Monthly Archives: September 2014

Election 2014 – the aftermath

So election day came and went with very little changing, for all the hubbub. National is a bit stronger, and no doubt emboldened by success. Labour is a bit weaker, and will now be focussed on blame and bloodletting. The Greens are probably feeling in pretty good shape, but are likely puzzled at the apparent drop-off in support on election day – again. It’s hard to say whether it is some unknown systematic polling bias or whether people get cold feet once they get an orange marker in their hand.

More significant are the changes among small parties. The loss of Hone Harawira from Parliament is a major blow and only time will tell whether there is any life left in Mana. If it really intends to be a movement rather than a political party, as its supporters claim, then this might be a blessing in disguise. It is almost impossible for a genuine political movement to coalesce out of a political party, rather than the other way round.

The Maori Party has survived and if it can find a way to heal the deep rift caused by the expulsion of Hone Harawira and make room for mavericks within the party, it may be capable of rebuilding itself. I always thought the best strategy was to keep people like Hone inside the tent, free to say the things the leadership couldn’t say.

ACT was mortally wounded 3 years ago after making John Banks their leader – and that was before the scandals. The party is still alive albeit on an iron lung. It’s hard to imagine David Seymour, or Jamie Whyte as out-of-Parliament leader, making enough impact to lift party support much. The only question is how long National finds it convenient to keep the life support plugged in.

Nothing much changes for New Zealand First, although having Ron Mark back will help it look less like a one-man show. The extra votes that Winston now wields will mean little.

Overall, then, people voted for more of the same and they are going to get it. For progressives, this is a lost opportunity. It means another three years before anyone even begins making the kinds of infrastructural changes needed to become a 21st century nation. It means that at a national level a number of indicators are going to keep getting worse – from poverty levels and inequality gaps to worsening environmental quality and loss of ecological integrity. It means another three years of embarrassment on the international stage, as we continue to drag the chain on climate change and spy on our friends on behalf of the Club of Five. All masked by growth rates that sound adequate but are largely meaningless when it comes to the real state of the economy.

Disappointing but hardly traumatic.

So I was a little taken aback at the outpouring of grief on my Facebook page. Many of my friends and acquaintances seem shell-shocked by the election result. Their responses range from disbelief to anger. It is like looking at a classic Kubler-Ross model of responses to grief. I thought I’d show a diagram so that people can understand the process they are going through and see that there is light at the end of the tunnel.


Meanwhile, in the interests of retaining a little dignity in defeat, here is my list of three top tips:

Stop telling people they were stupid for voting National (or despicable for exercising their legal right to not vote)

Stop assuming national voters are all selfish and greedy – they may well have voted for National because they simply didn’t believe a Labour Green Government had, or could deliver, the solutions.

Stop saying that you think the election was rigged. The left lost. (This for the more volatile activists)

On the other hand, in the interests of not looking stupid, my advice to all the right wing media commentators is to stop saying that David Cunliffe should have criticised his team, his campaign strategy and himself in his election night speech. There is plenty of time for Labour to look at what it is doing so spectacularly wrong, but election night speeches conceding defeat are for thanking the team for trying, not attacking them for failing to win.

Having said that, there are a few glaring faults that Labour needs to rectify if it wants a shot at leading a Government in three years time.

Labour needs to stop fighting itself and its allies. I won’t go on about the internal self-sabotage because it is so obvious as to be painful, but Labour really needs to learn to play with the other kids. Writing off working with Internet-Mana was stupid. It says that either Labour will probably be unable to form a Government or that, as Hone intimated, they are lying. John Key was not sullied by either the puppy love of Colin Craig or the more bizarre shenanigans of John Banks. He even got away with picking the lock for both Banks and David Seymour to break into the House, without it reflecting badly on him. He just looked pragmatic. Why then did Labout panic over Internet Mana?

The billboard change-outs that said “only a vote for Labour will change the Government” was equally stupid. It was patently untrue for a start. If people thought it was true then the implication was that there was NO WAY that Labour could be the Government since it was polling in the thirties. It was just another sign that Labour had forgotten how to put coalitions together.

There is no doubt that there was media bias in the campaign. The last poll reported in the Herald showed a drop in support for National, but was reported as showing a jump in support, based on some shoddy and invalid statistical manipulation. That sort of media bias needs to be jumped on pretty smartly. Nevertheless the big problem wasn’t the media. It was the campaign.

David Cunliffe did really well when he had the chance. He certainly looked like John Key’s equal in the leaders debates, but that was never going to be enough in the context of a weak campaign that was full of blunders. Apologising for being a man was probably the most ridiculous thing to come out of the mouth of a political leader for some time. Drawing lines in the sand over things like cannabis law reform, which is supported by a majority of the population and his potential allies, was unwise and unnecessary. He could easily have fudged the issue to give himself some room.

