Podcast: NZ Election analysis

Image via Getty.

Jacob Andrewartha from Australia’s Green Left Radio interviewed Fightback’s Ani White on the Labour Party’s landslide victory. Click here to listen.

The lockdown rabbithole – how Paris Hilton is shining a light on an industry of for-profit prisons for children

Pic from wwaspsurvivors.com

Content warning: This article describes the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children and young people.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Paris Hilton. Beyond her character in the reality series The Simple Life, she consistently comes across in interviews as funny, savvy and surprisingly likable. So when the headline Paris Hilton Opens Up About Alleged Abuse in New Documentary popped up in my newsfeed, I was an easy target for the clickbait. Hilton, the article outlined, was about to release a documentary containing allegations that the Utah boarding school that she attended, Provo Canyon School, subjected her and her school mates to abuse and torture, including allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, sleep deprivation, brainwashing and solitary confinement. Huh.

Later that afternoon, the creepy Google algorithm must have been hard at work on reading my mind, because the first video in my recommendations was titled I See You Survivor, posted by a woman named Amanda Householder, whose parents ran the boarding school Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, where she alleges girls as young as eight years old were subject to religious indoctrination, forced labour and exercise, deprived of education and subject to physical and sexual abuse. 

So began my deep dive into what critics and survivors label the “troubled teen industry,” an international network of extra-judicial private prisons for young people, masquerading as therapeutic boarding schools, military academies, wilderness experiences, boot camps or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

While the United States has a long history of using the boarding school model to force assimilation, the genesis of these for-profit “treatment programs” can be traced back to Synanon, an organisation founded by Charles E. “Chuck” Dederich in 1958. Dederich was a former alcoholic opioid user and Alcoholics Anonymous enthusiast, who after an LSD trip and reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “self reliance” arrived at the realisation that “dope fiends” needed more than the confessional “sharing” model popularised by the Alcoholic Anonymous movement. Opioid drug users needed greater accountability, Dederich argued, with addicts living together in an ascetic community. To further facilitate this accountability, he created The Game, a form of peer-based group-therapy, where participants took turns at sharing no-holds barred, brutally “honest” assessments of each other, with the idea that tearing each other down would lead to participants building honesty, resilience and integrity. Screaming and shouting were encouraged. While initially, physical violence and threats of physical violence were prohibited, Dederich would eventually break this rule, then abandon it entirely. Thus, the modern concept of “tough love” was born.

The concept of attack therapy practiced in the Synanon Game would later be clinically debunked as ineffective and psychologically damaging, and Synanon would eventually descend into a cult which practiced forced marriages and divorces, abortions and vasectomies, with Dederich eventually pleading no contest to a charge of conspiracy to commit murder after placing a rattlesnake in the letterbox of a lawyer who had filed a number of lawsuits against the organisation. But prior to this, the Synanon community had a successful run in the 1970s functioning as a court-ordered juvenile rehab that received funds from nearby Marin County and the wider California area. Seeing the financial possibilities in this area, two of Dederich’s followers approached him with the idea of recreating the Synanon environment exclusively for adolescents, with parents paying for the privilege. And in the climate of President Nixon declaring the War on Drugs, a burgeoning conservative backlash against the new left and counterculture that would see significant cuts to social security, rising income inequalities and moral panics surrounding everything from satanism to Dungeons and Dragons to black masculinity, this turned out to be a shrewd business decision.

The first youth program based on the Synanon model was named CEDU, the name of which, depending on who you ask, is either an acronym for Charles E Dederich University, or a contraction of the phrase “see yourself as you are, and do something about it.” Founded in 1967 by furniture salesman and former Synanon member Mel Wasserman, the program was styled as an unlicensed “therapeutic boarding school,” where adolescents would work through a daily program of attack therapy style encounter peer group sessions known as “raps,” interspersed with forced manual labour (including the students acting as an unpaid contractual workforce for many businesses in the schools’ communities), intensive outdoor education and long sessions of compulsory physical affection initially involving both staff and students, a practice known as “smooshing.”

As part of the “tough love” regimen, all aspects of life were restricted, including diet, dress and grooming, mail and communications. Even music was categorised as permissible or prohibited; even speaking about a band such as AC/DC would be deemed to be an infraction. Qualified therapists were rarely present, and psychiatric medications were initially banned, and later strongly discouraged. Graduation through the levels of the program involved participation in “seminars” based on large group awareness training, which commenced in the evening and ran from anywhere between 12 and 72 hours. Despite this entire education system being based on a number of fads that well and truly had passed by the beginning of the 1980s, CEDU became a multi-facility education empire, with the last of its facilities remaining open until 2005.

The second program was an in-patient residential youth drug and alcohol rehabilitation program The Seed, founded in Florida in 1971 and funded by a federal government grant. A 1974 Congressional hearing would find that The Seed used methods “similar to the highly refined brainwashing techniques employed by the North Koreans,” however the program was not closed until 2001. The Seed, and its associated spinoff Straight, Incorporated, founded by Mel Sembler, a prominent Florida businessman who later became the United States ambassador to both Italy and Australia, were profitable businesses. Young people enrolled in the program would be billeted to a host family of a child already in the program, whose parents were instructed to lock the children inside their rooms at night. Each day, the children would be driven to the program headquarters, which were usually windowless buildings in semi-industrial areas. Once there, the young people would sit in straight rows of fold out chairs, and engage in a humiliating arm flapping movement dubbed “motivating,” the rationale for which was that the display would signify the degree to which the participant was motivated to confess to the myriad of wrongdoings they had allegedly done and how much they deserved their plight.

The only way to progress in the program was for a participant to make confessions deemed acceptable and authentic by staff and their peers. Many survivors claim that they were compelled to exaggerate or fabricate confessions in order to sate their judges’ need for increasing demands of “getting real” and “getting right.” And in this case, their judges were their peers. The program was nearly exclusively staffed by former graduates, and its functioning depended on the labour of “unpaid trainees.” The qualification required in order to become a therapist or other worker for the program was to have graduated from the program. In blurred categories of “student,” “trainee” and “therapist,” whose membership was fluid depending on who was being promoted, or demoted, by others in the program, the young people observed each other in all aspects of their lives, including showering, dressing and using the toilet. Food was severely restricted, with most survivors reporting a diet almost exclusively of peanut butter sandwiches and cordial. Both former President George H W Bush and former First Lady Nancy Reagan publicly endorsed Straight, Inc, with the latter taking Diana, Princess of Wales on a tour of one of its facilities during an official visit. 

These two organisations commenced a wave of private, for-profit extrajudicial prisons for young people, who, depending on state regulatory schemes, will label themselves as therapeutic boarding schools, emotional growth schools, boot camps, private military academies, wilderness experiences, residential care facilities, or behaviour modification facilities. The “client” (usually the young person’s parent or guardian, although large numbers of state judicial, youth justice systems and even state care and mental health systems have mandated children to enrol in these programs) are subject to an elaborate marketing campaign, assured the young people will receive qualified and effective therapy, a balance of training in mainstream education and practical life skills, and a structured routine that will allow them to thrive. In their advertising, programs have claimed remarkably successful treatment rates for a wide range of conditions, including alcohol and drug dependency, mental health conditions, personality disorders, ADHD and neurodivergence and disordered eating. Some parents have enrolled teenagers for as little as music tastes, dyed hair and piercings deemed to be unacceptable. Some programs have even suggested they may be a useful experience for a child experiencing “boredom.” Some programs have practiced gay or transgender “conversion therapy,” and some are self-styled weight-loss camps.

The reality, survivors have claimed in successful lawsuits against programs, their insurers, and even states, is that these schools are essentially gulags. Non compliance with the “program” – which could be an infraction large or trivial, would result in both demotion and punishment, which may range from dishwashing or writing lines, to solitary confinement which may have lasted for weeks, physical restraint from staff and peers, forced exercise and labour (including labour such as moving rocks from one spot to another, before being ordered to move them back again), beatings and being forced to maintain stress positions.

The exact nature of each program is varied, depending on its jurisdiction, era and ideology of their founders. The Élan School, which ran from 1970 until 2011, combined the elements of peer attack therapy with a borstal atmosphere, ritual humiliation (including forcing students to sleep in dumpsters and wear bunny suits) and a practice known as “the ring” where disobedient students would be forced to participate in boxing matches against their peers until they were defeated. The school’s practices went largely unnoticed until 2002, when Michael Skakel, the nephew of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was convicted of the 1975 murder of Martha Moxley. The evidence of confessions made during his time at Élan School was one of the most sensationalised aspects of the Skakel trial, which also opened the door to examination of the circumstances in which these alleged confessions were made. Skakel’s conviction was vacated in 2018, after he had spent 16 years in jail. 

The World Wide Associated Programs of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP) ran facilities from 1998 to 2005 in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic and Samoa, and used long periods of restraint in stress positions, forced exercise and the confinement of young people in dog cages to enforce compliance with their program, which was largely based on listening to self-help tapes and seminars created by a company called Resource Realizations (or Premiere Educational Seminars) a spin-off of the notorious large-group awareness training organisation Lifespring. Seminar exercises including forcing students to choose who would be given seats on an imaginary lifecraft, and who they would choose to perish. Others, such as the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, were affiliated -either officially or unofficially to religious organisations, most notably Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism).

Perhaps the most shocking case I found during the deep dive was that of Lulu Cotter, whose successful lawsuit against the Straight, Inc. spin-off program KIDS of Bergen County was covered extensively in Maia Szalavitz’s excellent book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. By all accounts, Lulu was a good kid who had a difficult life. Growing up in a working-class, single-parent family, her mother was a factory worker who worked long hours of overtime, initially to send one of Lulu’s older siblings to the rehabilitation program. Like too many young people, by the age of 13, Lulu had experienced sexual violence at the hands of multiple perpetrators, but was an otherwise bright, happy and healthy child, who enjoyed fashion, spending time with friends, and her favourite artist, Madonna.

The KIDS of Bergen County program, which eventually received Medicaid funding, was strongly focused on ‘family therapy’ – mandating that parents and all siblings over the age of eight attend long evening sessions, which mostly involved listening to the ‘confessions’ of their family members within the program. Before one of these sessions, Lulu had purchased a new outfit enviable to any eighties adolescent Madonna fan – black pleather pants and a cropped lace t-shirt. Despite being warned that the outfit was not appropriate for the family therapy session, she wore it anyway.

This event would dramatically and permanently alter the rest of Lulu’s life. On October 27, 1984, the untrained KIDS staff insisted that Lulu’s outfit was concerning enough to warrant an “interview,” without her mother or support person present. This interview, which lasted into the night and took place over several hours, resulted in Lulu, who had never before skipped class, or even tried alcohol or cigarettes, being admitted into the program.

During the 2003 civil trial in which Lulu sued the program’s insurers, it became apparent that her intake notes had been lost, if they were ever gathered. Even the program’s directors admitted they could not recall the specific reasons for her intake, and during testimony variously suggested “over eating” or a “sexual disorder,” neither of which any staff member at KIDS was qualified to treat. For the rest of her teenage years, Lulu would not receive education, participate in extracurricular activities, date or attend her high school prom. As the KIDS program involved those at the first stage being billeted to others’ homes, she barely saw her mother. Instead, she was subjected to 12-hour days in a windowless warehouse, “motivating” in order to be called upon to confess to her “druggie behaviours.” One of the people who had sexually abused Lulu, also an adolescent in the program, at times sat right next to her. She was frequently restrained and beaten by peers and staff for various infractions. Eventually, she would injure herself, for which she was physically punished further. By the time she turned 18, and with no high school education, Lulu honestly believed that she would have no life outside of KIDS. She would not escape until she was 27 years old.

But the troubled teen industry is not a historical quirk relegated to the Reagan era. The Circle of Hope Girls Ranch was not closed until late August 2020, despite multiple complaints to made to media, state and federal authorities from its opening in 2006. Provo Canyon School, the facility attended by Paris Hilton, remains open, despite corroborated abuse claims dating back thirty years. Nor are these treatment programs a quirk of the United States’ laissez-faire approach to federal regulation. In 2018, a teenage boy from Tasmania in the state’s care system was sent to a program in the Northern Territory, where he alleges he was verbally abused, scruffed and pushed around, and made to sit in isolation on a milk crate for hours at a time.

