Northern Advocate Column

Referendums: one tool in the democracy toolbox, not always the best

18 November 2020

I used to think we should have more referendums—the binding kind, which gave politicians no wriggle room to ignore us, the people. It seemed so sensible to me, so obviously democratic. Fair decision making simply came down to the maths. More than 50% of the vote and you had a decision. This was ultimate democracy, where everyone’s voice was heard and tallied. 

The high point for me was the 1993 referendum that gave us MMP. We made the politicians do something they didn’t really want to do. And I was on the right side of history (though only by a slim margin, 53.8% voted to change our electoral system).

But later, came a low point. The referendums on changing New Zealand’s flag got really odd. Many people on the left, who you’d expect to wish the Union Jack gone, voted for the status quo because they didn’t like John Key. And choosing from uninspiring alternative designs before deciding to ditch the current flag was the wrong way about. It all got a bit silly, so I didn’t even bother casting a final vote. So much for my enthusiasm for referendums.  

Our latest referendums, on euthanasia and cannabis legalisation, got me thinking more about this democratic tool I’d once been so enamoured with. One problem with having a referendum is that once the referendum is done there’s little likelihood of having another on the same issue anytime soon. But on many issues—cannabis legalisation probably being one—different generations can think differently. So the majority opinion may shift as the years pass. Making decisions by referendum, unless we keep voting on the same issue over and over (which no one wants) doesn’t allow for the majority view to change over time. We’re stuck with the cannabis decision for a while now. For a government to ignore it would undermine the whole point of having the referendum. This tallying of “for” and “against”, doesn’t provide the opportunity for a large minority to make change that others will come to agree with, or at least accept, later. Democracy can tolerate and should allow, on occasion, minority leadership. Referendums don’t enable this, which is a weakness.  

Another problem with referendums was most clearly seen with the Brexit vote in Britain. A narrow vote for leaving the European Union imposed a decision on nearly half the population that they strongly disagreed with. The brutal maths of a decision based on a majority vote leaves no room for compromise or arriving at a consensus. Having close to 50% of the population living with a major constitutional decision they don’t agree with is going to create problems.

It’s not just countries that grapple with how to make democratic decisions. Does a company, a school, a union or a sports club make decisions via consensus or by putting things to a vote? Having a vote leads to winners and losers. It can compromise the functionality of the group, leading to splits and unhelpful antagonism. Getting consensus is a skill, it requires a different kind of leadership than calling for a vote. Building consensus requires everyone (or at least most) in the group wanting to achieve a consensus decision. Majority voting doesn’t require that you engage with the other side to reach a position somewhere in the middle. It may not encourage carefully listening to what other people have to say. 

Now I’m not advocating that we stop having referendums. It’s just that my own view of them has evolved. Democracy is a more difficult and nuanced thing in practice than I once imagined. And it isn’t a prize on its own. It’s worth asking, what are we trying to achieve with democracy? I’d argue it’s fairness, justice and equality of opportunity to lead a flourishing life. Democracy should be regarded as a set of tools, not just a hammer. With multiple tools, we construct a house (a whare) that aims to achieve the greatest human well-being and reduce any harm and suffering.

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Northern Advocate Column

Small and big water users on a collision course

9th September 2020

“It never rains but it pours.” Having experienced the extremes of weather this last 12 months, an appropriate re-wording of that old saying would be: “If it’s not a drought, it’s a flood.” 

Northland has always had seasonal differences in rainfall. Droughts and storms that cause extensive flooding aren’t new. But last summer was the hottest and driest I can recall, and it’s been followed by the wettest winter. Our climate is obviously changing. Climate scientists are predicting that what we’re experiencing may well be the new normal. 

Regular droughts will put a strain on water supplies and cause disputes between different water users. Those tensions are already emerging. There’s been much interest in the application by avocado growers to access an additional 6 million litres of water per year from the Aupōuri Peninsula’s aquifer. The only source of water for many Far North locals. It’s not the only area where water consents are being sought. 

A common feature is the large size of the operations wanting increased access to water. In Northland, like the rest of New Zealand, farming enterprises are getting bigger. This is a model of land use and ownership heavily dependent on scale to generate operating efficiencies. Companies are often highly leveraged to banks. Their focus is on delivering a single food product to supermarkets or for export. Leaving aside the justice of land being increasingly owned by a few, this model has a lot of risk contained in it. Prices can fluctuate, interest rates can go up, input costs can increase, or it might not rain enough. 

Too little rainfall at crucial times of the year is a risk that big agriculture wants to mitigate. These enterprises could build water storage themselves, capturing water during periods of heavy rainfall in a similar way to a householder or bach owner collects water in a tank. That would be a private cost. Companies with slim margins and an eye on reducing costs would rather access water cheaply from underground aquifers. Or have the government and local councils pick up the costs of irrigation projects or mass water storage. 