Finally, the impact of ‘Dirty Politics’ and Kim Dotcom. I have huge respect for Nicky Hagar and his work but in hindsight, releasing the book during the campaign was too cute. It looked like a stunt. It would have been better for Nicky to have released the book earlier in the season to allow the issues to be investigated and the shine to be taken off Key without leaving himself open to the accusation of trying to hijack the election. Given the careful persona Key has cultivated for so long, people probably needed a bit of time to assimilate the new information. Bringing it out during the campaign seems to have just locked in people’s opinions, for or against Key.

The decision of both Hone Harawira and Laila Harre to link themselves to the Kim Dotcom train was always going to be a high risk gamble. Whatever else you think of Kim Dotcom, it became apparent early on that he is a loose unit with no political sense. The best thing at that stage would have been to kept him well out of the stage lights. I suspect that would have been hard to do. I have no doubt that he is a strong willed guy with a ego to match the size of his bank balance. Nevertheless if Internet Mana wanted to be taken seriously as something other than his toy, he needed to stay in the background. Allowing him to hijack both the launch (by publicly hinting he hacked Slater) and the Moment of Truth (with the email about his personal fight with Key) was unwise.

So, lets look at the silver lining. Lots of people are now motivated to ensure Key doesn’t get a fourth term. This is a good time to harness some of that energy, not for political party work but for building a genuine constituency for change. The thing that will ultimately define the shape of New Zealand is not politicians but the expectations of its citizens. When there is a broad movement for a socially, ecologically and financially regenerative transformation, then the political parties needed to support that will be elected into Government. But be warned – we are a long way from being able to deliver a compelling vision of the future.

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Reflections on Resilience

Some reflections following a permaculture workshop on Empowerment and Resilience that I run alongside Finn Mackesy from Auckland Permaculture Workshop (APW).

Resilience has become the new buzzword. Where a few years ago everyone was talking about sustainability, now they are all talking about resilience. The problem is that many of them don’t seem to know the difference.

I was recently at the Environmental Defence Society annual conference where the theme was resilience. It was a great conference with many excellent speakers, but at least one corporate functionary was talking about how his company is increasing its resilience by implementing more efficient production methods. Actually, resilience is more likely to be a function of increased redundancy in the system than increased efficiency. The best systems find the right balance between efficiency and strategic redundancy.

Even more concerning is that people use the word ‘resilience’ when they actually mean ‘robustness’. There is a great TED talk by a guy in the US who goes around looking at why houses fail in storms. It’s very interesting, and shows startling evidence that most roof, and therefore house, failures come from very small details – two instead of three nails in the hurricane strapping, or using the standard one and a half inch instead of two inch nails to hold the trusses on. He talks about building resilience by making the house stronger, but what he is actually doing is building a more robust house.

This may seem like pedantry of the highest order, but if people are trying to develop strategies to build resilience, in own lives or in their communities and businesses, then they need to understand what that means. Very often, strategies to build more robustness will run counter to strategies to build resilience. It is important to find the right balance so that systems are robust but also have the capacity for resilience. This can only be achieved if you are clear about what you are trying to achieve.

Robustness comes from the Latin word for ‘oak tree’, and that is a very good illustration of its meaning. A robust system is strong, able to withstand stress and pressure, able to shake off the storms that might break a lesser tree.

Resilience comes form the Latin word for ‘spring back’. Grass is the classic example – the wind can never break grass because it just gives way and then returns when the pressure is gone. Resilience is the ability of a system to bend, or regenerate itself when things break.

Ecosystems often go through phases of great robustness, such as a climax forest characterised by high levels of specialisation, complex interconnections, lots of embodied energy, followed by release, such as from a forest fire. The breaking up of that embodied energy and recycling it back into the system allows a range of species to make us of it, to build and reorganise, and sets the scene for a new phase of growth, with increasing levels of complexity and specialisation until the climax stage is reached again. This is called the cycle of adaptive change and is an ever changing and dynamic balance.

cycle of adaptive change

Strategies of sustainability often seem to be locked into trying to maintain the climax stage. Hence, a focus on increased efficiency and more specialisation. The sole focus is building more robustness into the system. There is nothing wrong with robustness, but if it is the sole focus it leaves no room for resilience when the system sooner or later inevitably fails. The global economy that is built on fossil carbon is like that. Design systems like permaculture are more about how to find the right balance between robustness and a capacity for resilience.

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Not voting is an own goal

In 1990 I put an election billboard on my fence that featured a sinister looking silhouette in a business suit saying “vote for No-One, because No-One cares”. People’s responses ranged from amusement to furious anger, with one person even climbing the fence to vandalise it at night.