A 2015 Rolling Stone article quoted that there have been 86 deaths in youth residential programs, although activist Liz Ianelli notes that this does not account for those who die from injuries, suicide or overdose after leaving programs, tallying 101 deaths of people under the age of 40 from her school alone. If we have long reached scientific consensus that tough love does not work, we must acknowledge that the reason parents and state authorities are mandating children to these facilities is for punishment and correction – which bears the question, what misdeed is so egregious that we would insist that children receive an open-ended sentence to a facility where conditions described are harsher, and far less regulated, than most adult jails? And what is the rationale for sending vulnerable children in need of care or experiencing mental illness, to such a facility?

Paris Hilton’s document is truly excellent, and can be watched here.

Aunties Book Review: An essential collection

It was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail.

Book title: Aunties
Editors: Kassie Hartendorp, Ella Grace, M.Newton, Nadia Abu-Shanab
Released: 2020
Review by: Ani White

The Aunties collection was crowdfunded in 2018, a collection of articles bringing together the perspectives of women, transgender, non-binary, and intersex people involved in political organising across Aotearoa. This was an initiative of editors Ella Grace, M. Newton, Kassie Hartendorp and Nadia Abu-Shanab (although they assert on the website that “we’re not editors, we’re organisers”, the collection is well-edited).

Crowdfunding from the community has allowed this collection to be accountable to the community, rather than to NGOs or even corporate funders who tend to downplay anti-systemic perspectives. For example, the decision to include a prison abolitionist perspective from People Against Prisons (PAPA) organiser Emily Rākete goes beyond what prison reform NGOs would allow.

Although the collection took three years to produce after the crowdfunding campaign, this is reflected in the breadth of the collection, with 25 articles spanning 100 pages. Many articles are brief, but rich. The collection is beautifully produced, with excellent design by Natasha Mead, Natalie Thomson and Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho – and many lovely illustrations and photographs throughout.

The cover is Simply Red, and it was satisfying to receive a Big Red Book in the mail. Although digital media has transformed communication in important ways, and can’t be ignored, there’s something to be said for a print collection in bringing together diverse articles in one lasting place, rather than isolated articles or fleeting 240-character hot takes. That said, for those who can’t afford the collection, there is a free pdf online until the end of the year – a good decision in terms of accessibility, in contrast to the academic approach which locks away important knowledge in subscription journals. The printed collection is also available to purchase for $30, and if you can afford that, it’s worth supporting the work and expense involved in drawing the collection together (international orders are also included).

The introduction accurately captures the conjuncture this collection intervenes in:

We face a number of challenges to our collective survival. We share an awareness of these challenges. Sometimes it makes us feel heavy and lost as we struggle to find our place.

We came together to make this magazine because you’re not alone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to face these things by yourself. You can’t and shouldn’t.

This emphasis on collective self-determination, as a solution to various interlocked crises, runs throughout the collection. Articles include a brief interview with Ihumātao organiser Pania Newton (for international readers: Ihumātao is a struggle for Māori land against property developers), an interview on organisation with beneficiary rights stalwart Sue Bradford (who calls for a “large scale party to the left of Labour and the Greens”), and an interview with veteran indigenous activist Hilda Harawira, among many others.

The collection takes in the perspective of both leading activists, and other contributors who may be erased even in activist politics. Related to the inclusion of these often-erased perspectives, Ihumātao ‘leader’ Pania Newton questions the very concept of ‘leadership’ in movements, as she has in her public speeches.

Although drawing clear political lines in the sand, the collection reflects the complexity and nuance of the various liberation struggles women and gender minorities are engaged in across Aotearoa. In part this stems from the emphasis on lived experience. The collection is also intergenerational, as suggested by the title Aunties.

Given the feminist decision to include only articles by women and gender minorities, often indigenous and women of colour, some may mutter about ‘identity politics.’ This is a bugbear of both the right and, unfortunately, much of the Conservative Left. However, a simple flick through the contents reveals that this collection transcends the tired identity vs class argument, with pieces by union organisers alongside wider community organisers and writers. Working-class self-organisation is not mutually exclusive with challenging multiplied forms of oppression, such as colonisation and sexism, and this collection reflects that fact. As union organiser Tali Williams outlines at the inception of her article:

A lot of the problems women experience stem from what happens at work. That’s why for centuries women have united and organised to confront the boss.

And as union organiser Shanna Olsen-Reeder points out in her article, the abuse she experienced from a boss “was a symptom of the system in which we operate: capitalism.”

All three union organiser contributors offer practical, useful and inspiring accounts of workplace organising, with Tali Williams writing on organising at a major NZ clothing brand, Shanna Olson-Reeder on organising at JB Hi-Fi, and Jacky Maaka interviewed on her work in the health sector respectively. This practicality of the approach to class is also reflected in the decision to include a WINZ Rights Info Sheet. 

That said, there is one weakness in the collection’s class politics: the articles on workplace organising are written by paid representatives, although at least one of them was first recruited from the shopfloor, and another is an elected paid delegate. In part this limitation is simply a reflection of wider conditions: no large-scale rank-and-file movement exists, so leftists tend to orientate towards left officials. Another underlying issue here is that even organised workers run the risk of facing (often illegal) disciplinary action if they speak up publicly, but a strong rank-and-file union movement should be able to back up workers who speak out publicly – perhaps anonymity is another option. I understand there was an intention to include more rank-and-file union perspectives, but this can be difficult to achieve in contemporary conditions  (as Fightback editors can attest).

The point here isn’t to moralistically condemn paid organisers, many of whom are good comrades. However, although organisers place an emphasis on workers’ self-organisation (Shanna Olsen-Reeder asserts that workplace organisers “didn’t rely on a union organiser to come in to our workplace” and Tali Williams asserts that there are “no experts here!”), we only hear the perspectives of paid representatives. This reflects the complex question raised by Pania Newton about the nature of ‘leadership’ in movements. Across the pond in Australia, I’ve been involved in a rank-and-file struggle against the collaborationist approach of the National Tertiary Education (NTEU) leadership, an approach sadly shared by the leadership of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in Aotearoa – although more militant unions do not necessarily share that approach, the collaborationism during the COVID crisis has not been challenged the way it has in Australia. Bringing in more rank-and-file union perspectives would have strengthened a generally excellent collection, which does tend to otherwise emphasise self-organisation of oppressed and exploited communities.

Another thing which would strengthen the collection is a consideration of how struggles in Aotearoa are interlocked with international struggles, for example the role of labour migration to Australia (recently politicised with the COVD-era backlash against returning New Zealanders, many of whom have lost work in Australia). The question of refugee rights, such as the recent growth of refugees from Syria, also indicates how local issues are interlocked with international ones. That said, even with 100 pages of brief articles, there’s only so much space to include Everything That Matters. Also, work by Pasefika activists and writers, such as Leilani Visesio’s article, does bring an Oceanic perspective to the collection.

Overall, this is an essential collection for anyone looking to learn about liberation movements across Aotearoa, or to strengthen their organising work – perhaps the underlying message of the collection is kia kaha, be strong. We need more work like this, collecting together the experiences and lessons of various connected struggles.

Pasifika people and the New Zealand election

Fijian people queuing to vote in their elections
By SALOTE CAMA. From Fightback’s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html [1]

As New Zealand prepares to go to the polls in September, the debates will often be about how the government will distribute resources, what gets prioritised in this COVID-19 world, the housing crisis, and the ongoing climate crises. I am an indigenous Fijian, living and working in New Zealand, so my experience of New Zealand politics is coloured. Obviously, there are many differences between New Zealand governance and Fijian governance. Fiji is a republic, New Zealand has an MMP system, Fiji is essentially one massive electorate, and many more to name. However, there are similarities as well. Both governments are heavily invested in maintaining their influence in the region, both countries had a failed push for a change to the Union Jack on our flags in the early 2010s, and both governments are institutions built on the foundation of controlling native land for the British colonial administration.

My understanding of politics is coloured by who I am as an indigenous Fijian person, and this is highly tuned into the politics of land. How land is understood is similar in both iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) and Māori cultures, and this is evidenced in the words used in both languages – vanua in vosa vaka Viti and whenua in te reo Māori. For iTaukei land is not just the physical entity – it is what all aspects of life and society are structured around. It informs education, relationships, status, anxieties, and powers. Fears of land alienation was the reason given for Fiji’s first coup d’état. May 14, 1987 saw Dr Timoci Bavadra removed as Fiji’s Prime Minister. The coup was led by then Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka (currently serving as Fiji’s Leader of the Opposition). Two (or three, or three and a half, depending on your count) more coups have since followed, all somewhat related to these same anxieties.

Land alienation is something indigenous peoples around the world have had to grapple with, and this is definitely true when it comes to New Zealand. Fiji, some consider, to be an anomaly. iTaukei, in this case, own roughly 90% of land. This coupled with the fact that, apart from tourism, the Fiji economy is held up by land-intensive industries like agriculture, timber, and sugar. This could indicate that there is a legacy of the British colonial administration, and their “benevolence”. This benevolence is a myth. iTaukei Fijians own the land, but do not control it. They own the land as part of land-owning units called mataqali – a colonial administrative creation. This control is held in an institution called the iTaukei Land Trust Board (TLTB). The TLTB is the current iteration of the administrative process that determines what is done to iTaukei land, and has done so, on behalf of the colonial government, and in turn the Fijian state, since the turn of the twentieth century.

The colonial project in Viti, in Aotearoa, and in the Pacific was – and is – a series of power plays that seek to gain position and influence for the colonial powers. It is interested only in its own protection and its own authority. Our lands were no longer extensions of who we are, but instead a means of production – a means of gaining wealth to prop up colonialism and capitalism. Our lands were also used to take advantage, to sow distrust, to disenfranchise, and to break collectives.

Land is not immediately at the forefront of the current crop of questions that voters are supposedly asking during the New Zealand election campaign. The economy, COVID-19 recovery, the housing crisis, the climate crises: these are what the hoardings dotting fences on busy streets are centred on. Peel back these questions, and you can see that essentially voters are asking what are we prioritising? The New Zealand Labour Party is going into these elections with a wave of political capital, and generally high polling numbers. Its leader, Jacinda Ardern, is the face of a globally recognised “kindness” brand of politics. Its opposition, the New Zealand National Party, is marred by recent bouts of in-fighting, scandals, low polling numbers and a controversial leader in Judith Collins. Some of the strongest Labour seats in the last election are Pasifika strongholds: there is a strong affiliation between Pasifika communities and the Labour Party. The official Labour campaign launch at Auckland’s Town Hall saw a single announcement of policy from the Labour Party – a regurgitation of National Party policy from 2012, albeit with more funding (this funding will be from the unspent wage subsidy funding). What does this mean for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand? Loyalty to a party, flush with political capital, who has given us just one piece of centrist policy with just over a month to the elections.

The traumas of the colonial project in the Pacific are not only being actively ignored, but are being added to. From the military-industrial complex that is demanding war games in the middle of a pandemic in Hawai’i, to Judith Collins dismissing the goals of mana whenua to protect Ihumātao as “nonsense,” to the loud silence of the New Zealand government in the face of the continued oppression of West Papua by the Indonesian government, and the current refusal to support the West Papua Decolonisation Committee at the United Nations – these traumas are painful, complex, and have ever-changing faces.

Maybe the question of what this (election) means for Fijian, and Pasifika, voters in New Zealand is not necessarily a fair, or good question. Pasifika communities in New Zealand are not just invested in the results of the New Zealand elections. We are too diverse and invested to have a solidly satisfying monolithic answer.  Perhaps I am asking too much of a system that sees whenua as just another means that can further entrench capitalism, another means to further promote colonialism. And because it cannot see the whenua as what it really is, it cannot see us as wholly who we are – because the vanua is inherently a part of our being. Our survival as a culture is predicated on the protection of whenua, of fonua, of vanua. This is not a “proper” election issue, nor is it a Labour Party specific issue, and Pasifika people will most likely remain loyal to the Labour Party through the upcoming elections. But in the immortal words of Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi “withdrawal or non-participation is an option open to idealists and cynics… we owe it to … ourselves to deal with the consequences as they are, not as we would like them to be.”


[1] Editor’s note on style: Salote uses the term Pasifika in this article to refer to the various peoples of the Pacific Islands. Elsewhere in this issue we have used the alternative spelling Pasefika (which is from the Samoan language) or simply referred to “Pacific peoples”.

Are New Zealand’s Greens worth a socialist vote? Three perspectives

From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html

Fightback asked for three perspectives from social justice campaigners over whether they would advise anti-capitalists to vote Green in the New Zealand election this October. Fightback offers these perspectives as part of debate and we neither endorse nor oppose a Green vote in this election.

