Northern Advocate Column

Do Ardern and Labour have the courage to tax the wealthy?

13 May 2020

It seems like an age, but cast your mind back to Jacinda Ardern’s address to the nation on Sunday, March 21 announcing the Covid-19 response levels and preparing us for lockdown. You might have noticed a framed photograph of a man on the shelf behind the Prime Minister. It wasn’t there by accident, it was a deliberate placement of a symbolic visual cue. Of the kind Jacinda and her team are skilled at using. The photo was of Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Party prime minister. He came to power in 1935 in the middle of the Great Depression and on the back of mass civil disobedience and political agitation by worker unions and the unemployed.

What Savage and that first Labour government are most known for, is the Social Security Act of 1938, which secured a free public health system, the unemployment benefit and universal superannuation. The act was fiercely opposed by industry and newspapers of the day. But on the back of popular support, the first Labour government established a social contract with New Zealand citizens. The state would play a role in securing the wellbeing of all. Savage died 18 months later. He was genuinely mourned by Māori and working-class people.

Positioning Savage’s photo behind the Prime Minister’s shoulder suggested continuity between him and Ardern. The message was that this Labour-led government would also look after us in a time of crisis. They could have done more, and may still need to, but they’ve acted so far in broad accordance with the principles laid down by Labour in the 1930s.

What often goes unacknowledged, however, when looking back at the Michael Savage government, is that the social security spending was funded by a new tax surcharge. The rate was one shilling in the pound, or 5 per cent. Increasing taxes doesn’t quite capture the imagination. But if the 21st-century version of the Labour Party wants to claim continuity with the first Labour government, then they too will need to address the issue of tax.

Tomorrow, Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be delivering what he’s dubbed the “Recovery Budget”. The Budget will starkly present the Government’s ballooning expenditure, coupled with deflating revenue from GST, income tax and company tax. The shortfall will be covered by ramping up borrowing to levels never seen in New Zealand’s history. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll have to start repaying this mountain of public debt. Which means more tax.

With incomes for many of us falling – and the tax we pay falling simultaneously – where’s the extra tax revenue going to come from? It has to come from those New Zealanders who are hurting the least and can most afford it. Labour has backslid once on tax reform. Faced with opposition to a capital gains tax they folded. With Winston Peters perhaps playing a decisive hand. That was then, this is now. A fair response to paying off debt, while maintaining social spending, would be to increase tax on the wealthiest 20 per cent of New Zealanders. There will be opposition from the usual quarters. Though even some of our richest citizens must see the moral imperative of contributing more to the collective pot. Selfish opposition to extra taxes on wealth or higher incomes may not look good when so many have paid a high price to win against Covid-19.

The grounds of the debate have clearly shifted since a capital gains tax was knocked back. Heading into the September election, all parties will need a coherent tax policy. Will Labour and Jacinda Ardern have the political courage to present a vision of tax justice that sees the wealthiest among us pay more tax? Will a majority of voters think that’s fair?

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Northern Advocate Column

Composting and the ways of the force

13 January 2018

The compost bin is the centre of any good garden, where the force is strongest. Coffee grounds, tea bags, carrot ends and peel, cabbage left too long in the fridge, lettuce that’s brown at the edges, grass clippings, tree prunings and raked autumn leaves—all into the compost bin. Where a few million critters, living bacteria, annelids and arthropods (worms and bugs), will do their work. 

You could think of the critters in your compost bin as your pets, or perhaps more accurately your working livestock. You’re a rancher of worms, a farmer of bacteria.

A compost bin needs to be moist but not sodden. Getting this right comes from experience. A good guide, if you’re going for a slow-burning composting process, is plenty of worms. 

A beginners mistake is to overload your compost with grass clippings, which if green will have lots of nitrogen, potentially upsetting the balance of your bin, producing a soggy, ammonia smelling goo. To maintain a balance, add lots of carbon, dried leaves, wood chip, or shredded paper even. If you want to get fancy, you can arrange green and brown in layers. 

With your compost bin filled with decaying organic material and what’s come out the rear end of a small or large organism, you’re dealing with the icky realities of the cosmos: death, decay and new life.

Perhaps, as you enjoy the warm rays of the thermodynamic dispenser in the sky, following a morning spent working in the garden, you can meditate on your compost bin. Close your eyes, imagine all the crawlies, slitherers and multipliers doing their work. See if you can hear them with your mind’s ear. 

If you wish to reach further towards gardening nirvana, imagine yourself as part of this process, one day taking all your bodily bacteria with you into the compost universe, breaking down into constituent parts, fed on and giving birth to new life.

In composting, as in all else in life and gardening, you’ll only learn (and understand) by doing. Seek advice, but use your own brain to observe what’s happening. And one day you’ll have built up so much intuitive knowledge that you’ll be a Jedi of the backyard, understanding the ways of the force. 