It was a bit of fun, but with a serious intent. I wanted to express my dissatisfaction at a system that trades a vote every three years for meaningful participation. I wanted to show my disgust at the co-option of governments by corporate lobby interests. I wanted to demonstrate my belief that the parliamentary system is unable to comprehend, much less find a solution to, the real issues facing our world.

All those statements still hold true for me today. Looking back, though, what strikes me is my dismay when New Zealand elected a National Government. I could see on election night that things were going to get much worse for ordinary New Zealanders. Indeed, that Government soon introduced a range of regressive policies that remain in place to this day, including the end of free tertiary education, vicious welfare cuts, attacks on workers’ rights and asset sales that even the previous Labour Government had balked at.

A year or two later I found myself at a huge march in Auckland to oppose the policies of a Government that I had encouraged people not to vote against. That contradiction, and others I experienced at a variety of street demonstrations and occupations during those years, led me to question much of my political ideology and dogma. As a result of this on-going self reflection my ideas about strategy and tactics have become more responsive, while my principles have become clearer.

My views on engagement in parliamentary politics changed with the introduction of MMP. In 1999 I was elected as an MP for the Green Party and just under nine years later I resigned from Parliament. In my final speech I spoke about many of those same themes that had concerned me in 1990. Perhaps more than most, I am well aware of the limitations of parliamentary politics.

There are two main reasons that progressive thinkers give for not voting. The first is that it makes no real difference. The second is that voting legitimises an illegitimate system.

It’s true that you can’t vote for revolution. That doesn’t mean that revolutionaries shouldn’t vote. It just means they should vote for more practical reasons. Voting is a tool, and like all tools there are some things it is good for and some things it is not.

The outcome of this election will make a lot of difference. Not in fundamental ways perhaps, but it will have direct impact on people’s wellbeing. Whether National or Labour leads the next Government – and just as importantly, how much influence the Greens have, or the Conservatives, ACT, the Maori Party, Internet Mana and NZ First – will determine how much the lowest paid workers will get to take home each week. It will determine whether our coastline is opened up for oil drilling and maybe whether we end up having a catastrophic oil spill. It might decide whether the Maui’s Dolphin becomes extinct. It will decide whether housing will be more, or less, affordable. It will make a clear statement about whether as a nation we are concerned about child poverty or whether we really just don’t care as long as we get a tax cut.

My aims in voting this year are modest. I don’t expect radical change from politicians because they couldn’t deliver it even if they wanted to, at least not without massive changes in public opinion first. I don’t expect the big problems to be solved or to see congregations of the wise inhabiting the Beehive. I vote to make some government policies a little better and to stop some others getting worse. I vote so that at least some of my most important issues are amplified. I vote so that there is someone in there to call out the bullshit when they see it. I vote because the National Party’s lies and deceit just went too far this time. I vote because trying to make the world a better place is easier when we have allies in Government. Given the minimal effort involved, it seems like an own goal not to.

Finally, if you are worried that ticking a voting form will somehow legitimise the system, don’t be. Your vote will have absolutely no impact on that. All it will do is make it more or less likely that John Key and the National Party is re-elected.

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My thoughts on the Internet Party cannabis policy

One of the reasons I first got interested in the Greens, before MMP and long before I ever joined the party, was the cannabis policy. It may not be the most important issue in the world but I see it as a kind of litmus test of a party’s integrity. The issue is so politically sensitive that most party’s will, at best, keep silent on the question of law reform, despite knowing that prohibition does infinitely more harm and costs the economy vastly more than cannabis use itself does.

Until now the Greens have been the only party in Parliament, or with any show of getting into Parliament, with a rational drug policy. Until now. Today the Internet Party announced a cannabis policy that is the most progressive and evidence based of any political party likely to be in the next Parliament.

What does it say?

Firstly, the Internet Party would allow cannabis to be prescribed as a medicine – not through legislation but by an administrative amendment. This would take the decision about medical marijuana out of the hands of politicians and give it to doctors, where it belongs. Since there is no legal supply of natural cannabis, they would allow medical users to grow a set amount for themselves or nominate someone to do it for them if they are unable to.

Secondly, they would immediately change the law to allow adults to cultivate and possess cannabis for personal use. While they do not specify how many plants that would be (simply saying that decision should be based on research), they do promise to remove the ‘reverse onus’ provision of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Currently, and contrary to basic principles of justice, if a person is caught with over an ounce of cannabis they have to prove that they are not selling it.

Thirdly the Internet Party would develop a system to regulate and tax the market. This is the best, and most courageous, part of the policy. The reality is that decriminalising cannabis is a good first step, but it can never deal with all of the problems of prohibition. Even if people can grow their own cannabis, most will still want to buy it, just as they prefer to buy beer even though there is no law against brewing it. A market for cannabis will always exist and unless it is properly regulated the problems of sales to underage buyers, organised crime and loss of tax revenue will remain the same. Regulating the cannabis market is not currently supported by the majority of New Zealanders the way that decriminalisation is, but it is the right thing to do.