1. Sharon Bell, on behalf of the GreenLeft Network within the Green Party of Aotearoa/New Zealand

What precisely is the “GreenLeft Network” and what is your relationship to the Green Party of Aotearoa/NZ?

The GreenLeft Network (GLN) is one of a few formal membership networks within the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Other networks include Rainbow Greens, Inclusive Greens, Young Greens, and a number of other smaller interest-based networks. The GLN was established in 2014 as a response to a shift towards centrism within the Green Party. It initially started as a Facebook-based group but, following the establishment of the Budget Responsibility Rules in 2017, a group of members worked to formalise some of our operating structures and develop our Kaupapa Statement and Rules of Operation that guide how we function.

We aim to provide a home for lefties in the Green Party, as we work within the Party through mechanisms such as remits at the annual AGM to make change. We have over 200 members and members of the GLN also hold Party office roles, and focus on working constructively within Party processes for progressive change.

2. What does “GreenLeft” mean to you, in terms of kaupapa? Would you call yourself anti-capitalist or social-democratic?

Our Kaupapa Statement includes the following:

The GreenLeft Network holds true to the existing Green Party of Aotearoa Charter.

Further, the GreenLeft Network believes that the way to honour these principles is through a strong commitment to intersectional left-wing policies and analysis, with particular regard to an anti-capitalist stance and a critique of power.

We honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the tino rangatiratanga of hapū and iwi Māori, recognising that they did not cede their sovereignty… We are opposed to imperialism and militarism.

We recognise that capitalism produces a hierarchical classed society, which privileges profit accumulation at the expense of the many. We acknowledge that the capitalist system we live under is a base from which systems of oppression, hierarchy and division flow. We reject this, the GreenLeft Network aims to defend the rights of the poor and the working class, and fight all forms of marginalisation and oppression that capitalist society produces. We work to promote class analysis within the Green Party, as well as supporting those external groups already carrying out this work.

We reject “sustainable capitalism” as an oxymoron; we do not believe the market will ever be able to provide a genuine solution to climate change, and we indict the inherent violence of capitalism… We believe that our vision, and the Green Party’s vision, for Aotearoa cannot be achieved by pandering, conservatism, incrementalism or arbitrary constraints on the political imaginary. We are in favour of the Green Party campaigning on a bold and radical left-wing platform in electoral contests.

Whilst our members hold a healthy variety of positions and interpretations, all our members have to sign up to our Kaupapa Statement, and this keeps us ideologically unified.

What role GreenLeft has played in debates within the GPA/NZ recently? What struggles have you contributed to, and what (specifically) do you think your impact has been?

GLN members worked outside and inside the Party to drop the Budget Responsibility Rules, which we were successful with. Related to the current election, many top candidates in this year’s Green List are GLN members and we support their campaigns. In 2019, we put forward a remit to make MP tithing [donation of a portion of their salaries] to the Party progressive, which was passed by consensus.

I’d like to remind you of a few things that your party co-leader James Shaw said about you in an interview with Stuff a few months ago.[1] Can you tell us in your own words what the context of your “alternative draft list” was? How would you describe your relationship with GPA/NZ leadership, including James Shaw, Marama Davidson and others?

The GLN list was drafted in the context of the Party list-ranking process where non-incumbent MP candidates don’t fare well once the list is sent to the wider Party membership to vote upon. To overcome that, the GLN Executive underwent a process, including surveying the candidates for their views on issues, to establish a list of candidates that aligned well with the GLN Kaupapa, and communicated it privately to our members. Neither James Shaw nor anybody else in leadership has told us this was inappropriate. We always participate in Party democratic processes in good faith and strive to keep GLN members informed of how they can be involved.

Would you advise people who are explicitly anti-capitalist (members of groups like Fightback or Organise Aotearoa, Labour Party socialists, even anarchists) to vote for the Green Party this election – or even to join the GPA/NZ in order to fight alongside you?

Yes. We have a diverse range of political affiliations and grassroots organisation memberships within the Network. Although parliamentary politics is by no means perfect, the Green Party is the best option, as its membership structure and member-driven policy, principles and values mean you can contribute more directly to creating change. We value the many different ways people contribute to Aotearoa’s politics and voting Green is a worthwhile vote. Even if it’s just one day out of 1094 days of being staunchly committed to other ways of creating change (awesome, please do!), voting Green is one way you can advocate for transformational reforms. And if you agree with our Kaupapa Statement, we’d love to have you on board!

Where do you see yourself in the context of other “GreenLeft” organisations overseas, some of which have achieved parliamentary representation or even government on their own (e.g. Iceland, Netherlands or Denmark)? What do you think you gain by being part of the GPA/NZ?

Being part of the GreenLeft Network, as with any Party network, provides solidarity and space to be ourselves, reflect and develop our vision according to our values and politics. It weaves together grassroots movements and the Party. We also have MPs who are part of the network. Creating another Party is not the aim of the Network, as the Greens are the only Party that can and will push for a Just Transition to a healthier, more equitable world.

It is heartening to see the ascendency of GreenLeft organisations overseas. We see it as the most natural and strategic alliance for an anti-capitalist politics. The Green Party in Aotearoa has radical roots, and by staying true to them we can see similar successes here.

What is your take on the compromises made to the Zero Carbon Act?

We are glad that there is broad consensus in Parliament that climate change is a crisis that cannot be ignored and must be addressed at a governmental level. A lot of us were disappointed with aspects of it, such as having a split target for methane which meant it was weaker than the carbon reduction target and counter to the preferred option based on public consultation, and the omission of citizen litigation for enforcement. But we see the Zero Carbon Act as a starting point to build from, not the end of action.

Sharon invites those who support the GLN Kaupapa to join up online: https://facebook.us18.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=e2c710e7fb7b15d0c9e3a6a5a&id=290e9d377c

2. PETER SYKES is an Anglican minister and a long-time activist based in South Auckland. He is one of the founders and CEO of ME Family Services, a non-government organisation based in Mangere East with an environmental and social justice focus, which offers support to the community with an Early Childhood Education centre, waste minimisation, community gardening, social work and other initiatives. Sykes is standing as a Green Party candidate for the seat of Māngere, currently held by Labour’s Aupito William Sio, the current Minister for Pacific Peoples.

What made you decide to put yourself forward as a Green Party candidate? Do you have a prior involvement with the Greens?

I have been Green at heart most of my life and was involved in the Values Party, an early form of green party, while at university. I have been a passive member for the past few years. The decision to step forward as a candidate was based on the lack of Green presence in Mangere, and a concern that Labour was not voicing the need for collaboration more strongly. I strongly believe in the vision and values of the Green Party … built on a commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the four pou [pillars] are: building on ecological wisdom (which I believe to be a regenerative understanding to the rhythm of ecosystems around us); social responsibility (a thriving community based on social and economic justice); appropriate decision-making (consensus decision making made directly at the appropriate level by those affected); and a commitment to nonviolence in all levels and contexts. Probably the major reason I have put myself forward as the candidate for Mangere is a belief that the Green Party is the only party which gives shape to my understanding a vision for a thriving, regenerative Mangere now and into the future; and links into a context where we exist. I believe the Greens’ principles challenge us to dig deeper into understanding the earth rhythms where we are … and therefore challenge us to understand indigenous wisdom.

What do you think of the Greens’ current leadership?

The party has leadership at three levels – parliament, party and membership. The party also seeks to have leadership which gives voice to the key values. Both these aspects are vital for me to be active at a local level – I can give voice to the issues and policy for myself and my communities. On a much more specific response – I am excited about the political leadership being shown by Marama Davidson and James Shaw. They are passionate and able voices to the diversity of the Greens. Beyond them those who have been put on the list are people I want to see in leadership – they have been tested by the party and by the members. I am proud to be associated with our list members, even though I choose not to put my name into the pool.

Mangere has traditionally been a strong Labour seat. Do you think the Labour government has been responsive to the needs of the voters in the past, particularly Pacific peoples?

The Labour Party has laid the foundation of an intergenerational wellbeing for our nation, which no other party has. However, because of the nature of politics in NZ, it has had to work hard for a significant middle ground. It has had to work at building an understanding of MMP in a time when aspirations nationally and internationally are in change and when we are facing economic, social and environmental challenges unlike any other age; and on top of that we are weaving (successfully?) through the global disruption of COVID-19.

However, with that strong foundation, I do not believe the voice of Mangere or the Pacific is heard within the Labour Party as a whole. I believe that Aupito, as local MP, is greatly supported by the Greens voice pushing for greater social and environmental justice.

Locally I think more needs to be done around 1] protecting our land and sea and streams – an issue highlighted by the beam of hope – Ihumatao. 2] Creating housing for our people – accessible and appropriate. Not based on economic models which continue to disconnect and isolate people. 3] We need an economic model which celebrates and builds local resilience – especially our networks, our small businesses, and allows local solutions for local people. This means more local control over power, food, water, and decision making.

You are the only non-Pasifika candidate in Mangere. What support do you have in the Pasifika community?

Personally, I am proud to stand in Mangere and believe being Pakeha is, ironically, a strength. It is too stereotypical and simplistic to identify Mangere as ‘a Pasifika Community’. Mangere is in fact a city of many villages and communities. It is not a single spirit or mind. It has enormous resources and diversity that are being shut down because in a national and Auckland context it stands different. And in the midst of that I am one voice. Whether I have support from any of the communities will be up to them to say.

As an Anglican minister, how does Christianity fit with Green policies? Other parties (particularly New Conservatives) claim to represent “Christian” values such as opposition to abortion, LGBTI+ rights, etc. What is your response to them?

My understanding of Christianity has always placed me outside the institutional church in the borderlands, and sometimes ‘wasteland’. I have always stood for social justice and inclusion of the vulnerable. The Christian faith is as diverse as any other faith or belief system, and it is not exclusive. My belief as a Christian encourages me to, “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micah 6:8] Conservative beliefs seek to hold onto whatever truth they gather around. But it is not the only way of being a believer. My belief is based on walking with the lost, lonely and wounded and showing a vision of hope and future. [eg. Isaiah 65:17-26]

The Greens’ principles allow for me to be me, and walk with my faith…. and recognise both social responsibility and appropriate decision making. When applied to the ‘issues’ of abortion, LGBTI+ and the referendums on creating a framework for cannabis and ‘euthanasia’ my stand in support of these is based on a belief that 1] I will not block other people’s wellbeing, particularly if it does not personally impact on me; 2] I ensure that law is used for social justice not social control; and 3] I will ensure that those most vulnerable have a voice.

What is your vision for future Aotearoa New Zealand?

My vision of Aotearoa NZ is that of thriving, regenerative communities working together with people and planet to ensure the ongoing embracing of future generations. In placing that vision, I believe we need to make significant changes to our political and economic structures to enable this to become reality. The seeds of these changes are embedded in the living standards framework of the Labour Party and given voice in the vision and principles of the Green Party. Therefore, a party vote for Greens is an essential next step to move things along.

3. SUE BRADFORD, former Green Party MP and long-time ecosocialist, wrote an article in 2019 saying that she could not vote for the Green Party under the Shaw/Davidson leadership.

I am still not sure how I will vote in the Sept 2020 election. The step towards wealth taxes and a minimum income for some people was progressive, and may influence a decision on my part to vote Green.

But at the same time, the level at which they set the income was too low for survival and didn’t go as far as the Basic Income which I support (in a progressive form). Also, I don’t know what else may emerge (or not emerge) from the Greens between now and Sept 20. I know in the past things have come out at the last minute that have reshaped my voting decision.

I regret deeply that the Greens have become so firmly a party whose scope remains within a framework of what I’d call ‘greening capitalism’ rather than firmly exposing and moving – at least to some extent – beyond the confines of neoliberal capitalism. The party’s position in earlier years was more ambiguous, especially during the period when Rod Donald was co-leader.

At the same time, I agree with you that often enough it is important to support a party and/or candidate whose position is not what I’d call ‘radical left’, and in fact my whole twelve years as an active Green Party member, candidate and then MP were an example of my own willingness to compromise sufficiently to take part in parliamentary politics, because I thought it was important to try and shift the Greens – and the public discourse – to the left, on social, economic, Tiriti and ecological issues.

I believe it was worth the effort, in part because of the three private member’s bills I got through, but also because I was able to use the MP platform to amplify advocacy for the causes I most strongly advocate for, and for people whose interests are usually not strongly represented in Parliament.

