Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The leader vanishes

All of a sudden, it’s as if he had never been there.

This was the homepage of the New Zealand Labour Party’s website the week before David Shearer announced his resignation.

This was the same page last Thursday afternoon, a matter of hours after the announcement.

On the same day, Shearer’s own website demoted him to the status of ‘Member of Parliament for Mt Albert, and Labour Spokesperson for Science and Innovation’, even though technically – as he stated in his press conference – he is to remain in charge until a new leader is elected.

When the announcement was made, anticipating a move of this nature, it occurred to me briefly that I should go and download as many ‘Shearer pages’, as many speeches as I could. You never know when such documents might become useful, and I remembered how difficult it was for me to track down some of the things that John Key said when he was deputy leader of National, simply because as soon as he became leader his comms people decided that his record had to be reset, and all previous statements in service of another master deleted.

So: I knew about this, I fully expected this, and yet I was surprised at how quickly it happened, almost as if a measure of glee was being taken in scrubbing off the old leader’s likeness. Were I in the appropriate mood, I might reach for such historical precedents as the chiselling off of the symbols of a hated dictatorship or, more pointedly, the removal from the photographic record of the people who could no longer be seen to have been close to comrade Stalin. After all, with no hyperbole whatsoever, it’s the exact same logic at work: one that negates history, or rather that asserts the prerogative of power to continually write and re-write the past according to the needs of the present.

Let’s look at it again. This:

Became this:

It wasn’t a big change, but someone had to be instructed to carry it out, on a day that no doubt was tumultuous enough, and for the benefit of whom? A leader as yet unknown, who might come in and restructure not just the party but your very job, oh unknown web grunt. It takes a special dedication to a revisionist view of politics to have bothered to do this at such a moment.

Not that it was a completely thorough job, mind. For instance, if you direct your attention to this element of the old page,

one that was actually embarrassing in light of recent events, it led to a page that is still there as of right now. This one:

Evidently, having removed the linking picture, the staffers in charge of the deletions didn’t bother to actually take the page off the server, so there it now lurks, orphaned, until the next clean-out.


In September of 2011, the Labour Party launched its election campaign with a 20-minute party broadcast that can still be found on YouTube. The first five minutes in particular are an object lesson into how to articulate the history of a political organization, and include, most remarkably, a strong disavowal of Rogernomics and everything but the nuclear-free policy of the Fourth Labour Government. Just as remarkably, this section of the broadcast survived a change of leader, and was excerpted and copied onto the party’s website after the defeat at the election, in what seems to me an indication that, if absolutely nothing else, somebody in Labour gets this: that the party’s back story, no matter to what degree it is mythologised, remains its principal asset, that it alone can serve as guarantee – in spite of all evidence to the contrary – of steadfast commitment to a social-democratic project that nobody knows how to spell out any longer, and that might as well itself exist as a black-and-white montage. We are who we are because we were who we were. You need to look no further.

Impressive as that document was, it’s almost reassuring, in the current circumstances, to find cracks in this carefully erected façade. And so in the text that accompanies that video on the party’s About Us page there is no mention of Roger Douglas, and we learn instead that
[t]he Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990), led successively by David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore took difficult and long overdue decisions necessary for the modernisation of the New Zealand Economy.

Two histories on the same page, one contradicting the other: that’s what the habit of obsessively manipulating the record will get you. If the recent past is any indication – those reluctant to take Scott Hamilton’s word for it may peruse for themselves the statements by John Jackson and Jack Johnson – the search for the leader that replaces the ghost of David Shearer will be empty of any political content, and the winner will be issued with a blank slate on which to sketch their own version of history. As if there were no power bases, nor constituencies, nor material foundations for the power that is vested into this particular organization. As if its capacity to reinvent itself were limitless.

In the meantime, if you hurry, for a few days only you can watch the old leader disappear, bit by bit, statement by statement. He won’t be missed simply because he was never there.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My own private Aotearoa

I met my New Zealander in the Summer of 1991, in Edinburgh, Scotland. On my last day, we popped into the Waterstones bookshop in Princes Street and she bought me this.