While you might not be able to lift a wheelbarrow off the ground and spin it around using the power of your mind, you’ll be well on the way to growing food for yourself organically. In turn, you, a compost master, will be able to dispense gardening knowledge like a Yoda, “Turn the compost with a fork you do, much aeration that way, good results you’ll see.” 

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Poetry

A peasant farmer’s idyll

There’s a rabbit, 
not Peter, who visits 
my vegetable patch, 

a gangland garden 
of my clan that pays
a lease to the Earth.

And I should refuse 
the rabbit, not Peter, 
my hard-grown cabbages.

A stomping, swearing, 
shooting Mafioso 
of the poor clay soil 

my role, locked in debt 
like a crazy gambling 
Cortez, driven to 

exterminate—
but what is a spoiled 
cabbage or two, 

that can be saved 
for eating by the chop 
of a knife: coleslaw 

for the dinner table;
a dewy morning feed 
for the rabbit, not Peter. 

And it’s that way
that I sometimes have 
the heart to refuse.
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Northern Advocate Column

The art of travel in these Covid times

17 April 2021

Not being able to do something can give us the chance to reflect on that thing, weigh it in our minds, examine again its value to our lives. That’s the case with overseas travel, no longer possible for most of us thanks to Covid. 

Even if you’ve never been out of the country, an overseas holiday is likely to be something you’ve dreamt of. All of us have probably got travel to a special city, country or region of the world on our bucket list. Mine is Greece. It’s quite possible, though, I’ll never go to Greece. That won’t stop the idea of going to Greece looming large in my imagination. This is a point made by best-selling English writer Alain de Botton in his 2002 book The Art of Travel.

A big part of the joy of travel, argues de Botton, is the anticipation. We can daydream about visiting far off places while stuck in traffic after work. The thought of drinking ouzo at a white-washed Greek Taverna on the island of Hydra (where Leonard Cohen once lived with Marianne Ihlen) is a nice palliative to the everyday routine. Enjoy the idyll because the reality, de Botton stresses, may fail to live up to the idea in our heads. We build up a picture that leaves out the smog and congested traffic in Athens. Or the desperate street hawkers pestering you to buy cheap souvenirs.

The reality of travel may disappoint in other ways. De Botton humorously recounts how while in Barbados, he got into a major sulk-fest with his girlfriend over who got to eat the perfect crème caramel rather than the ugly one that had toppled over on the plate. Petty, obviously, but not unfamiliar to anyone who’s had a fight with their partner over something innocuous. Even in a beautiful place, trying as hard as possible to have a good time, you can end up grumpy and irritable. De Botton’s realisation was that you can’t escape yourself, and all your faults and foibles, by travelling to another location.

On the flipside, de Botton eulogises the experience of transit places, like hotel lobbies, airport lounges, ferry terminals and roadside cafés. When experienced as a solitary traveller, these places can generate feelings of tranquillity. Alone in a transit place, we are freed from the masks we wear in various everyday settings. We have to be a certain person at work or with different family members, with our spouse. Everyday life has many expectations. Sitting in an airport lounge, those expectations are removed. We can take a break from worrying about what people think of us. Here de Botton nails why travel is often enjoyable. Because it affords us the chance to escape, if only for a short time, the roles in life we normally have to play. This suggests we don’t have to spend a lot of money or go far away to access this “me time.” Sitting at the bus stop on a beautiful autumn morning might do the trick. 

De Botton writes chapters in entertaining prose on landscape, the sublime, on curiosity, on the exotic—all part of the complex motivations for travel. One particularly interesting chapter is about how artists can essentially create a place. This is what Vincent van Gogh achieved for Provence in the south of France with his expressive paintings of wheat fields, orchards, peasant farmers and cypress trees. For de Botton, Provence was inseparable from his love of van Gogh’s paintings of the region. It was the reason he wanted to go there. On arriving in Provence, however, he was underwhelmed. The landscape he observed was kind of boring compared to van Gogh’s paintings. Which raises the question: is viewing a beautiful painting of a place, reading a book about it, in some way more satisfying than actually going there? Experiencing great art, de Botton concludes, can be a substitute for physical travel.

In the last chapter on habit, de Botton urges us to break out of our routines and adopt each day a “travelling mindset”. To consciously observe with wonder the world around us, as we often do when we’re on holiday in a place we’ve never been before. In these times of Covid, perhaps we can work harder on the art of travel, seeing more while moving less. 

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Northern Advocate Column, Uncategorized

Dead monarchs and the cancelling of debts

17 November 2022

When the kings of the ancient Sumerians died or were overthrown by a rival, it was customary for a time to cancel debts for ordinary citizens. The wiping of debts was like a society reset. A necessary one in those early days of civilisation, when the cultural memory of more egalitarian communities still lingered.