The Green Party of that period (1998–2009) welcomed me as a member and – for the most part – supported me as candidate and MP, with the most significant internal support coming from Rod Donald and of course quite a few others within the party. Losing the co-leadership contest to Metiria Turei in 2009 revealed clearly how much support I, and the left wing of the party, had lost since Rod’s death at the end of 2005 – and how much the party had shifted to wanting to be a safe, non-radical, more centrist and even blue-leaning party on both social and environmental issues. Despite a staunch fight back in recent times from some great left people inside the party that shift to the ‘safe’ centre has just kept going since then, accentuated by James Shaw’s co-leadership.

While I know some people would see me as reformist for this, I continue to believe it is important to vote and to engage in other ways with parliamentary politics. If we want to build for transformational constitutional change alongside Māori, we need to build strength on the Pākehā/tauiwi side of politics to become partners with the strength inside and outside Parliament to achieve that change. The big problem I have at present is that there is no party in whose kaupapa I have enough belief to go out and say to others ‘vote for ‘x’ or ‘join ‘y’. At this stage I do not feel able to do that for the Greens or Labour much less anyone else, which is not to say I won’t vote – just that at this stage my voting decision remains uncertain, and may stay that way until the last moment.


[1]              https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/121694108/portrait-of-green-leader-james-shaw-labour-wasted-its-political-capital

Being kind? The Ardern government and COVID-19

Jacinda Ardern gives a COVID-19 briefing alongside NZ’s Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield
by BRONWEN BEECHEY. From Fightback’s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html

Aotearoa New Zealand, and particularly its Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has been widely praised in the media for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government announced a state of emergency and Alert Level Four – the highest on the COVID-19 alert system – on March 24, meaning that the country’s borders were closed to all but returning citizens, who are quarantined on arrival; schools and all non-essential businesses closed; and all workers other than those in essential services were required to work at home if possible. People were only able to leave home for essential trips (such as to supermarkets) or short walks.

The government’s “go hard, go early” strategy paid off in its aim of “flattening the curve” – ensuring that the coronavirus didn’t take hold in numbers that would overwhelm the health system. By the time the government announced that the country was moving to alert Level One on June 8, the total number of coronavirus cases stood at 1,504 with 22 deaths. All of the deaths were people over 60 with underlying health conditions, and linked to identified “clusters”, without any widespread community outbreaks. Up until August, the numbers of cases increased by only 64, all of those in returning New Zealanders who were in managed isolation.

The government’s strategy was effective in its messaging, explaining the science behind the strategy in relatable terms, popularising concepts like “bubbles” (a household or group within which people isolate, to avoid spreading the virus), urging people to “be kind” and stressing collectivity with terms like “the team of 5 million” (Aotearoa New Zealand’s population). Although police were given powers to enforce lockdown rules, the numbers of those deliberately breaking them were low. Obviously in a country made up of islands, and with a small population, the ability to keep COVID-19 numbers low was easier. But the basis for popular support for the lockdown was that the government made it clear that it valued the health of its people over calls to prioritise the economy.

Much of the praise of Ardern and the government is justified, although it has to be said that compared to the performance of other leaders such as Scott Morrison, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, any reasonably competent response to the pandemic would look good. However, there are equally justifiable criticisms of the government response to COVID-19, the main one being that the existing deep inequalities in society are at least being maintained, and at worst being deepened.

These inequalities have existed since the colonisation of Aotearoa, despite popular beliefs that Aotearoa New Zealand is a bastion of equality. Despite the assurances of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) of 1840 that Māori would maintain their land and culture, Māori were systematically dispossessed of both, and despite long-standing resistance are still over-represented in statistics of poverty, ill-health and other indicators of deprivation. The British colonists imported a class system which was also able to use racism to allow Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent) a relatively comfortable standard of living.

In the 1980s, the Labour government headed by David Lange adopted a neoliberal agenda, inspired by those of Thatcher and Reagan. Known as “Rogernomics” after its leading proponent, Finance Minister Roger Douglas, wide-ranging cuts were made to public services, government entities were privatised and workers’ rights attacked. These economically conservative measures were accompanied by social reforms, such as legalisation of homosexuality and the ban on nuclear-powered ships. The National Party government elected in 1990 continued these neoliberal policies and also slashed social welfare benefits and introduced fees for healthcare and tertiary education. The combination of neoliberal economic and socially progressive policies has continued since. As a result, New Zealand’s economy has depended on low wages and even lower benefits, creating a class of working poor that is predominantly made up of Māori, Pacific peoples and new migrants.

The government’s response to COVID-19 included a $12 billion package to support the economy, over half of which went to a wage subsidy scheme aimed at allowing COVID-19-affected businesses to retain staff. Under the scheme, eligible full-time workers receive up to $585 per week for 12 weeks, paid as a lump sum. However, the subsidy is paid to the employer to pass on to workers and a number of employers simply pocketed the subsidy for themselves. Other large companies, such as Air New Zealand, took the wage subsidy then made staff redundant anyway. Even if workers received the wage subsidy, the reduction in income meant that those on low wages struggled to meet rent or mortgage repayments and feed their families. Over the course of the lockdown, food banks reported demand soaring by up to 200 per cent.

Beneficiaries received an increase of $25 per week, which was not enough to bring them up to an adequate level. The government also introduced a higher rate of benefits for those who were made redundant due to COVID-19, a move widely criticised as creating a two-tier benefit system and reinforcing an ideology distinguishing the “deserving poor” from “bludgers”. As increasing numbers of New Zealanders returned from living overseas, and were quarantined at the expense of the government, a campaign led by the opposition National Party demanded that people returning to Aotearoa New Zealand pay for their stay in managed isolation. The government caved under pressure and initiated a managed isolation fee of $3,100 for an adult entering Aotearoa New Zealand for less than 90 days, with additional charges for extra adults and children over 3. The fee will also apply to temporary visa holders and any essential workers entering the country. While there are exemptions for those returning to go into isolation to care for sick relatives, and anyone returning to visit dying or sick relatives or attend funerals can apply for charges to be waived, the fees will make it impossible for those on low wages to return. It has also been suggested that charging Māori in particular to return to the country where they are recognised as the indigenous population is in breach of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Left out of the “team of 5 million” altogether were the approximately 300,000 migrant workers  on temporary visas. Many of those workers lost jobs or had their hours substantially reduced, but were unable to apply for benefits. While the Social Security Act has provision for the Government to authorise the payment of emergency benefits in an epidemic, the Government refused to do so, despite extending temporary visas through the issue of an epidemic notice. Instead, migrants were told to seek help through their countries’ consulates, or from Civil Defence Emergency management groups. These could provide only minimal assistance. On June 16, the government announced a $37.6 million program, delivered by Red Cross, to assist those on temporary visas with basic food and accommodation.  However, the refusal of the government to grant emergency benefits despite having the power to do so can hardly be described as kind or compassionate.

Although a reasonable effort was made to house rough sleepers in motels, many families spent the lockdown in overcrowded, cold, damp homes. High rents and decades of neglecting or selling of public housing have created a housing crisis. These conditions help coronavirus and other illnesses to spread. At the time of writing, Aotearoa New Zealand has re-entered partial lockdown, following an outbreak of COVID-19 originating in South Auckland, an area which has a high proportion of Māori, Pacific peoples and migrant families on low incomes or benefits who live in substandard, crowded housing. While inequality continues to exist, these outbreaks are likely to continue.

The success of the government’s COVID-19 strategy was not just because of its messaging and calls to “be kind”, but because ordinary people took action to look out for their neighbours, help distribute food parcels, do shopping for those unable to leave home, or just stayed home in their “bubble” and stopped the virus from spreading. There was also proactive action from a number of remote Māori communities who set up roadblocks to ensure that the virus did not get brought into their areas. Of course, many essential workers including health workers, aged carers, supermarket workers, warehouse workers, courier drivers and others are on low wages and struggling to pay rents and mortgages. While it seems likely that Labour will win the upcoming election with enough votes to allow it to govern alone, those who have made sacrifices to keep the pandemic from creating the devastation seen in other countries will be expecting Labour to use its majority to reward them for their contribution.

“Lawmakers, not lawbreakers”: Jacindamania as a bastion of the Third Way

by ANI WHITE. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html
(L) New Zealand’s kind, empathetic Prime Minister; (R) the Green Party co-leader she “threw under the bus” on her way up

For progressives around the world, Jacinda Ardern’s Sixth Labour government is seen as a bastion. However, this perceived beacon of light is in large part an index of the darkness that has taken hold internationally. In a world where a man like Donald Trump can hold the presidency, the bar is low enough for a minimally competent leader and government to appear exceptional.

It’s also obviously the case that Ardern’s Labour is preferable to the opposition National Party, especially with Judith Collins taking over leadership from the right of the party. To quote Marxist Hal Draper’s classic text on lesser evilism:

What the classic case [Hitler vs von Hindenburg in the 1932 German presidential election] teaches is not that the Lesser Evil is the same as the Greater Evil – this is just as nonsensical as the liberals argue it to be but rather this: that you can’t fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them.[1]

Ardern’s personality is undoubtedly a factor in her appeal, as indicated by the term ‘Jacindamania.’ Yet politically, Ardern represents a form of centrist politics that has failed to address the challenges of our time. Early in her political career, Ardern worked for Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office, and this set the tone for her career. Ardern names her favourite election as the 2005 re-election of the Fifth Labour government, while also naming the 2008 election of Obama as a highlight.[2] Her government echoes the Third Way philosophy that predominated 20 years ago, but has gone into decline with the rise of right-wing populism. Although Third Way politics may be preferable to Trumpism, this is a low bar – it remains grossly inadequate to address contemporary challenges such as climate change and inequality.

This article will focus on how the coalition government has handled four key issues: climate change (with the Zero Carbon Act), indigenous sovereignty (particularly the Ihumātao struggle), welfare, and the March 15th Christchurch terrorist attack. You can find analysis of the government’s handling of COVID here.

Zero Carbon Act

In November 2019, the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act, or simply Zero Carbon Act passed with near-unanimous support. This established a new Climate Change Commission, a quasi-independent advisory body. Although hailed as a ‘historic achievement’, the Act was fundamentally compromised.

The coalition government could have passed this bill alone, yet decided to seek bipartisan consensus. The opposition National Party successfully demanded many changes to the bill. This was reminiscent of the Obama government seeking a bipartisan consensus on healthcare, despite having a majority at the time.

The resulting Act was as compromised as you’d expect from a process that actively sought the input of forces hostile to meaningful change. Methane targets were unchanged, binding legal deterrents were not imposed, the date for the emissions target stayed the same, no explicit commitment was made to divest from oil and gas, and key industries were exempted.[3] The apparently positive changes – tighter regulation of carbon offsetting, and of offshore mitigation – embedded the ‘emissions trading’ approach to climate policy, which has created a new market and had little-to-no impact on emissions. Additionally, the new commission is entirely an advisory body, without teeth. Nothing is binding.

Ultimately, the Zero Carbon Act was a symbolic commitment, by a government unwilling to pursue the kind of confrontation with extractive capital which is necessary to prevent the impending climate catastrophe.

Ihumātao

The struggle over Ihumātao is a perfect example of Jacinda Ardern’s fence-sitting on contentious issues. Ihumātao is a site of historic significance for Māori, which was confiscated in 1863, and purchased by Fletcher Building to construct private housing in 2014. Fletcher Building’s purchasing of the land set off a struggle by local Māori to reclaim Ihumātao, which escalated into a mass struggle in mid-2019, as protestors clashed with police.

The government has been slow to intervene, initially taking the stance that the matter should be privately resolved, then moving to compensate Fletchers after significant public pressure. Rumours indicate that Fletchers will be compensated at a greater rate than they purchased the land for, allowing them to still profit from attempting to expropriate Māori land. Ardern refused to comment on reports of a potential loan of around $40 million for Auckland Council to purchase the land.[4]

Ihumātao activists made the moderate demand that Ardern simply visit the site. In August 2019, around 300 people participated in a hikoi (march) to Ardern’s office to deliver a petition with 26,000 signatures demanding Ardern visit the site. Despite advance notice, Ardern was not present to receive the petition.[5]

Ardern’s statements on the topic have been fuzzy and ill-defined. In August 2019, she commented: “On issues like Ihumātao, the difficult issues, the hard issues, we will be there, we are there in those conversations.” This fairly empty phrase came after months of refusing to take any explicit position on the issue. Iwi leader Che Wilson criticised Ardern’s lack of action or political commitment: “You asked us to keep you to account at Waitangi this year. But every big issue with regard to Māori, it appears that you hide away.”[6]

Ardern has said she will not visit Ihumātao until the struggle has reached a resolution.[7] Negotiations are ongoing.

