestionably an elite.

The problems start when I say exactly the same thing. And even if I go at great pains to explain that I acknowledge the elite status of the gathering not as an accusation, but as a necessary context to its interactions with a group of highly placed politicians, it still produces offence. And when others chime in in the comments to suggest that I had a reasonable point, still the offence lingers, mixed with frankly baffling attempts to dilute a characterisation of the average Kiwi Foo guest which, as you say, is objectively justified, as if there was something to be ashamed of in that elite status. This of course – in the interest of not dancing around the obvious – matches my well-documented difficulties in raising the issue of class and class interest in other forums, notably Public Address, without the conversation completely collapsing on the spot (and there too, in spite of a number of participants arguing that maybe I was making reasonable, non-offensive points). Now since I have withdrawn from PAS on the back of repeated failures of this nature and with not a little frustration and regret, maybe Russell and everyone else who drops in here from there to feel aggrieved at my writings would do well to reflect on the fact that they’ve won: it’s impossible to raise issues of class to a liberal audience short of retreating into a self-published corner of the web. And even there you’ll get no end of grief, and they just won't let it go even after it's been done to death and it's derailing the discussion of the actual topic of the post.

Perhaps it’s time that the serially offended looked inwards.

Danielle said...

This is weirdly reminding me of a 'what about teh menz?' derail, although perhaps this one should be called 'what about teh Fooz?'

Keir said...



Well, you've said anyway. You might as well make the sneer overt. High-fives all round, etc.


What. The underlying sarcastic tone there was surely evident, no? (The observation it would just be blatant trolling was totally honest.) The fact is, last time a post of Gio's went nuts like this is was the well-adjusted post; it is quite interesting that the same kind of structure of response should recur here.

I think the general tenor of Shearer's move is quite clear --- away from the more big spending policies of the Goff era, towards a more restrained style. Yes WFF-for-beneficiaries is pretty close to getting the chop, and yes a swing if not to the right at least to the centre. But I don't think the speech tells you that; I think the party's comms work tells you that.

Ben Wilson said...

I find it very sad. I was personally hoping that Goff would stick around a little after the election, doing what a Leader of the Opposition should be doing during a period when some extremely right wings stuff is actually happening, and presiding over an orderly selection and handover to the next candidate. I was extremely angry that he simply quit, and the party decided in a couple of weeks who the leader would be, without first coming to any kind of decision about what their ongoing policy would be. And we are still waiting. It seemed to me as if what the position they had taken during the election campaign, which I approved of and wish they had spent most of the year pushing, as I've met many people who simply didn't get key messages they were pushing, and voted against them accordingly. Lots of tradies, for instance, didn't realize they were talking up paid apprenticeships, which would have been a clincher in many cases of the single, struggling chippie looking to get an offsider but being unable to afford training someone.

Ben Wilson said...

You're not a party of one. There's a lot of people who feel the way you do.

Ben Wilson said...

>Call it frustration on my part, I'm fed up with hearing how important techy innovator entrepreneur types are.

Yeah, I'm fed up with it, too, and I AM one of those types. I don't much like being told the entire economy is waiting on me to solve problems that are ultimately political in origin, like rising poverty, growing inequality, rising debt, increasing un(der)employment, etc, etc.

Innovators in this country are just a small piece of the economy, and the chances of them becoming a big part are tiny so long as we don't pursue policies that are only possible under big government, of building up an innovation complex. Left to the market, innovators will continue to be a very small part of the NZ economy. Indeed, they often spearhead the selling off of the economy, because the really big ideas need big capital and that just isn't around in NZ for risky ventures.

Sacha said...

It is eminently possible to discuss class without resorting to caricature. Or insisting that everyone else share a certain narrow understanding of it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Bollocks. But I'm not going to venture into this any further. I think Danielle elegantly concluded this particular chapter of the discussion for me.

Ben Wilson said...

FWIW I didn't think you were sneering either, but didn't know what history you have with Gio.

Sacha said...

Could a focus on community power rather than the state be an answer for the left?

http://thestandard.org.nz/the-only-vision-left

merc said...

I am with Camus,
One of the good precepts of a philosophy worthy of that name is to never indulge in useless lamentations when faced with a state of affairs that cannot be helped. The question in France today is no longer to know how to preserve the freedoms of the press. It is to find out how, facing the suppression of these freedoms, a journalist can still be free. The problem does not interest the community any longer. It concerns the individual.

He then goes on to describe the four weapons honest journalists can use to preserve their personal freedom: lucidity, irony, refusal to tell lies, and obstinacy.
http://catherinewillis.tumblr.com/post/19578299191/le-manifeste-censure-de-camus

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