I read it during the long train journey back to Italy. I can still thumb through that copy and catch faint mnemonic glimpses of what it was like to not know the first thing about the country in which I now live. Although it wasn’t my absolute first book by somebody I consciously recognised as a New Zealand author. Earlier that year, fresh from watching Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, I read To the The Is-Land. It has one of the great beginnings in literature:
In the Second Place

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.

That paragraph might as well have been placed at the beginning of Te Kaihau. These were stories that read like a novel, deeply strange and full of a terrible beauty. There was my first encounter with the unease and foreboding that would become so familiar and with the assuredness of that literary voice. It was exciting.


1991 was my first year out of high school. I enrolled in physics, and it took all of two weeks to figure out what an utterly preposterous decision it had been. However, I had to hang around for a while and sit one exam before transferring to another course in order to qualify for a deferral of my (compulsory) military service. The physics buildings included a large study room which the more senior students referred to as ‘New Zealand’. I never found out why.


I transferred to the faculty of modern letters, where by applying myself over the next several years I successfully failed to graduate. There they made me read Katherine Mansfield. She was easy to admire but I didn’t find her as exciting. Then Justine moved to Italy, which gave me both a reason and the means to learn about the place.

In October of 1994, following the success of The Piano, the New Zealand Film Commission took a festival to Milan entitled ‘The last wave – the new New Zealand cinema.’ (The oldest was Smash Palace and it’s not as if the country had produced more than a dozen feature films before it, but we’ll go with ‘new’.) I have been able to find the original programme online, which confirmed my recollection that it was a very good selection. We saw Utu, Ruby and Rata, Desperate Remedies, Ngati, Jack Be Nimble, Old Scores and a series of shorts. We missed Vigil and Smash Palace. Utu perplexed me a little (I look forward to seeing this year’s reissue). I liked Ngati most of all. Desperate Remedies, which seemed a good romp back then, turned out to have dated rather badly when I saw it a few years later on television. Or maybe I was looking for something else in my New Zealand cinema by then.

Aside from the saturating light that I remembered from Te Kaihau, two images in particular stayed with me from those films: the creature being pulled out of the drain in the short Kitchen Sink; and a sequence towards the beginning of the (otherwise terrible) horror Jack Be Nimble in which a housewife is repeatedly lashed in the face by wet clothes hanging from a rotary clothesline in the wind. The darkly humorous mystery/magic and the unthinking violence of the everyday.


A story in the Te Kaihau ends with one of those outrageous questions that a writer is not supposed to ask:
Have I told you anything?
Has it meant anything to you?
Or is it all just writing?
All just words?
I realise now that in the four or five years before leaving Italy – even before there was a reason or a plan – I was building a country in my head, and that although it relied on the conversation and the personal stories of the few New Zealanders I knew (Justine, mostly), it was also, if not primarily, a literary country, a cinematic country, a country of visual arts and music.

We went to a rather unfortunate Crowded House concert. We saw Once Were Warriors (in Italian). I read some more Janet Frame, and one of those collections of short stories. I failed to read Alan Duff. There was Fred Dagg. There was a wonderfully tatty Front Lawn t-shirt. Then, for Christmas of 1995 – inscriptions can be so precious, so precise – another book-gift, purchased at the only English language bookshop in town.

I read it that winter, feverishly (literally, as I was in bed with the flu), and then again later that year or early the next, during my domestic exile. It may well have been the last novel in which I utterly lost myself, just when I needed to. It was also bigger than the country I had built inside my head. Much bigger, and infinitely lonelier, and stronger. I couldn’t mine it for information, as I did other things. It transported me, rather.

I wanted to follow that voice, even though the foreboding hadn’t disappeared. The ‘human-wounded land’.


The real country differed from the imagined country in ways that I couldn’t begin to retell. We arrived just in time for this. It was a shock even for Justine, who had left a few months into the life of the Fourth National Government, before Ruth Richardson really got into her work. But it’s more than that. My New Zealand, the country I had built in my head, was a place that cared for its pasts, and looked to the future through anxious young eyes. There were children at the heart of every story: Tione and Ropata in Ngati. Rata’s son, Willie. Flora McGrath. Simon/Clare. Little Janet herself. Children possessing of a laconic wisdom, often troubled, sometimes unable to speak. All around them was the history, etched like scars on the landscape. This was New Zealand before The Lord of the Rings, not yet the ultimate, hyper-marketed endpoint of an English colonial fantasy. I found it, even in its darkest moments, enormously sympathetic. But it’s there, it’s not unreal. And I still search for it.