Recently the government gave $12 million for a water storage project coordinated by the Northland Regional Council. The project received $18.5 million last year. That’s likely to be only the start of public money for water storage and irrigation projects that will be essential to new large scale horticulture ventures. 

The high-cost, high-risk vision of agriculture has clearly got backing within government and local councils. It’s not, however, the only vision of farming for Northland. One better adapted to the extremes of weather caused by the atmosphere warming is small scale mixed farming producing for a local market. Of which there are plenty of pioneers in Northland today. 

Regenerative agriculture uses practices to keep water in the land. Organic material is used to maintain healthy aerated soils that can absorb and retain moisture. The emphasis is on a diversity of crops and animal husbandry. Different crops may succeed one year where others fail without destroying the viability of the whole farm. A term often used in ecology circles to describe this type of farming is resilient. It’s adaptable in the way that planting a single crop over 400 hectares is not. 

Given what we know about climate change, small scale organic farming practices producing a variety of quality food for local people needs to be our future. It’s not the dynamic that’s currently playing out across Tai Tokerau. Big is in the ascendency.

Climate change and farming intensification are on a collision course in Northland, with water access the flashpoint. Where does public sentiment lie? Is it with the big landowners and their high-risk model, or with the resilient practices of the small organic farmer?   

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Northern Advocate Column

‘A Small Farm Future’ by Chris Smaje

14 November 2020

Imagine no Fonterra, no mega-dairy farms, no super-sized avocado orchards. Imagine that shiploads of rice, wheat, and—oh my god!—coffee, weren’t landing on our shores. Imagine instead that all the food we eat is grown locally on small farms, less than a few hectares. That’s the future for the world envisaged by Chris Smaje, author of the new book A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green Publishing in the UK. 

There’s long been recognition in permaculture and ecological circles that small-scale mixed farming is the future we need. The strength of Smaje’s book is that he tackles head-on the possible criticisms of this small farm future. Like the idea that small farms, with little or no fossil fuel inputs, couldn’t possibly feed the world. To counter that argument, Smaje makes a case study of Britain in 2050 with an increased population of 83 million (thanks to the benevolent acceptance of refugees fleeing from countries worst affected by climate change). 

He goes through the process of dividing up the land and labour of the country, factoring in conservative estimates on yields, and making choices about what needs to be grown to produce the necessary calories. There would be more vegetables eaten, including potatoes a thousand ways, and a lot less sugar and red meat. The figures he comes up with, carefully explained and justified with scientific rigour along the way, say, yes, it can be done. There might be political, economic and social reasons why Britain doesn’t immediately embrace small farm self-sufficiency. Still, this doesn’t mean, according to Smaje’s analysis, that it’s not possible. 

You often hear from New Zealand export farmers—of dairy and meat in particular—that they’re performing the necessary service of “feeding the world.” But the rest of the world, if land was owned and controlled differently, and if different social and environmental considerations reigned, could, in fact, feed itself. 

Being a small farmer himself, and with a science background, Smaje is careful about any claims he makes. It’s this sober analysis that actually makes Smaje’s book inspiring and worthy of repeated reads (he’s also a great writer). A Small Farm Future is theoretical, but it’s grounded in the limits that farming (and nature more broadly) has always imposed on the human species. One of Smaje’s common themes, bringing together economics, lifestyle and sustainability, is that accepting limits is healthy. Less destabilising and stressful of people and eco-systems than the illusion of no limits. 

Our high energy, high waste, globalised economy is clearly overreaching the limits of what the Earth can support. Cities, according to Smaje, for a host of social, economic and environmental reasons, will start to empty out. With a city exodus leading to an expanding rural population, then land ownership, Smaje predicts, will be a flashpoint political issue. They’ll be an urgent need for land reform that makes land available to small farmers to own. 

The later parts of the book are perhaps the most fascinating and also original. Smaje speculates on what a small farm society might look like. He stresses, for instance, the importance of avoiding the exploitation of women’s work by patriarchal farmers. There’s no reason why the values we currently hold dear—like gender equality—can’t be part of the legal framework of a small farm society. Smaje does anticipate, however, the eroding power of the centralised state, conceding more power to local populations to decide things for themselves. One interesting chapter is titled “From Nations to Republics.” 

Smaje has lots of good things to say about peasants, both historically and today. As someone who fancies himself as a neo-peasant (more in my dreams than in reality), I’m attracted to his unapologetic advocacy of the peasant life. Though it would have to be free of domination by colonial or financial elites. Rehabilitating the peasant as a positive term might stress them as autonomous, multi-skilled, fiercely independent, creative types, who are keen scientific observers of their environment. 