Welfare

In the 2017 General Election, Green co-leader Metiria Turei admitted that as a single mother on a benefit, she had lied to Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) to get additional money to cover expenses. This set off a vicious right-wing smear campaign that resulted in Turei stepping down. Ardern’s response reinforced the smear campaign: “When you’re lawmakers, you can’t condone lawbreaking.”[8] This set the tone for her government’s welfare policies.

In a press release in response to the Ardern government’s 2020 budget, welfare advocacy group Auckland Action Against Poverty said the following:

The Government’s 2020 well-being budget continues to fail low-income people, families and communities with the lack of investment in support for people receiving benefits. It contains no additional increases to core benefits outside of the indexation changes and we keep condemning hundreds of thousands of people to live below the poverty line.

People should not have to rely on charities or food grants to survive. The $25 increase to benefit levels earlier this year has not reduced the need for food grants from Work and Income. The increased pressure on Work and Income staff because of rising unemployment due to Covid-19 will make it more difficult for people to access hardship assistance.

The Ministry of Social Development is preparing for up to an extra 300,000 people to apply for a benefit in the coming months which means a huge proportion of our population will be living in poverty. The Government could alleviate the pressure on low-income communities as well as Work and Income by lifting benefits to liveable levels and let Work and Income staff focus on pastoral support, instead of processing food grants.

We are living in unprecedented times, which we know requires a response which is unprecedented. Too many families have been living in poverty for decades, and this budget further ignores the systemic changes required to change that for communities.

While people’s employment status shouldn’t determine their right to a life with dignity, we are worried that there are no guarantees by Government to ensure jobs created as part of this budget provide a living wage and decent working conditions. People should not be forced into employment that does not allow them to make ends meet.

We welcome the investment into Māori housing initiatives such as He Kūkū Ki Te Kāinga and He Taupua, but the bulk of the funding pales in comparison to community housing and transitional housing initiatives. We are calling on the Government to direct more funding into hapu and iwi led housing initiatives and return confiscated Crown land.

Despite the additional funding in public housing, the Government is accepting it will not be able to house all of the people on the social housing waiting list over the next few years. The additional funding for state homes won’t cover the burgeoning state housing waiting list, meaning families will still be homeless or struggling to make ends meet in private rentals.

We are disappointed no changes have been made to our tax system. This was an opportunity to introduce taxes on wealth and speculative transactions so that the wealthy few pay their fair share and the tax burden does not fall on low-income communities in the form of regressive taxes.

The Government has the resources to ensure that everybody has enough food on the table, access to housing, and public services. Given the circumstances of Covid-19 and against the backdrop of the climate crisis, this was an opportunity for us to be courageous and truly transformative as a way forward for all of us.[9]

The government’s decision to increase the benefits of the newly unemployed, while keeping those on existing benefits below the poverty line, was also condemned by AAAP as creating a two-tier welfare system.[10]

March 15th 2019 Christchurch terror attack

Jacinda Ardern was praised internationally for her response to the Christchurch terror attack, in which a far right gunman killed 50 people at two mosques. Prior to that point, New Zealand governments were complacent about the far right. In the wake of 9/11, the Fifth Labour government oversaw an expansion of ‘anti-terrorist’ powers that surveilled everyone but the far right – particularly Māori, leftists, Muslims, animal rights groups, and environmentalists.[11]

In the wake of the attack, many praised Ardern’s compassion, and images of her wearing a headscarf at the funeral for the victims became internationally iconic. Yet this is another sign of how low the bar is internationally for political leaders – simply respecting customs at a funeral is now worthy of praise. It’s also indicative of the way praise for Ardern has often centred on personality rather than policy.

Ardern’s government passed gun control legislation in the wake of the massacre – but also armed the police. Immediately after the attack, armed police became routinely visible.[12] The government then launched an official trial of armed police from October 2019 to April 2020. Māori and criminal justice advocates criticised this: even prior to the trial, two thirds of those shot by police were Māori and Pacific peoples, and Māori were not consulted.[13] Police shootings quickly became a regular occurrence, and three officers were charged with homicide.[14] The trial ended as a result of public pressure,[15] which amplified as the US Black Lives Matter movement triggered thousands to march against racism and police violence in Aotearoa/New Zealand.[16]

As with COVID-19, the fact that the government’s initial response to the attack involved increasing police powers indicates their ultimate class allegiance.

Conclusion

Ardern’s Labour Government is a competent manager of capitalism. Yet on policy issues, the government is defined by half-measures and empty symbolic commitments. For better or worse, Aotearoa/New Zealand is a bastion of centrist stability in a polarising world.


[1]              Hal Draper, “Who’s going to be the lesser-evil in 1968?”, January 1967, Marxists Internet Archive: tinyurl.com/lesser-evil

[2]              Adam Dudding, “Jacinda Ardern: I didn’t want to work for Tony Blair”, 27 August 2017, Stuff: tinyurl.com/jacinda-blair

[3]              Josie Adams, “How much did they listen? Here’s what just happened to the Zero Carbon Bill”, 24 October 2019, The Spinoff: tinyurl.com/labour-zerocarbon

[4]              Michael Neilson, “Ihumātao: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refuses to discuss speculation of Government loan”, 28 January 2020, NZ Herald: tinyurl.com/jacinda-40m

[5]              Murphy, “Recap: Hīkoi from Ihumātao to PM’s office”, 22 August 2019, Radio New Zealand: tinyurl.com/jacinda-petition

[6]              Scott Palmer, “We will be there: Jacinda Ardern speaks out at Ihumātao”, 20 August 2019, Newshub: tinyurl.com/jacinda-hides

[7]              Radio New Zealand, “Jacinda Ardern ‘will visit Ihumātao … it’s just a matter of timing’”, 23 August 2019, Radio New Zealand: tinyurl.com/jacinda-visit

[8]              Dan Satherly, “‘You can’t condone lawbreaking’ – Jacinda Ardern to Metiria Turei”, 28 July 2017, Newshub: tinyurl.com/ardern-lawbreaking

[9]              AAAP, “The Government’s 2020 Well-being Budget Continues To Fail Our Unemployed”, 14 May 2020, Scoop: tinyurl.com/aaap-2020budget

[10]             AAAP, “Govt Income Relief Payment Creating Two-tiers Of Unemployed”, 25 May 2020, Scoop: tinyurl.com/aaap-twotier

[11]             Eleanor Ainge Roy and Michael McGowan, “New Zealand asks: how was the threat from the far right missed?” 20 March 2019, The Guardian: tinyurl.com/far-right-threat-nz

[12]             Lana Hart, “There’s no justification for police having guns after March 15”, 24 February 2020, Stuff: tinyurl.com/armed-police

[13]             Michael Neilson, Armed Response Teams trial: Police warned not consulting Māori could have ‘severe’ consequence, 29 May 2020, NZ Herald: tinyurl.com/trial-racism

[14]             People Against Prisons Aotearoa, “Police Homicide Confirms Fears Of Armed Police Patrols”, 2 June 2020, Scoop: tinyurl.com/police-homicide

[15]             Phil Taylor, “New Zealand drops armed police trial after public concern”, 9 June 2020, The Guardian: tinyurl.com/trial-ends

[16]             Radio New Zealand, “Thousands of Nzers march for Black Lives Matter”, 14 June 2020, Radio New Zealand: tinyurl.com/blm-nz

Death Star PR: Is all corporate media propaganda?

This article was published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here. NOTE: During lockdown, we may only be able to send out the e-publication.

This is an abridged transcription from an episode of the politics and pop-culture podcast Where’s My Jetpack: jetpack.zoob.net.

The episode was originally released on the 19th of August, 2019.

Transcribed by TripleA Transcription, with corrections and abridgement by Ani White.

Ani: Kia ora comrades, welcome to Where’s My Jetpack, a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. I’m Ani White and we’re on the line to my unfairly hot cohost Derek Johnson.

Derek: Thanks, Ani. This week we’re discussing the topic Death Star PR: Is all corporate media propaganda… We’ll be discussing the Herman and Chomsky propaganda model in corporate media. So first I’ll be introducing the propaganda model and then Ani will address some limitations to the model. According to Chomsky, media operate through five filters: ownership, advertising, the media elite, flak, and the common enemy.

So what is meant under ownership, which is the first filter, is that mass media firms, which are big corporations, often they are part of even bigger corporations. and their endgame is profit. And so it’s in their interest to push for whatever guarantees that profit. And naturally critical journalism must take second place to the needs and interests of said corporations.

The second filter is advertising, and it exposes the real role of advertising. Media costs a lot more than consumers will ever pay so advertisers fill the gap. So naturally what are advertisers paying for audiences and so it isn’t so much that the media are selling your product, their output, they are also selling advertisers a product namely you.

The third filter is [the media elite], the establishment manages the media through this filter. Journalism cannot be a check on power because the very system encourages complicity. Governments, corporations, big institutions know how to play the media game. They know how to influence the news narrative. They feed media scoops official accounts interviews with “experts” and they make themselves crucial to the process of journalism. So those in power and those who report on them are in bed with each other.

So after the media elite we have flak. If you want to challenge power you’ll be pushed to the margins. When the media, journalists, whistleblowers, sources stray away from the consensus they get what is known as flak. This is the fourth filter. When the story is inconvenient to the powers that be you’ll see the flak machine in action discrediting sources, trashing stories, and diverting the conversation.

To manufacture consent you need an enemy, a target. That common enemy is the fifth filter. Communism, socialism, terrorists, immigrants, Muslims at this point are common enemy, a boogieman to fear, helps corral public opinion.

Ani: Yeah. So I find that model is quite useful in a number of ways. It describes a number mechanisms that do take place absolutely in corporate news media but I do think it has some limitations, some tensions, and to illustrate one of those tensions [you have a show like The Simpsons]… the entertainment arm [Fox Entertainment] was directly mocking and attacking the politics of the news arm [Fox News]. And the propaganda model was primarily developed for news, so particularly if you’re going to apply it too non-news media, like fiction media, propaganda implies that people are consciously setting out to promote an ideology. It doesn’t just mean that there’s ideology, it means that they’re consciously setting out to promote it. And for example, I don’t think that the producers of Dumb and Dumber had any particular ideology that they wish to promote. I think they want to make money. It’s certainly not in any way subversive. My point is that the primary purpose of corporate media is making money. You can get subversive messages through because they can still make money… [with The Simpsons] the writers were surprised at how little interference they got. For example, the Frank Grimes episode or the episode with the strike action, they didn’t get interference. And that makes sense because why would the producers care, if they are making millions of dollars, if somebody on a TV show said something mean about them. So the primary purpose isn’t to convince people of the greatness of capitalism, it’s to make money. So that does mean some of the subversive messages can get through, but only to the extent that they’re profitable and also only to the extent that people don’t act on them. So with the example of the strike episode in The Simpsons… it relatively sympathetically depicts the strike action, like it kind of makes fun of the union but in general it is sympathetic. But if the writers go on strike, Fox isn’t exactly a fan of that. So [the] concept of repressive tolerance is useful to me, which means that basically in theory you can say anything, which includes sort of racist and oppressive things as well, but in terms of radical ideas, you can’t act on those ideas. And I think that’s important because that’s a different mode of power from purely propaganda. It’s still a power structure and a class structure, but it’s not always simply propaganda. It is just a more sophisticated mode of power. And the propaganda model points out some mechanisms that do occur but it’s not a complete theory of ideology, or a complete theory of media…

I think Fox News is kind of a paradigmatic example of the propaganda model. At Fox News you can constantly see all of these filters really clearly and obviously in the evidence. The constant construction of enemies, constant flak, the flak that socialists will get for example. But one thing to consider there is that Fox News is barely considered news. It is a good example in the sense that there’s a large enough audience that thinks of it as news, that it still socially functions as news, but for example in Canada [Fox News] shows are run with a disclaimer that they’re not actually news shows. So there’s a certain standard of journalism that’s expected even in bourgeois and corporate journalism which Fox doesn’t meet. So that’s a caveat, that lying is not generally considered a good practice… it does absolutely happen. I mean, the Iraq War example, even though it occurred well after the propaganda model was developed, it’s actually another paradigmatic example of the propaganda model where basically the press and particularly in the US just directly reproduced lies, and did not in any way investigate or criticize them.