I recommend reading Marian Evans’ account of how The Bone People came to be published. The wonderful photograph in that post with Keri and Marian (which you can see enlarged here), is a centrepiece of the Tirohia Mai exhibition currently showing at the National Library.

If you’re in Wellington next Monday, Danyl McLauchlan and I will talk to Dave Armstrong about writing and blogging as part of the IIML’s Writers on Mondays series. I hope you can come.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The fake shop and nostalgia capitalism

Originally published at Overland

When I first visited London, in the summer of 1991, I was struck by the unfamiliar spectacle of boarded-up shops, and of shops that had been hollowed out and were now occupied by temporary stalls selling imported clothing or knick-knacks. This wasn’t a sight I had experienced in Italy or the southern European countries I had visited – at least not on the main shopping streets of a capital, alongside still-thriving businesses. Either Britain’s crisis was deeper, or ours was yet to reach the street and alter quite so visibly the texture of our cities.

Whatever the reasons behind it, the vacant shop is a disquieting signifier. In a global economy that has run for at least three decades on the dissimulation of risk and debt, it stands as the all-too-concrete manifestation of a rupture. Where there was once commerce – therefore, by association, a functioning economy – there is now an unsightly hole.

But that, too, can be dissembled.

This is the former butcher’s shop in Belcoo, Northern Ireland, brought back to a life of sorts via the application of posters and stickers – a literal papering-over – just in time for the G8 meeting that was held this week at a nearby golf resort. The funds for this and other similar interventions in the economically-depressed area came from an aptly named ‘Dereliction Fund’, in the amount of approximately £1 million. The money was spent to promote the county ‘in terms of its industry and tourism’, although presumably only amongst people who are driving quite fast, not needing to buy sausages, and never planning to come back.

Belcoo’s fake shops are not unprecedented – it seems that the earliest example of this particular kind of urban revisionism dates back to the 1980s in New York – but that they were fashioned to hide the economic downturn from the circus of the G8 creates an extra frisson, a surplus of poignancy. And so those few images duly did the rounds, predictably, via the same electronic routes that map globalisation itself. The butcher. An office supplies shop. A lively café. All lovingly recreated as if to exorcise austerity and wind back the clock to the eve of our latest great crisis.

The best fake shops feature not only fake goods but also fake people. Walking in front of them must be like taking a tour inside Bob Shaw’s brilliant science-fiction story 'The Light of Other Days', about the properties of a special ‘slow glass’ that allows one to see back in time, looking into scenes that were recorded, impressed upon it in the past. Except these are static, lacking in depth.

Try to picture the experience: strolling down a street in your depressed neighbourhood, where in more prosperous times a restaurant used to be, and being confronted with its two-dimensional replica. Knowing that money was invested not to stimulate the economy of your town, but to simulate it. You might feel that you are also a character in this performance. The economy as spectacle. Trompe-l’œil capitalism.

Café Cellini ironically boasts to be ‘open 7 days a week’, and it might as well: its deadened façade will always be stuck in a perpetual daytime, the customers inside always poised to drink from their wine glasses, at least for as long as it takes the elements to fade and wear out the pictures. Then the local council will have to make a decision: whether to invest more money into its fake economy, or to let the fake shops decay as well. Barring the area hosting another G8 meeting, the choice will probably fall on the latter. How much stranger will those shops look then. Like ghosts of ghosts.

As I said, this urban revisionism isn’t new and extends to other well-known practices such as hiding  homeless people ahead of major international events, or just generally, in order to produce the illusion of widespread and enduring prosperity upon which capitalism-as-belief depends. This is capitalism again concealing its commercial failures, its financial risks, its social debt. Nonetheless the fake shop is not just the manifestation of an absence. It’s also a simulacrum that asks to be looked at and interpreted. Each fake shop is a carefully crafted museum piece. It expresses the longing and nostalgia for a particular stage of capitalism and for its underlying social relations. But this is a past that is not returning any time soon. And the future may look closer to this.