Smaje never presents his small farm future as a utopia. Without fossil fuels, whether restricted due to attempts to reduce carbon emissions or because of increasing costs over time, farming will require a lot more human and animal labour. Smaje is sceptical of a super high tech world of robots and the automation of everything. The energy inputs of such a world—truly utopian—just don’t stack up. Besides, as Smaje persuasively argues, we might find that working on a farm to sustain ourselves and our families, and generating a small surplus, makes us quite happy. That life might be better than doing a bullshit job working for someone else and addicted to whatever passive entertainment global internet-based media companies feed us. Smaje isn’t afraid to make moral judgements. 

An ever-expanding global economy requiring more and more energy inputs—which renewables can’t possibly satisfy—is the delusional future. In one hundred years (probably less), whether we plan for it or not, more people will be working on the land, cities will have declined in population and influence, fossil fuels will be scarce or non-existent. Getting started on embracing the positives that derive from necessity, and trying to make that transition as orderly, just and fair as possible would probably be a good idea. Books like A Small Farm Future are important. They’ll plant seeds in the minds of farmers and searchers for an ecologically-centred and spiritually satisfying way of life. 

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Northern Advocate Column

A holiday to celebrate Matariki, yes!

12 June 2018

When it comes to our public holidays I range from passable participation, boredom, to cynical disbelief―why are we celebrating that? Queen’s Birthday definitely the latter.

A paid day off is always great, but I want something more from a holiday. I want to feel. 

Christmas and New Year come closest. Who doesn’t like reaching the end of the year and enjoying a relaxing time with family. I get that. 

Northland Anniversary Day? Meh. 

Waitangi Day? I’ve enjoyed days at Waitangi itself, but despite attempts to establish the Treaty as a founding document for this country I’m too aware that it really was a calculated attempt by the British to claim dominion over this land. Too much post-colonial guilt for it to feel like a holiday should. And not everyone in the country seems to be uniformly celebrating the day, so it feels awkward, like a work function where there are unresolved tensions between management and staff. You just can’t quite get into it. 

I like the length of Easter, but chocolate eggs and bunnies mashed-up with the biblical story of Christ’s death on the cross and rising a few days later doesn’t do much for me. 

I understand that Anzac Day means a lot to some people. It’s the kind of holiday – commemoration is a better word – that I’m looking for, something with a depth of feeling. It’s just that the nationalist myth-making, the ties it still reinforces to Western powers, the uniforms and hierarchies, don’t sit well with my anarchist-inclined tastes. 

Labour Day is an interesting one. We got that in 1900 to mark the struggle by unions to achieve an eight-hour working day. But not much is made of it, really. A symptom perhaps of New Zealand’s working-class history being so successfully removed from our everyday consciousness. A kind of collective lobotomy, as if we’ve all been playing Mike Hosking through headphones at night. 

Our line-up of public holidays just feels tired and stale to me. Traditions and continuity are all well and good, but change is necessary too. So I’m joining the chorus of people calling for Matariki, the Māori New Year, to become our newest holiday season. A chance for reflection, hearty dinners and public festivals of art and entertainment. 

It should be two days off, one either side of a weekend in June. Replace the outdated Queen’s Birthday and then increase our public holiday count by one to 12 (still behind Australia’s 13). 

I have in mind a truly internationalist holiday. Yes, with a perspective indigenous to this land, but mid-winter celebrations are common to most cultures around the world. Under the umbrella of Matariki, celebrations could reflect the full diversity of communities that have come to Aotearoa. Some by following the stars long ago, others more recently watching movies on the backseat of the airline passengers in front of them.

It should be a holiday season that combines local belonging with a global consciousness. A holiday fit for that purpose is something I could embrace wholeheartedly. 

Matariki, it’s in the stars. 

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Poetry

Johnathan by the water

It’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like a seagull’s shiver.

His eyes are honest, so honest
He’ll tell you how it is
Hit you between the yellow and the blue.

He’s got you leaning into the wall
Waiting for you to fall.

He’ll smile and lead you on
His eyes are honest, so honest.

He’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like a seagull’s shiver.

He’ll hang you in the elevator
You won’t reach for the button
Because it’s right
Because it’s right.

He’ll tell you not to cry
It’s America and it’s built to last.

He’s Johnathan by the water
Flopping his hair like seagull’s shiver.

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Uncategorized

Let’s keep trying to eliminate Covid from New Zealand

daily-cases-25aug20

Democracy is a flawed, frustrating and messy business, but in New Zealand, I’m pleased to say, it’s in fine form.  The Government’s handling of coronavirus has been under intense scrutiny from the media, opposition parties, unions, academics, lobby groups, and most importantly, an engaged citizen body. Journalists are doing their job and exposing the gaps between Government intentions and reality on the ground. Better systems and policy will result.

Democracy is also working because our political parties are so poll-driven. Both Labour and National will be regularly polling to find out what New Zealanders are thinking. That there’s consensus between the two main parties, on the surface at least, to continue an elimination strategy, should reflect the majority view. 