Four and half thousand years ago, in the land that’s now modern-day Iraq, debt and early forms of money were relatively new, as was control or ownership of land. In these centralised economies, Sumerian peasant farmers could get into difficulty and incur debt. If it got unpayable, they might be forced to hand over land to creditors or the state. Often then having to sell themselves or family members into slavery. A drought, declining yields, invasion by another regional power, raids by nomads, or high taxes, could all see a peasant family’s fortunes and status in society plummet. Meanwhile, those lucky or in a position to play the system could amass a greater share of wealth.

The problem was, hierarchy and inequality weren’t good for society’s morale. When there are winners and losers, what reason do the losers have for sticking around to defend the winners from an invading army or nomad raiders? Some might prefer to join the nomads or engage in some banditry instead. Hence the practice of cancelling debts when a new monarch came to power. It was a practical way of maintaining the allegiance of commoners to the state and to the privileged hierarchy at its centre.

I tell this tale from the ancient world because there are parallels with today. In many countries, personal debt is high, fuelled by a house price boom and the spiralling cost of living. Wealth disparities have only grown since the Covid pandemic hit. Young people who aren’t from wealthy families are feeling aggrieved. Inequality is stoking political tensions in every country, whether mature democracies or oligarchal states like Russia and China. And it’s contributing to military tensions between nations. Rather than deal with the inequalities, one response is to try and unite a country by drumming up nationalism or even starting a war.

This is the world in which New Zealand might start looking at constitutional change following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. There will be different ideas about what we should do and at what speed. But regardless of who our head of state is (or whether one is even needed), shared allegiance to the state is undermined by inequality. The Sumerian rulers understood this. That’s why when one monarch died and a new one ascended the throne they tried to heal society by cancelling debts. The goal was to restore some equality (and political stability) which had been eroded in the previous years.

Skip forward a few millennia. On September 26, New Zealanders will get a one-off public holiday to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth. A surprising move perhaps in these supposedly modern times. The Labour government has been smart (some might say calculating) in realising the opportunity to try and unite us in mourning, no matter how forced it feels.

While we’ll take the paid holiday, I’m sure many of us would prefer our debts were cancelled, like in Sumerian times. And maybe that idea is not so far fetched. Word is, if Matthew Hooton writing in the NZ Herald can be believed, Labour is considering cancelling student loan debt as its big election year promise. In the United States, President Biden already has plans to cancel $10,000 worth of student debt for low-to-middle income borrowers. At least some in ruling circles understand that you can’t have a functional society when citizens are overburdened with debt and wealth inequalities are left to grow unchecked.

The vast stretch of time and geography between an ancient Middle Eastern civilisation ruled by kings and modern New Zealand seems, on the face of it, enormous. It’s tempting to think we share nothing in common with those people and their attempts at state management. And yet old problems persist, giving rise to the demand for old solutions.

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Poetry, Uncategorized

On this lucky earth

after W.H. Auden

Staring up from a field in Pakistan, your eyes 
like the eyes of any child. Your face enlarged on a poster 
that can be seen from the edges of the human inhabitable zone 
on this lucky earth; and viewed again on our screens
while eating or opening a window, or just walking dully along. 
Drones that hover their targets don’t see. 

I sit outside a café at an unsteady table on an uneven path, 
where another child, lifted high on shoulders, waves a tiny hand.
There’s a seamless sky behind the weight of cherry blossom; 
and I’m unsure whether to share with friends 
the image of you—as pixels to the wind—or to simply forget 
and build my delicate home the way I’d like it to be.
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Poetry

Path

I prefer paths worn to those laid out; 
the blending of grass from centre to edge 
by the passing of continual feet 
rivals the shading of Old Masters. 

Down these paths seed-head and flower 
brush calves, but don’t impede, 
because enough of us walk this way, 
descending with each unique promise. 

*

The southern wind edges the waves 
moving across the bay; white lines of static 
flicker and vanish: a jumpy picture of turquoise-blue 
blotted with shadows from dampened clouds. 

Amidst the froth and crests of roughening seas, 
the birds in the distance race to a haven 
at the north end of Tokerau, where the sands curve 
behind the rocks marked with Kupe’s net.

*

The rain comes. It’s too much to stay 
exposed on the stone altar 
of a church, or in the circle of a henge. 
From the sea we must retreat. 

I look back at the dimpled sand; 
our footprints already fading. We turn 
into the gloom of leaf and frond, follow the path
of pressed grass shimmering like a stream.
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Poetry

Big Love Song #21

after Arthur Rimbaud

It doesn’t mean a thing: 
the pyramid eye
or the constellations,
not night’s scattered verse. 

Smoking incense, 
the bride’s dress, 
the taste of dark wine—
it doesn’t mean a thing. 

Neither does beautiful Paris: 
the elegant avenues,
the asphyxiating decay, 
the distant nausea. 

Only your soft pure face
and the warm bed of home.
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