The pilot Tesco Home Plus virtual store in a subway station in Seoul, South Korea: reminiscent of Bucharest’s painted library, this electronic store cycles through its displays, allowing customers to make purchases via smartphone for home delivery. It’s a singular twist in the drawn-out story of the decline of brick-and-mortar retail, which has recently seen Sears department stores converted into data centres for cloud computing. The object of nostalgic reproduction here are no longer the family-owned corner shops, but rather the large supermarkets and malls that took their place.

The electronic virtual store is online retail crossing back into the physical world, plastering itself onto the old, vacant shop windows (and re-metaphorising the word ‘window’ in the process). Why bother to create a fake shop, when the front of any building could be converted into a digital screen, opening up limitless opportunities for instant consumption?

Viewed against this possible future, the quaint capitalist nostalgia of the fake shops of Belcoo seems entirely harmless, an exercise in keeping up the most incongruous and misguided of appearances.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Susan Wood trilogy

1. Time for Labour to start addressing the issues that matter deeply to Susan Wood

If I were running Labour I would stop banging on about woman only seats, about social engineering. Those things are distractions. Just ask Labour candidate and women’s rights enthusiast Stuart Nash. I would instead focus on something far more important, something that I believe resonates with Susan Wood New Zealanders.

I’m talking about inequality, about the growing gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. But I am not talking worker versus beneficiary here. Those people should be poor. Frankly, I wish they were poorer. No: I am referring to the great many New Zealanders who get out of bed every day who go to work. Some of them in radio and television broadcasting.

Cares that some people are poorer than others

More than half of our working households get some sort of government benefit. And there is new research out showing that in terms of income distribution, New Zealand has become one of the most unequal developed countries in the world. This is not something that has happened overnight, it is not something that we can blame on one government or another. It is something that has crept up on us over the past 30 years. That’s right. I said that no government is responsible. I said ‘crept up’. Who could have foretold that slashing benefits to the poor and simultaneously cutting taxes to the rich would create this situation? None of us are to blame. Least of all those who have been professional journalists the entire time as opposed to, say, asleep or dead.

Did you know that the wealthiest 10 per cent of this country own more than half of it? And that the poorest half own just five per cent? In the United States the numbers are even more exaggerated with the top one per cent owning 93 per cent, leaving the remaining 99 per cent of Americans with a measly seven per cent of total wealth. I would hate to see that happen here. Probably.

I, too, at different times of my life I have been one of the ‘have nots’. For instance I ‘had no’ place to put all the money TVNZ threw at me to host Close Up after Paul Holmes left. One time they tried to renew my contract at a lower salary – $100,000 less per year, down to a paltry $350,000 – and I took them to the Employment Relations Authority. I wanted that money very badly.

The fact is New Zealand is a low income nation. Not me, obviously. I’m talking about non-Susan Wood New Zealanders. There’s only one reason Aussie companies are sending their call centres here – because they are cheaper to run, cheaper to man. In this country we have always prided ourselves on our universal education and health, that no matter how poor our parents are we can get an education, we can get ahead.

I, Susan Wood, am beginning to wonder if that is still the case.

When we talked about inequality on Q+A yesterday we were overwhelmed with feedback because people care, because it matters, and it's time Labour started addressing the things that matter and stopped fighting amongst themselves.

PS: Do you know the best thing about that time I took the state broadcaster to the Employment Relations Authority for lowering my salary down to a paltry $350,000?

I won.

2. Protesters should be committed enough to get jobs. But not my job. Not Susan Wood’s job.

Here’s the thing. If you are well enough, if you are passionate enough, if you are committed enough to get out and to protest on a cold winter’s day, you are probably capable of getting a job.

Is going to win this argument using logic

Protesters from Auckland Action Against Poverty were out on the streets yesterday afternoon protesting against the social welfare reforms that came into effect yesterday. The reforms are sweeping, probably the biggest changes to welfare since the Social Security Act was passed by the first Labour Government in 1938. And it is time for a change. We all know that welfare payments in this country are out of control – what I, Susan Wood, and others are paying is unsustainable. Or maybe the word is 'insufferable'. Either way, we’d like to pay less.