[But] my problem is that people don’t distinguish very well, so people will basically argue that the coverage of Syria is exactly analogous to the coverage of Iraq in 2003, and I don’t think that’s true. There have really been no obvious lies on the level of, for example, Saddam Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeda, which was a bizarre nonsense and it was really obviously bizarre nonsense at the time to be honest. Whereas in the case of Syria it is true that Assad is flattening neighborhoods. That’s not just something Obama came up with. You can say… that certain things will be emphasized, it’s not necessarily that the press lies, but they will report on things that they consider important, and ignore things they don’t consider important, and that’s always a necessary process in any kind of coverage. There will be some kind of filtering but it doesn’t mean it’s lies. And there’s this populist mood out there that if you post something from any source that isn’t Russia Today people will say, “Well, that’s just propaganda.” And it’s this kind of populist kind of radical skepticism that is actually really edging into just anti-science conspiracy theory.

Derek: Yeah. It’s very very vaxxer, very QAnon territory. Yeah.

Ani: Yeah. You can’t just learn from things that confirm your preconceptions, because actually in that case you’re not learning at all. You need to be willing to look at a source and say, “Okay, I don’t actually agree with the editorial line of the source. My politics are not in line with those of New York Times or the Washington Post but I can’t really learn about the world without engaging with the work of people who I disagree with. And I certainly can’t learn about the world by denying all sources that aren’t my particular variety of communist.” And that’s not necessarily what Chomsky and Herman are arguing for but it is a populist mood, that their argument if put forward in a non-nuanced way icould play into.

Derek: …[W]e’ve kind of gone from a period where we had independent media and the Indymedia media period of the late ‘90s early aughts, that collapsed because of lack of funding, lack of money, and in some places like in Germany and on the West Coast here the FBI raided the info shops and Indymedia in Seattle and other places. And in this vacuum conspiracy theorists, people with various ideologies and motives whether it’s pro-Russia, pro-Putin, pro-this or that, or campists, or fascists, or whoever, they’ve come in, they’ve used this realistic skepticism you should have of the mainstream capitalist media and they’ve made it, flattened it so that you have skepticism of everything. And then when you’re told something true by CNN or BCC or the New York Times or whoever, now all of a sudden you treat that as a conspiracy and propaganda, and you don’t believe anything. But now conspiracy theorists treat it with the same level of seriousness as facts and science and news. And it’s not coincidental, we’ve seen how this model was played out in Russia, and under other authoritarian regimes, of pushing this idea that there is no truth to be gained from the media and that it’s all lies, it’s all fake news and that you can’t trust reality at any point. And this is an engineered process and we kind of see where this metastasizes by the time you get to Trump’s supporters and QAnon people, and people who will just not believe any true things that they hear, and just treat it all as lies and propaganda. And you’re seeing how the Trump administration has weaponised that thinking. We’ve seen how it’s been used to discredit even independent media, at this point, Real News, Democracy Now!, all of these independent sources have been completely discredited for not having enough scrutiny. CounterVortex has written about this very well. Eric Draitser has written about it very well over at CounterPunch. Even though CounterPunch I would say has some problems as well but…

Ani: Yeah, definitely. They do have some good material though.

Derek: I know Daphne Lawless has written about this very well. Alexander Reid Ross has written about this very well, and there’s been studies over at University of Washington, about how there is this ecosystem of independent blogs and news sources and pages, that have a lot of connections to a lot of right wing politics, and a lot of conspiracy theories, and to either the Russian government of whoever. And we’ve seen how right wing state propaganda from Russia and other countries goes through that filter, to the left and then you see people on the Green Party, and liberals and others, parroting the same stuff you hear people on the right.. when it comes to either Syria or Assad.

Ani: Yeah… A lot of people who wouldn’t buy into flat Earthism, or antivaxx, but then buy into things with the same level of rigour regarding Syria. So a good example would be Chris Trotter who’s New Zealand’s most prominent supposedly left commentator, on New Zealand’s most prominent left blog, the Daily Blog, saying that the CIA was arming the rebels in 2011, which is nonsense because it wasn’t an armed struggle in 2011, let alone one armed by the CIA, and the CIA didn’t get involved until about 2013, 2014. Now, that can just pass by, nobody cares. It’s a complete and utter fabrication, but a lot of people are perfectly comfortable with that because it’s Syria.

Derek: Yeah. And I would also say people are turning it around now and they’re saying “don’t trust CNN, don’t trust MSNBC, or the New York Times, or whoever because they’re owned by corporations but it’s okay to listen to state-owned media when they’re owned by dictatorships.” Because it took so long to get people to have a more radical view of the news media, and then go from that to then everybody can have a blog and there’s independent media sources, that maybe aren’t under the same control of the news networks, or don’t have the same biases. For instance, Israel. The whole Israeli-Palestinian subject shackles all of our media. I mean, you can get something like Democracy Now! or Real News or somebody or the Nation, or somebody to be really honest about that subject, in ways that the rest of our media cannot be.

Ani: Yeah. Those mechanisms are real. I mean, a great example is that backlash against, Trump’s called them ‘The Squad’ [US Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib], the flak against ‘The Squad’, is a perfect example of-

Derek: The four congresswomen. Yes.

Ani: Not being a Democrat at all I can’t help but feel a lot of sympathy for them. Politically, I’m feeling very conflicted, because I like them so much. Point being, they’re getting flak. They are also an example of the common enemy, so these mechanisms are occurring on ongoing basis.

Derek: Oh yeah. It’s being done on a fascist level, yeah. Attacking them as being un-American for their race. We have a fascist president in this country, who’s going to run on open white supremacy. And now we’re seeing how Ted Cruz and another senator tried to put up a motion in the senate to have Antifa recognized as a domestic terrorist organization…

Ani: Yeah. And I mean, the question of the complicity of the media there is interesting, because obviously Fox is fully onboard with it.

Derek: Well they gave him free media time to run for president. He got billions of dollars’ worth free media time to run for president because they thought it was a lark, and they thought it was cute that this racist billionaire was running for president.

Ani: Yeah, and there’s the thing. It’s the liberal sources that enable him in a way. So at the time, 2016, I was actually running a class on News Media and actually a surprising amount of people in my class were saying that they viewed the press as biased against Trump. And I gave an example from, it was MSCNBC, which was about the coverage of the disruption of a Trump rally, and I pointed out the chronology of their reportage, and what I pointed out is that you heard from Trump first and often, and his supporters first and often, and it wasn’t until maybe the next day that they actually interviewed one of the organisers of the disruption. So I don’t think MSNBC, I don’t think that was because they’re consciously sympathetic to Trump. It’s a matter of what you could call source dependency. Trump was the official source. Some random, probably communist, community organiser is not an official source. So Trump says these sensationalist things, which are news-worthy, and so a press can enable that, without necessarily being politically sympathetic to Trump.

Derek: And they don’t understand how fascists function, and that a fascist will say and do anything, and contradict themselves and lie at any moment…

Ani: Yeah. And I do suspect that while Fox will very openly and happily jump on this opportunity, the issue of liberals, people like Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, CNN, that kind of area, they will play into the civility narrative.

Derek: Respectability politics etc.

Ani: Yeah. So if this idea of criminalising Antifa is not just a passing brain fart, and we can hope it’s just a passing brain fart. If it isn’t then they may well enable it.

Derek: Well, the idea that all this violence was happening, and all these people were being violently attacked and stabbed and shot, but the second milkshakes were thrown, all of a sudden there was attention? That speaks to something.

Ani: So, I just wanted to move on to another point about limitations of the propaganda model. Which that it doesn’t really address, and it doesn’t even seek to address, the question of whether propaganda works, whether people are essentially brainwashed. An example being the popularity of socialism among millennials, a generation that’s been raised in a thoroughly antisocialist ideological environment. So in Media Studies there was kind of a move away from emphasis on propaganda. mostly because of a look at audiences, and I guess the crucial thing about audiences is that they bring their own experiences and knowledge. So for example, me watching a Donald Trump rally, I already have my own kind of preconceptions, my own experience, my own reading that I’m bringing to this. And what audience study has tended to find is basically that, media isn’t good at telling people what to think, but it’s good at telling people what to think about or talk about. So for example, if Trump is in the news whether you’re a communist, a fascist, a liberal, whether you think you’re apolitical, you’ll probably be thinking and talking about Trump. And you’ll bring your own experiences and knowledge to bear in understanding what’s happening with Trump, but you are likely to be influenced by what is being covered. So that’s called Agenda Setting is the term for that, which is that the press is good at setting the agenda for what’s talked about. It doesn’t necessarily directly tell people what to think, kind of thing. And that is something I think we need to be somewhat resistant to… seek out things that maybe aren’t being force-fed to you, share information. On the left in particular, we’re internationalists, which means we need to be talking about things other than the US and the UK, so share information and seek out information. Point being, don’t let the press set the agenda all the time, and that also means we need our own media to a certain degree, as well.

Derek: Yeah. And that’s what I was speaking to earlier is that we kind of were going in that direction and that movement stalled and failed and now the skeleton of Indymedia has now been taken over by negative forces, to be used to as propaganda against us. And I would say that, yeah, propaganda is about… reinforcing ideas or reinforcing confirmation bias. I think it’s a misreading of the function of propaganda, or how psychology works, to think that ideas are just deposited in human heads, and then people are brainwashed, because brainwashing technically does not exist as a concept, and it’s more about persuasion. And even that, measuring the success of propaganda isn’t necessarily based on, how successful were you at persuading X amount of people. I think it’s just more about putting out your version of events as the official line, as the official story that drowns out other analysis. Cause like the best propaganda is telling the truth, but adding maybe one or two little lies in there. People often think that propaganda means it’s automatically false, or that you’re being told false things by the government, and that’s obviously not the case.

Ani: Yeah. Like it might just be a matter of quoting one person and not quoting another person. Your quoting of that person isn’t a lie, but the fact that you chose to quote that person and not another person is obviously going to affect things. So it is a matter of what truth you choose to tell. And I agree, the propaganda model isn’t discredited by the fact that audiences have the capacity for critical thought basically. But part of my point is, not necessarily that the model is wrong, but that on its own without some additional work it, can feed into some kind of populist ideas. We also can’t completely disconnect the propaganda model from Herman and Chomsky’s apologetics for certain regimes. I’m thinking of Chomsky’s apologetics for the Pol Pot regime.

Derek: Yeah. And there’s also other criticisms of Chomsky’s readings of events. The Sbrenica attack in Bosnia, and a lot of people have criticised him, his writing on that. And more recently was the gassings in two different towns in Syria, by the Assad regime, and that’s when we saw a crossover from people being critical of what they hear, or thinking oh this is regime change propaganda, to full-on Sandy Hook trutherism, where suddenly people on the left were saying… human rights groups like the White Helmets were faking bombings, or they were faking the rescues and pulling people out rubble, it was all actors and sounding not dissimilar from Alex Jones. And Chomsky repeated without question, Postill’s writing on those attacks, and Postill was taken in by a propagandist for Russia, that I believe lives in Australia, Syrian Girl who was a Nazi-connected person.

Ani: Right. Yeah. Yeah.

Derek: And there was no critical assessment of that, because basically what happens is this critique becomes only about focusing on, how do these events reported implicate America.

Ani: Exactly.

Derek: Not where does the truth fall based on the information that comes out. And I find that very strange as somebody who, you really can’t question me on my dispassion and hatred for this country, and any other nation state in this world, but I can see when things are actually not the fault of American imperialism, or the fault of America, and I would not stretch my analysis to blame things that have nothing to do with America to be America’s fault. So I just find that strange, me personally, that people find themselves in that position, and it’s kind of a Cold War mentality and a campist mentality.

Ani: Yeah. I think not everything is about the US. The US isn’t the only evil in the world, and the official account also it isn’t always wrong. I think 9-11 is a perfect example of that. I mean, again a lot of people who wouldn’t buy into 9-11 Truth will buy into actually similar bullshit, but 9-11 is clearly a case where there are other evils in the world. And radical skepticism of the official account isn’t always progressive. It can be very regressive in many ways.

Derek: It could be hijacked for other purposes. And I would recommend as well Adam Curtis’ documentary, the last one that he did.

Ani: HyperNormalisation?

Derek: Yes.

Ani: I actually didn’t like that.