Finally the Internet Party would use some of the huge financial savings made from taking cannabis users out of the criminal justice system, to resource increased drug education, health promotion and addiction treatment. I worked with Laila Harre when she was Minister of Youth Affairs on a Green initiative to increase funding for drug education. Some Ministers liked to throw money at programmes with charismatic front-people, even when they were ineffective. Laila, in contrast, was focussed on what kinds of approaches actually made a difference to young people’s health outcomes. This was usually programmes that treated young people as intelligent and able to make good decisions for themselves if they had balanced information.

I think this policy is a brave move. No doubt it will lead to some interesting conversations with Mana. It will be controversial. But it is also astute. The Greens still support law reform, and will be important in getting any legislative change through Parliament, but understandably it is a low priority for them. There is now no one in Parliament proactively speaking up for law reform. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of votes are looking for somewhere more promising than the ALCP. If Laila Harre is serious about this, she would be the perfect person to take cannabis law reform through Parliament. She is courageous, intelligent and informed – without being vulnerable to the kinds of attacks made on me when I was championing cannabis law reform in Parliament as an “out” cannabis smoker. As the only party seriously pushing for the youth vote, this is sure to be a winner for Internet Mana.

The policy can be found at

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Traditional Hawai’ian Terraquaculture

For many visitors to Hawai’i the native people are almost invisible behind the caricature of plastic leis and aloha shirts. Yet Hawai’ian culture and identity is alive and well, observable most strongly in the resurgence of Pasifik voyaging and the powerful hula traditions. The traces of their sophisticated and complex ancient culture are apparent throughout the landscape, in the heiau (temples) that dominate many headlands and hilltops, in the traditional placenames that evoke their polynesian past and less obviously in the taro terraces now hidden by neglect.

It is fairly well known among the general population of Hawai’i that the traditional land division was based around the ahupua’a. Most guidebooks describe this as a long strip of land that stretches from the mountaintop to the sea, and comment that it gave the people of that ahupua’a access to all the resources they needed for self sufficiency. What these descriptions miss, and what becomes apparent when you look at a map of them, is that ahupua’a are based on water catchments. The ahupua’a was actually a system of integrated water catchment management.

I was told that traditionally a kind of committee of resource experts would decide collectively how best to manage the resources within the ahupua’a. Preservation of waterways was a paramount consideration and it was a principle that a person at the bottom of the catchment had a right to the same quantity and quality of water as one at the top. The lifeforces in the waterways were personified as mo’o, reptilian / humanoid guardians of water, and honoured.

The same no longer applies today. At Ka’ala Farm they showed me where traditionally 5 watercourses had snaked across the valley. Today only two run, intermittently. The streams had been diverted and exploited for the sugar cane plantations, and then for the town supply. As a result the water lens was badly depleted.

Visiting Ka’ala Farm ( a revelation for me. A community learning centre and a place of healing and celebration, the farm had revived a section of the taro terraces put there hundreds of years before by their ancestors. The valley held hundreds of acres of such terraces they told me, but they only had the labour power to maintain a small section of them. Nevertheless they were abundant with wet grown taro, fresh-water fish farms, dry taro, banana, kumara (in association with various tree crops), kukui (candlenut), koa wood and a host of other crops.

Traditionally the local Hawai’ians would also have farmed salt-water fish (the remains of traditional fish farms and stone-work fish traps are still found all over Hawai’i). They also fished from wa’a (waka), guided by the observations of sea, fish movements, weather and astronomy that their kahuna (tohunga) made from the heiau strategically placed on various headlands.

I was told that traditionally the Hawai’ians had planted tree crops on the ridges to catch mist and cloud and bring water down into the valley. Mountain apples and other fruits were strategically planted into specific microclimates on the slopes where they would thrive. The wetlands at the bottom of the valley (now drained) were traditionally protected as sources of abundance, and expanded via stone terracing up the slopes.

What was particularly interesting for me was that I had just attended a talk by Kama Burwell at the PiNZ hui at Tapu Te Ranga Marae where she had described very similar systems of terraquaculture practised by the Chinese, except growing rice in their terraces instead of taro. Both of these traditions show a very sophisticated understanding of holistic resource management, far beyond most modern farming practises. It definitely made me want to make a far more careful examination of traditional Maori resource management than I have so far.

The fact is that food security is a very significant issue in Hawai’i. Around 85% – 90% of their food is imported and food is expensive. It was a major highlight of my visit to Hawai’i to see these ancient systems of resource management, broken by the illegal annexation of Hawai’i by the USA, being brought back to life. Even better than the surfing and snorkelling was seeing the taro terraces and fish ponds in use and feeding the community.

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