Southern Notes #6

Bruce Curtis, University of Waikato:

New Zealand typically figures high on the Corruptions Perceptions Index (high is a good thing) run by a German think tank called Transparency International. Indeed, since 2010 (and maybe before) New Zealand has tied with Denmark in the number 1 spot. Australia is 13th  for the same period (lucky for some). But! I often wonder if the corruption in New Zealand works along the same lines as Fight Club:

‘The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club! Third rule of Fight Club: if someone yells “Stop!”, goes limp, or taps out, the fight is over. Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight.’

When I visit Australia, usually to attend TASA events, regardless of where I am the front page of my morning newspaper is always about corruption: councillors or MPs, and/or unions, and dodgy ‘development’ deals; cops and drugs; generic cover-ups; commissions of inquiry into corruption and – I think – even commissions of inquiry into the corruption of commissions of inquiry. Peter Perry in Political corruption in Australia: A very wicked place thinks this is a good thing, the coverage, that is. I agree. This looks like transparency to me. In contrast, my local newspaper is all over Royal Personages who are giving us the opportunity to spend our tax dollars on them.

Maybe scale is the issue, meaning Australia is big and New Zealand is small. In a big place like Australia there are contesting blocs and hierarchies vying for power and dishing the dirt. In New Zealand, not so much. New Zealand is a much more integrated society, for good or bad. Left and right have integrated into ‘the middle’. It was a Labour Government that instituted neoliberalism and the sale of state-owned assets a generation ago and now much of what codgers like me think of as outright perfidy and corruption represents sensible sub-contracting solutions and an audit culture that ensures everyone is accountable and no one, of any importance, is responsible. For example, Chorus (a NZX listed ‘provider’ of telecommunications infrastructure – meaning it owns the majority of telephone lines and exchange equipment in New Zealand, and was once a division of the New Zealand Post Office) is about to be slapped over the wrist with a damp lettuce leaf for exploiting migrant workers:

An investigation by the Labour Inspectorate found 73 sub-contractors working on Chorus’s ultra-fast broadband network in Auckland failed to keep employment records, pay the minimum wage and provide employment agreements. The investigation only confirmed what First Union’s general secretary Dennis Maga said he already knew – that Chorus sub-contractors had been exploiting migrant workers for years. He said workers were in a vulnerable position because they were desperate to get work visas but they’re too scared to confront their employees about their unfair and illegal treatment. ‘They’ve been receiving promises from some of the sub-contractors that if they ever accept the working arrangement such as cashing out some money from their salary and giving it back to the employer then they’ll be able to receive a sponsorship and extend their work visa in New Zealand,’ Mr Maga said. The investigation has so far focussed only on Auckland, and there are several more phases before it will be completed, but Mr Maga believes the problem is nation-wide. (Source: https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/368298/exploitative-chorus-sub-contractors-promising-visas, 9 October 2018).

I bet it is.

Perhaps I digress. Anyway, at time of writing New Zealand is enjoying its biggest political scandal in years as Jami-Lee Ross (not a rock vocalist, but a MP) exits the National Party (they got the most votes in the last General Election, but thanks to proportional representation are in Opposition). This has been a slow burn, starting with the leaking of some pretty innocuous travel expenses material, but is flaming away nicely now with further releases of taped conversations with the leader of the Opposition, claims of bullying and sexual harassment, admissions of affairs, a sectioning, and almost by accident the disclosure of what looks like influence peddling. This sort of disclosure is a very rare occurrence, and thus far the media has focused on the salacious stuff. Indeed, every time it comes on the radio in my household there is yelling: ‘But what about the dodgy campaign donations!?’ Admittedly that yelling is mainly just me.

Labour now leads National in the polls. It is perhaps a bit sobering to think that what it took to get Jacinda Ardern’s politics of kindness out in front was a falling out between two old mates in Opposition, Jami-Lee Ross and National Party leader Simon Bridges. Nicky Hager, New Zealand’s real investigative journalist, sees this public spat as an extension of the attack politics that has served the illiberal end of the political spectrum so well in recent years. Hager authored the wonderful Dirty Politics a few years back. His take on the ruction can be found here: https://thespinoff.co.nz/unsponsored/25-10-2018/dirty-politics-2018-nicky-hager-assesses-the-jami-lee-ross-saga/.

Ardern’s squandering of a dream start represents two things and is no real surprise. First, as I mentioned last time, Labour is committed to spending less than the National government had been spending as a percentage of GDP, so this is all about kindly rationing – this is what Labour does best, but it isn’t populism. Second, Ardern’s leadership was looking a bit weak anyway, prior to the Bridges–Ross tiff, and thanks to some bad behaviour on the part of two of her female MPs (secret meetings and bullying, respectively). The Ross–Bridges explosion has to be the best few weeks of her life, and certainly the Deputy Prime Minster, Winston Peters (leader of New Zealand First) was having a great time when he made an assembled press gallery listen to a dire recording of Burning Bridges (in its entirety), the theme song to the equally awful movie Kelly’s Heroes.

Otherwise Labour is trundling along pretty much as expected: kindly rationing with a focus on the methodology of austerity. Government Ministers in Health and Education and even Justice are full of sympathy in terms of calls for pay increases, but ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’ However, what is interesting is that this Labour Government doesn’t have the union movement under the levels of control it previously had, in part because while blue collar unionism has largely been obliterated, the new unions that have survived three decades of neoliberalism are speaking for a pissed off middle class. The middle are feeling the squeeze, and in Labour’s first year nurses, teachers and court workers have gone on strike and have done so even where their more cautious leadership has looked to do a deal (pay increases in line with the CPI, that sort of thing). A good portion of these strikers are Ardern supporters. This is sociologically interesting, especially since the solution posed by Labour is pretty much that used by Chorus Limited (and many other employers): don’t pay a living wage, rely on migrant workers with the promise of residency as a fillip. This may well be the undoing of kindly rationing. It is worrying because while it opens up a space to criticise neoliberal logic, this is an opportunity that racists will be quick to seize on. It is also very hopeful because the new unionism is pretty good on migrants, which reflects both solidarity and that precarious work is everywhere. You might argue that it has never been a better time to be a sociologist!

Here are some upcoming Sociology events:

SAANZ Conference

December 4th–7th, 2018
Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn

‘The future in the past’ is a phrase taken from Ernst Bloch, capturing his attention to the materiality of both past and future, and their interactions, in the present. Reflecting on this in The Heritage of Our Times, written in the 1920s and early 1930s, amidst economic downturn, political chaos, and the rise of fascism, Bloch’s work drew together cultural sociology, memory and utopian studies, and ideological analysis.

Call for papers: https://saanz2018.org.nz/call-for-papers/ , Closes: November 16th.

Registration: https://saanz2018.org.nz/events/saanz-2018/ , Closes November 23rd.

54th Annual World Congress of Sociology of Sport 
University of Otago: 24th–27th April 2019

The University of Otago will host the 54th annual World Congress of Sociology of Sport, 24th–27th April 2019. The theme of the conference is Sociology of Sport and Alternative Futures. The keynote speaker is Professor Deborah Lupton and her opening lecture is titled: The more-than-human worlds of self-tracking for health and fitness. Additional information on the programme, abstract submission and registration is available at: www.issa2019.org.

References

Hager, N. (2014). Dirty politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment. Craig Potton Publishing.

Perry, P. J. (2017). Political corruption in Australia: A very wicked place?. Routledge.

 

Hei konā mai,

Bruce

 

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