Derek: The last part he did there on Russia, which is very interesting because he’s very doubtful of any of the connections between Trump and Russia. And he’s a Russiagate skeptic, which is very strange given the part about Putin and Trump that he did in that documentary.

Ani: Yeah. Which pretty much exactly about that strategy you’re right.

Derek: Yeah. The point I was going to make is that that propaganda strategy, described in HyperNormalisation, used by Alexander Dugin in Russia and other propagandists. Basically the point is, it’s not that they’re trying to convince you with the propaganda, it’s to overwhelm you with as much bullshit all at once, that you cannot accurately gauge what is reality. And when you cannot understand what’s reality, how can you be an informed citizen in a liberal democracy? And that is the whole point, that Alexander Dugin was trying to do, because he’s trying to radically undermine liberal democracy, because he’s a fascist, neo-fascist, and this is very useful propaganda for any kind of administration, and any kind of regime, where you have this kind of reality management.

Ani: So yeah, radical skepticism. It needs to be about, learning about the world… that means learning from things that we don’t agree with. I mean, Karl Marx engaged a lot with bourgeois writers, and sometimes he was more supportive of things and bourgeois writing than he was of certain socialist arguments. So, particularly. I’m obviously thinking how his take on bourgeois political economy where, he found a lot of value in bourgeois political economy which other socialists hadn’t. Now obviously he critiqued it, and turned it into something entirely new. I’m saying we should do our own independent analysis absolutely, but not just saying, “Well, that’s the Washington Post. It’s a bourgeois source so it’s obviously lies. I don’t even need to read it.” Which is a very common attitude that I see around right now.

Derek: Yeah. And I would say if you have that same skepticism, why don’t you have that same skepticism about RT?

Ani: Yeah, or any, CounterPunch, what’s Greenwald’s one? The Intercept.

Derek: Yeah. They’re pretty good in spite of him sometimes.

Ani: Yeah. But there’s this weird inconsistency, with for example Reality Winner, who was a whistleblower on Russiagate, who as far as I know is still in prison for that. She pointed out interference in the voting machines. So The Intercept ran that story, and it’s been said that they basically let her go to the wall, I’m not clear on that, whether they did intentionally let her go to the wall, I honestly can’t make a solid claim on that. But it’s certainly the case she’s been completely ignored.

Derek: Yeah, that is 100% provable.

Ani: Yeah. And so there’s all these other whistleblowers who get endlessly romanticised. I mean, Assange who, yes, I think WikiLeaks did some good work but Assange is a total scumbag, he gets so much attention and so much defence. And then you got Reality Winner ho’s in prison and people just…nobody’s heard of her.

Derek: But I would imagine too though the connection is… like you’re saying is that the reason why Assange is still romanticized and why Reality Winner is ignored, is because she proved that there was Russian interference. And that goes against the popular narrative that has colonised a lot of the left in this country, to the point where we have a pro-Trump sector of the left,left media anyway, as exemplified by Greenwald and others. Where they’re actively defending Trump’s regime, and they’re actively defending him against impeachment, and they’ve completely lied about the outcome of the Mueller Report, and have totally parrotted Will Barr’s assessment. And now that that’s been disproven, that he was lying, nobody’s retracted on that, but all of those people, all of those writers, have demanded the head of Rachel Maddow, and anybody who reported on so called Russiagate.

Ani: And you’ve got Greenwald going on Fox News. Now if we’re going to talk about propaganda, right wing propaganda, again Fox News is the paradigmatic example. And you’ve got Greenwald going on there to basically say, “Well, the deep state is conspiring against Trump.” How can anyone on the left take him seriously at that point? To me, that’s a complete capitulation. People can’t conceive of, maybe learning something about Syria, but they’ll support somebody who goes on Fox News to defend the president of the United States of America.

Derek: …Nobody’s copped to it. When it was proven that those chemical attacks in Syria were not done by the rebels, and it was not a rebel stronghold, holding chlorine gas or something, that got bombed by the heroic Assad regime. Nobody issued any take-backs. Nobody said, “Hey, we were wrong, it turns out Assad did do those chemical attacks.”

Ani: [Robert Fisk rightly criticised] journalists embedded in the Iraq War. who went around with US troops who would show them what they wanted to show them, he was right to say that but he’s doing the same thing now with the Assad regime. His reportage on Syria is all guided by the Assad regime. He’s an embedded journalist, and embedded journalist sounds very objective, but it’s not because you’re embedded with basically one group or another, and in his case he’s embedded with regime forces. So when he speaks to some random guy who says, “Well, the chemical weapons attacks were faked,” he’s speaking to some random guy while on a regime tour, and then people will endlessly repost that article and ignore UN research.

Derek: So does propaganda work? It’s all over the place on that one. And as it’s been pointed out, like if advertising didn’t work they wouldn’t spend billions of dollars on Madison Avenue.

Ani: It’s easier to get people to part with their money, than to get people to fully subscribe to a political party or what have you. I mean, that’s the commonality of capitalist media, is that it’s capitalist media.

Derek: Yeah. And you know what’s funny about that, was how the media warned us about Trump in popular culture. Like in Back to the Future 2, Gremlins 2, Super Mario Brothers, and even the unfilmed Ghostbusters 3 had a villain based on Trump, and Dinosaurs.

Ani: So there’s certain amount of license artists have, particularly in comedy, particularly in satire, and particularly if it’s profitable. And there was a quote from Joss Whedon, I know he’s cancelled, but it’s an interesting quote, about basically what it’s like to work as a subversive artist in corporate media. Because, I would say shows like Buffy and Dollhouse and Firefly have dealt with some pretty interesting themes, considering again they were produced by Fox… This quote came during the production of Dollhouse, an interesting thing to note there is the production of Dollhouse was shut down for the writers’ strike, and that Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon’s company, they ran a picket line so they were relatively a militant group, which interesting because some of them were libertarians. But anyway, this quote is kind of about dealing with subversive themes while being in a corporate media company.

Derek: In his quote he said, “Have you been in America? I like to consider myself a documentarian. The entire structure is designed to mess with your minds, to combine selling you things with entertaining you, to keep you in line, to make you think that you need the things they want you to need, and to stay away from the things that they want to stay away from, to keep them in power, to share none of it. This is all happening. There are lights in the darkness. The art we get to create because our powerful patrons letters is one of them. But sometimes, yeah, it’s like running the daycare on the Death Star.”

Ani: So, what is to be done? As I said, even where you can get subversive message into corporate media, it’s still limited to its acquisition of exchange value. So put simply, if it doesn’t make money it’s cancelled, as Whedon discovered with Firefly and Dollhouse. So, for that reason we need both publicly funded media, but also and for revolutionary leftists more importantly, our own independent media. Traditionally you have the papers, the newspapers, of the communist or socialist parties. Obviously now, we’re moving into more of a digital age, there may be still some place for print, but in any case we need our own channels, as you said, Indymedia was one, and now we’re seeing the rebirth of podcasts, the sort of second wave of podcasts on a somewhat meta note. So, podcasts are certainly a part of the infrastructure that is now being developed as a kind of alternative to mainstream corporate media. And despite my criticisms of an overly simplistic view of mainstream media, I do think it’s important that we have our own media, and podcasts are a part of it.

Derek: Yeah. I agree with that, and I’m very proud to be somebody who is part of both the original wave of podcasts, and now this current wave of podcasts, now everybody and their uncle, and standup comedians, and everybody have podcasts. And I think it’s something to definitely utilise for good. And we’re definitely seeing, with the loss of net neutrality in this country, and some of the copyright laws being passed in the EU and etc., that we’re seeing kind of this closing of the digital commons, putting to lie the libertarian and anarchist ideas of the freedom that the internet was going to bring, that is described in the California Ideology… We’re really seeing how authoritarian and totalitarian Silicon Valley is, we’re gonna have the ability to have our own alternative media, and have podcasts and everything, but we may not have the bandwidth, so we’ll ironically might have to go back to radio and pamphlets and newspapers and zines.

Ani: Well, I think we need multiple communication strategies.

“Was the Russian Revolution a Carrier-Pigeon Revolution?”: Digital media and communication in the Victorian Socialists

By Ian Anderson, RMIT Doctoral candidate in Media Studies.

This article was researched and written before the COVID-19 outbreak and implementation of physical distancing measures, which have affected the relationship between ‘IRL’ and online organising. Like many organisations, the VicSocialists have shifted towards online videoconferencing, for both public events and internal discussions.

This article is being published in Fightback’s Media Issue. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The Victorian Socialists (VicSocialists) launched in 2018, as a coalition of three socialist groups. That year, the campaign ran a number of candidates for the Victorian parliamentary election – two of the candidates already held seats in local council. Former leading candidate Stephen Jolly explicitly cited recent international polarisation as a reason to attempt his parliamentary bid:

[My campaign is] the first time in Australia that the left is tapping into the anti establishment mood on a large scale… In America and Europe you’ve seen the rise of far right but also a new left with figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In Australia, it’s been unusual as it’s just been the far right with Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi, who have tapped into that discontent.1

The VicSocialists did not meet their goal of electing leading candidate Stephen Jolly to state parliament, but received the fourth largest vote after the Greens. In 2019, the campaign ran three candidates for the Federal Election – notably their prior leading candidate Jolly was not selected as the organisation was conducting an investigation for charges of abuse, and after the election he would be suspended over a separate abuse investigation2 – yet they received over 4% in three electorates despite not running Jolly. This article is based on interviews with 13 members and supporters, as well as my own experiences.

E-skepticism of activists

I do think sometimes there’s an overstatement about social media, like the Arab Revolutions, there were some people who want to refer to them as the Facebook revolutions, but I mean really was the Russian revolution the carrier pigeon revolution? People will find ways to communicate, and actually in that instance people had to find ways to communicate outside of the online forms because the government shut down the internet, and they still organised.3

This was the very last comment from interviewee Kath Larkin, a rail worker who at the time had just been pre-selected as the VicSocialists candidate for Cooper. Around 200 people attended the conference, held at the Maritime Union of Australia headquarters in South Melbourne.

Kath very much emphasised the value of face-to-face communication over the course of the interview, and considered the day-conference a success in bringing people together for democratic deliberation in person. Earlier in the interview Kath commented:

Obviously there’s a lot that we do on social media, and I think sometimes when you’re in the left you can kind of feel like what you see in your Facebook wall is what everyone sees, but actually we know that’s not true, we know that the way that Facebook is manipulated and run means that actually it’s quite hard for leftists to get their views out there. I do think social media will still be important particularly for young leftists in the area, but there’s also gonna be a need to get out to community events.

This is a common sentiment among Victorian Socialist activists. VicSocialists volunteer and librarian John Gao had this to say when explaining why he uses Twitter less than he used to:

I guess because I’m interested in politics, not just theoretical but to do stuff in practice, which requires face-to-face interaction, talking to the public in my own city, so therefore organising on a local level is very important, and the absence of that critical mass on Twitter, atleast in that area was not as useful in some ways.

Another interviewee who preferred not to be named commented more bluntly that “Twitter is an actual toilet”, and while less anti-Facebook stated that “I don’t think we should overstate Facebook because a lot of it was the boots on the ground that did the work.”

Activists’ skepticism of the digital included three key aspects:

  1. The digital divide, or uneven participation – Activists emphasised the importance of face-to-face communication in fostering constituencies that did not participate heavily in the digital sphere, particularly older working class voters.
  2. Criticism of utopian techno-determinism – Connected to pride in organising capacities not determined by the affordances of media technologies. Arguably some techno-dystopianism centred on the commodification of the net.
  3. Skepticism of ‘call-out culture’ and online criticism.

Despite these criticisms, there was little interest expressed in a programmatic decommodifying transformation of digital media. VicSocialist activists were simply more interested in other issues, such as migrant worker rights. The 2018 Election Manifesto did not mention digital rights, a strong focus in digital parties, coming closest to this in a reference to surveillance associated with the War on Terror.

…And yet
Yet digital media is strongly used for promotion. The VicSocialists Facebook page has over 5,000 likes at the time of writing. The page averaged 3 original posts a day during the week before the election in 2018, with posts routinely attracting hundreds of reactions, and regular video posts usually attracting thousands of views. This rate of posts and interactions is similar to the Australian Greens Facebook page over the same period, Australia’s third largest party with a relatively significant youth base. VicSocialists also had a number of location-specific Facebook pages, a meme page, an Instagram and a Twitter. The point here is not so much the success of engagement as the effort: despite the activists’ stated lack of passion for digital media, there was clearly concerted work to ensure visibility across digital media. Crucially, this was a fairly centralised effort with consistent messaging across major corporate platforms., freeing most activists to engage in other kinds of work and keep their digital engagement to ‘likes’ and shares. There was no pretension here of digital media as a horizontal structure: it was merely a tool for promotion.