Talking to Social Development Minister Paula Bennett yesterday morning, there was no sense of throwing beneficiaries onto the scrap heap. Also, when she walked into the studio our sound system didn’t spontaneously start playing the Imperial March from Star Wars, so I know Paula is not a bad person. She talked about offering support and help to get them back into work. Frankly when your children are 14, why shouldn’t you be working? I’m not going to talk about the other changes, about compulsory ECE, about forcing the disabled and the mentally ill on the unemployed roll. I’m going to sit here and pretend that it’s all about what happens when your children are 14. Yeah.

It’s as if scarce, underpaid, precarious, dangerous or dehumanising work is some sort of evil. But for the great many of us who participate, sure it is about incomes in excess of $400,000 per annum or it’s off to the Employment Relations Authority, but it’s also about camaraderie, about being part of the community and making a contribution.

I am not anti-beneficiary. On the contrary, I am proud of a country that looks after the least advantaged. This country is Sweden. But when I hear comments like those from one of the Auckland protesters yesterday, I lose all sympathy.

This woman says she can’t work. She says in fact she might have to resort to prostitution if she loses her benefit because she can’t face people properly, that she gets too frightened and hides. Well if that is the truth, how is it she managed to say it to a complete stranger, to a journalist no less? Everyone knows that when you suffer from an anxiety disorder, depression or other psychological impairment, it is always on, always completely debilitating, and that anything you might ever do that might look like work or the ability to sustain complex and demanding social interactions – even if all you can manage is one hour a day, every second day – proves that you are completely fine. I, Susan Wood, whom an unjust God has blessed with sophistication, utter professionalism and the gift of skilled ad-libbing, have thought deeply about this. I have also investigated the specific case of this protester, to make sure I wouldn’t be doing her a disservice before insinuating on my nationally syndicated radio show that she is a carping bludger.

What do you think I am, some sort of monster?

PS: When TVNZ tried to restructure my contract and cut $100,000 off my salary, I asked for compensation for ‘hurt and humiliation’.

No, really, I did.

3. Benefit fraudsters stealing from you and me. But mostly me, Susan Wood.

So more than 3,000 cases of welfare fraud have been uncovered. 3,000 cases that cost the taxpayer just shy of $34 million a year. The fraudulent activity was uncovered after increased information sharing between Inland Revenue and the Ministry of Social Development.

To put this in some kind of context, I, Susan Wood, am not going to put this in any kind of context.

Hates benefit fraud and context

That information double check uncovered 1,900 cases of people cheating their unemployment benefits and 550 sickness beneficiaries doing the same. Overall more than 3,100 illegitimate benefits were discovered. The increased information sharing between IRD and Social Development showed up beneficiaries whose taxable income did not match what they had declared to Ministry staff.

Prosecutions may well follow and the agencies are working to try to recoup some of the millions of dollars. Good luck with that. I suspect that will be about as likely as getting money back from a failed finance company. Were I, Susan Wood, interested in comparing benefit fraud to any other sort of fraud, I would pursue this analogy further.

What frustrates me here is that who do these people think they are ripping off or stealing from? The Government? Well no. It’s you and me who get out of bed, go to work and pay our taxes. We are the Government, well certainly the Government’s funding. But mostly me, for I am very wealthy. Let’s face it, I am a lot more the Government than you are.

I believe the vast majority of us, Susan Wood, are willing to support people who genuinely need our support. But those people who deliberately cheat the system, who rip us all Susan Wood off, do nothing but give all beneficiaries a bad name, they create resentment and perpetrate stereotypes. Yes: I said ‘perpetrate’ even though I meant ‘perpetuate’. I am so rich and successful I don’t need excessive literacy.

These people, these fraudsters, should be pursued and prosecuted. Which his exactly what happens. And it’s not that many people. And they don’t steal all that much money. Still, it’s an outrage.

PS: ‘Extreme, extravagant and even obscene’. That is how Employment Relations Authority member Leon Robinson characterised how people might view salaries such as the one I was receiving from the taxpayer-funded TVNZ.

Won the case, though, didn’t I?