Additionally, the finding that the VicSocialists are skeptical of digital media, yet strongly use it to promote socialist ideas, is paralleled by a study on parallel electoral group the Democratic Socialists of America or DSA,4 a group which has grown to around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. This study found that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter served contradictory purposes of cohesion and fragmentation. Interview subjects found the culture on Twitter particularly alienating or even “repellant”. This is a platform that “skew[s] young, male, well-educated” and tends to use in-jokey humour to promote cohesion, and members expressed concern that this was alienating to those outside the in-group. As a “normative strategy”, members argued for the use of collective social media pages for promoting socialist ideas, countering the tendency towards individualistic fragmentation. This is paralleled by the VicSocialists’ strong use of centrally administrated pages on Twitter and Facebook, with arguably less of an emphasis on in-jokey Twitter personalities than the DSA.

Doorknocking
VicSocialists activists strongly emphasised the importance of face-to-face work, particularly doorknocking. When asked what was required to scale up from a local government to a state level campaign, leading organiser Liz Walsh answered doorknocking first and foremost. More than 95,000 doors were knocked, with around 120 people attending doorknocking events each weekend for eight weeks. Activists express pride in hundreds of activists turning up to doorknocking, and recounted how Green and Labor activists were surprised at how many they mobilised.

A report from Marxist Left Review matches accounts from my interviews of successful connections:

It was common for volunteers to return from doorknocking with accounts of meeting old trade union militants keen to regale them about this or that struggle, migrants who had not forgotten their more radical traditions from their country of origin, or even young workers who responded with immediate enthusiasm when we told them our candidate was a construction worker who would only take a skilled worker’s wage. These were by no means the majority of experiences, but they indicated there was a constituency to connect with.5

VicSocialists’ success in mobilising hundreds for doorknocking campaigns is a success in face-to-face or ‘meatspace’ mobilisation, but it is also a success facilitated by digital technology. Doorknockers used an app to record which doors had been knocked, and the events were primarily promoted through Facebook. This illustrates a distinct conception from both utopian and dystopian accounts of digital media – the use of digital media as simply a tool, with pros and cons. As Kath Larkin said, “people will find ways to communicate”, and digital media is one of those ways. VicSocialists activist and casual academic Daniel Lopez noted that a resident he spoke to on the doorstep in Brunswick had read an article Lopez wrote for US socialist magazine Jacobin, which he found on social media – indicating the way digital connections and face-to-face connections can be complementary.

Legacy media

VicSocialist activists interacted with two distinct strands of ‘legacy media’ in two distinct ways: with ‘mainstream media’ such as right-wing newspapers, and with socialist media. Unsurprisingly their engagement with ‘mainstream media’ was largely critical, although not necessarily dismissive. An example of oppositional reading of mainstream media is offered by Kath Larkin’s account of daily engagement with newspapers as a rail worker:

One other thing at my workplace is that I clear trains that go to the yard, and people leave newspapers and so we all kind of collect newspapers and then we’ll read them in the lunch room, which means we read a lot of Herald Sun, which is obviously a really right-wing news source, but it is useful I think to know what’s being said in this newspaper, because it is so widely read.

Activists in general made an effort to engage with ‘mainstream media’ despite their criticisms. A number of activists spoke of a ‘blackout’ on coverage of the VicSocialists in mainstream media. This impression of unfavourable terrain is perhaps comparable with the perception of Facebook and Twitter as hostile corporate terrain, although those channels afforded more promotion. Of the few articles on the VicSocialists, one article participants often mentioned negatively was a Guardian article which appeared more sympathetic to Fiona Patten, a rival candidate who won the seat Stephen Jolly aimed for.

Although the VicSocialists do not have their own digital platform in the fashion of digital parties like the Pirate Parties (such as LiquidFeedback or Loomio), the various component socialist groups do have their own media channels. These include newspapers, journals, and websites (discounting social media channels which the groups do not own). Yet these print-centric channels are arguably ‘legacy media’, perhaps reflecting the fact that the socialist groups are ‘legacy organisations’, groups that have weathered decades in the cold. Central activists often engaged with socialist media as creators or distributors. Yet this was not universal, with a number of activists not regularly reading the press of organisations like Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance – more often, activists reported reading broad left publications like Overland and Jacobin, and some listened to left-leaning podcasts like Chapo Trap House. Although a number of activists did engage with socialist media, it didn’t appear to be particularly complementary with the VicSocialists campaign, with the exception of electoral propaganda on digital media channels – counterintuitively, given activists’ stated skepticism about these channels. This is likely due to the relative efficiency of social media channels compared with newspapers. More recently, that is after the VicSocialists’ State and Federal election campaigns, Socialist Alternative launched a podcast called Red Flag Radio, taking advantage of the wider wave of socialist podcasts such as Chapo Trap House.

If we also include snail mail, posters, yard signs and the like as ‘legacy media’ due to pre-existing digital media, then these forms of legacy media were perceived as decisive. Campaign organiser Liz Walsh makes this case:

The numbers of doors knocked on, letters distributed, corflute/yard signs erected, posters plastered on street poles and so on is absolutely decisive in being able to connect up with the left wing sentiment and discontent with the major parties that does exist among layers of people in Victoria.

To demonstrate this case, Walsh points to the example of the Western Metro region, which had similar demographics to Northern Metro but where the VicSocialists didn’t wage a ground campaign. Here the VicSocialists received 0.57%. Therefore the ground campaign was decisive in the VicSocialists’ more impressive result in Northern Metro. This arguably vindicates the VicSocialists activists’ strong emphasis on doorknocking and other ‘old-school’ methods, without eschewing digital communication. Walsh’s article, which is fairly extensive, does not mention social media either positively or negatively.

Conclusion
VicSocialist activists tend to express a strong ambivalence about social media. Activists emphasise the importance of face-to-face organisation, although in practice digital media and other forms of organisation are strongly complementary. Digital media is embedded but not fetishised, and used more for promotion than democratic participation (which largely occurs through bi-annual member conferences). The results of this study are paralleled by a study on the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organisation that has around 50,000 members after backing the Bernie Sanders campaign. DSA members used social media to promote socialist ideas, yet were often ambivalent about the medium. DSA members argued for collective social media pages to counter the social media tendency towards individualist fragmentation, a strategy used by the VicSocialists.

1Armstrong, Liam. “Could Steve Jolly Be Australia’s First Socialist Politician in 70 Years?” Vice, February 8 2018 (https://tinyurl.com/yxvjpsak ). Web. Accessed 18/06/2018

2 Jolly’s behaviour was not denied by his political supporters, who were open about the process that has occurred so far. That said, conflicting claims circulate about the adequacy of this internal process, with many external to the organisation saying it was inadequate or even a cover-up. The first problem arose prior to the foundation of the VicSocialists, when Jolly was a member of another socialist organisation, simply called The Socialists. Jolly had sent some text messages that constituted sexual harassment. This was investigated by the organisation, with the resolution that Jolly was required to apologise and undergo counselling. Jolly resigned from that organisation, and would later approach another group proposing the Victorian Socialists electoral project. In the early stages of the VicSocialist project, during negotiations between a number of socialist organisations, a group of Socialist Alliance members opposed Jolly’s nomination. When he was endorsed, those members resigned. Over the course of the Victorian Socialists state electoral campaign, claims emerged on social media that the prior process was not adequate, and that Stephen Jolly had engaged in other inappropriate behaviour. After the state election, the VicSocialists launched a second investigation into Jolly’s behaviour, and he was not selected as a Federal Election candidate because that investigation was ongoing. At that point some former members rejoined because he had not been selected. Shortly after the Federal election, Stephen Jolly’s membership was suspended as it turned out police were investigating another abuse claim. At this point, the situation finally entered into mainstream media coverage, after months of circulation on social media.

3 It may be worth noting here that her skepticism aligns with debates in academia about the techno-utopianism associated with ‘Twitter revolutions’ (Dumitru, 2012; Berenger, 2013; Musa & Willis 2014; Bebawi & Bossio, 2014; Kraidy, 2016).

4Barnes, Christopher C. “Democratic Socialists on Social Media: Cohesion, Fragmentation, and Normative Strategies.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 18 (1): 1-285, January 1 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/set6plj ). Accessed 29/02/2020

5Walsh, Liz. “Launching Victorian Socialists: an anti-capitalist electoral alliance.” Marxist Left Review, published by Socialist Alternative, No 18, pp. 19-38

No Concessions: Australian tertiary education workers fight back

By Ani White, NTEU member and casual tutor.

In Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), my union, a rank and file rebellion is challenging officials’ defeatist response to the COVID-19 crisis. This piece will begin by outlining the background situation, before outlining the No Concessions campaign led by members.

Background
Many university workers are not covered by JobKeeper, a payment for businesses significantly affected by COVID-19. The NTEU has therefore campaigned for JobKeeper, and full Federal funding. Over this period casuals have been sacked en masse, including 200 staff at my university RMIT. Universities are also seeking to implement a pay freeze, and to restructure Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

However, the NTEU National Executive has been drawn into a managerial logic of helping balance the books, and a defeatist view of the crisis. A common idea, expressed both by the National Executive and those academics who support them, is that a sacrifice in pay is needed to protect job security. There is a liberal notion here of solidarity as self-sacrifice by privileged academics, rather than solidarity as a rising tide lifting all ships. Additionally, as highlighted by Kaye Broadbent in the Campus Morning Mail:

[N]ot everyone in the university sector is a highly paid academic. Universities are kept afloat by thousands of casual academics, fixed term research academics and casual and contract professional staff.

For the insecurely employed and low paid staff employed in universities reducing pay by any amount will create hardship – our rent and bills still need to be paid. For many university workers, their income is the only one in the household – especially since the crisis hit. And there’s no guarantee even with a pay cut that one more person will keep their job as a result.

Although negotiations are being conducted in secret, union militants have released information about the National Executive’s plans. According to an open letter by Katie Wood, a unionist at University of Melbourne:

On April 3, the National Executive of the NTEU unanimously approved a framework of negotiations that included the possibility of “general reductions in Agreement rates”. NTEU members were unaware of this decision until a Guardian article, published on April 17. Despite various denials from senior leadership that a reduction in rates is under discussion, a survey circulated in some branches asks members if they would be willing to take a reduction in hourly rates of up to 10%”

A document prepared for [the 25th of April’s] briefing of the NTEU National Council… states that the aim of the [National Executive] strategy is to secure “a strong Union role in managing the introduction of any cost saving measures” (emphasis mine).

In a more recent article for Red Flag, after the unconstitutional National Council meeting of April 25th, Wood reported the following:

This week, a hastily called national council “briefing” was rebadged as a “meeting of national councillors” to ram through a vote backing the national executive’s strategy of collaborating with management. The meeting approved the national executive’s motion by a vote of 89 to 13. That’s been touted as a vote of confidence in the strategy, but it has no standing in the union’s official rules – there was no procedure to propose motions beforehand, amendments were explicitly ruled out and procedural motions were repeatedly ignored.

Fightback
The No Concessions campaign began with a motion censuring the National Executive, passed on April 12th at a University of Sydney members’ meeting, by 117 votes to 2. Supporting motions have been passed at members’ meetings across the country. Over 800 members, including myself, signed a statement calling for no concessions by the NTEU National Executive.

Union meetings on Zoom have attracted hundreds of members. However, union officials often run these more like one-way seminars than democratic meetings. The managerial tone became apparent to me personally at a snap ‘rally’ of the Victorian NTEU, just before the No Concessions campaign kicked off: officials claimed that the state government was sympathetic, and members had no opportunity to speak. Members have used the chat function to challenge the official line, alongside establishing independent channels for communication between rank and file members.

After motions and statements being passed in various places, core activists are itching to translate this into action. Strikes are illegal outside of collective bargaining, with a risk of significant fines. However, refusal of unpaid work is under discussion as an industrial tactic. Alongside enforcing the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, this would double as a statement of solidarity with casuals who should be performing that work – a vastly preferable tactic to trading wage freezes for job security.

This week RMIT Casuals, my own section, passed a motion calling on staff to refuse unpaid work. Members are also campaigning for a National Day of Action on the 21st of May.