But it’s a fluid situation, events and circumstances will shift opinions. Time is a factor too. There are already growing calls for a more liberal border policy and a strategy of “living with Covid” for the sake of the economy. 

I’m still very much in favour of elimination, however. Here are my seven reasons why. 

Reason 1: We can hold out until a vaccine is available. Maybe a vaccine is a year away. Hope is alive when there’s a realistic timeframe. An elimination strategy can last this long. 

Reason 2: We don’t yet know enough. Will a vaccination be needed every year, like for the flu? Do people who get Covid-19 develop lasting immunity? Within a year we’ll have answers. Staying the elimination course until we know just what we’re dealing with would be sensible. 

Reason 3: Self-preservation. As I close in on 50, I don’t really want to take my chances with the disease. I’ve a history of chest-heaving coughs that last for months from just a simple cold. The black humour at our family dinner table consists of jibes pointing out I’ll never make it if I catch Covid. Thanks, family.  

Reason 4: Protecting the old people I know. More than my own chances up against Covid, I worry about my parents in their mid-seventies, who are full of life and looking forward to more good years. For my mother, who has an existing health condition, catching Covid would put her at extreme risk. I’d prefer they didn’t have to live in fear and isolation. 

Reason 5: I want freedom of movement. If we have to “live with Covid” I’m not going to be out in public much. My entertainment dollar won’t be spent at cafés, restaurants or sporting events. To maintain contact with my parents, I’ll have to limit contact with other people. That’s why the economic effects of Covid spreading through the community are severe. Many people will choose to isolate for a longer stretch than a lockdown lasting weeks. 

Reason 6: Our economy has to change. I’ve sympathy for people who’ve lost their jobs and livelihoods, but my perspective on the world tells me that Covid is just one of the “disruptors” the economy is going to face in coming years. Climate change, an inevitable financial crisis, increasing energy costs – these things were going to challenge the status quo anyway. By continuing to pursue an elimination strategy, we have an opportunity to reshape the national economy into one that’s more self-sufficient, sustainable and responsive to the needs of people. 

Reason 7: Common purpose is easily lost. Fighting coronavirus at the border, with occasional temporary lockdowns, coupled with mass-testing and tracing, is easier to unite around. Suppressing Covid or preventing the health system from being overwhelmed, is a less clear-cut goal. Evidence from overseas suggests that people start thinking more individually in those circumstances. If we give up on pursuing elimination, then I fear we’ll also kiss goodbye to the “team of 5 million.” 

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Northern Advocate Column

Some thoughts on Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

Taylor_Swift_-_FolkloreThe cover of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore is a black and white photo of the singer-songwriter in a long coat standing in a forest of tall, slender trees. Swift is small, barely recognisable, her head tilted slightly, looking up at the nearest tree.

Taylor Swift isn’t small though. She’s a global pop star, one of the biggest. Yet the conceit of the cover is that even Taylor Swift is tiny compared to the majesty of nature.

While there’s no back-to-nature roots music on the album, the songs are more humble, less ego-driven, not so much caught up in the swirl of celebrity culture. The pop glam, the brash put-downs, the revelling in self-mythology that were part of Swift’s recent catalogue is largely missing here. Most of the songs are about characters other than Swift herself. Whatever past experiences she’s drawing on from her own life, these are seamlessly woven into narratives and character sketches that we ordinary folk can identify with.

Many of the songs have the narrator recalling the past. As in the lost love of a woman’s “roaring twenties” in the opening track ‘The 1’; and the teenage love dramas in ‘Cardigan’, ‘Betty’ and ‘August.’ There are memories of being seven years old in the gorgeous ‘Seven’, with its aching poetry of nostalgia and never to be regained innocence and wonder. A bittersweet melody accompanies these opening lines: “Please picture me in the trees/ I hit my peak at seven/ Feet in the swing over the creek.” We can picture Swift as a child on a swing, but we also picture ourselves. We all have such moments from our childhood that we remember and cherish.

Swift develops the scene with the lines: “I was high in the sky/ With Pennsylvania under me.” Then switching registers, a sudden question: “Are there still beautiful things?” And it’s in this one line that we have a connection to the bigger picture of our lives amid a global pandemic and whatever is to come. Are there still beautiful things? Yes there are, and ‘Seven’ is one of them.

Most of us have a history of failed relationships with people. We look back with some regret and maybe a little maturity. Hoping we won’t repeat past mistakes. This is the key to the album’s title. The folklore here is not the rural tradition of folk music, but our own past lives and what we can learn from looking back on them.

There’s often a double-sided nature to our reminiscing though. We might hope we’ve grown and gained insight into ourselves, but there’s still the lingering sense that our youthful dramas were the best of times. Falling in and out of love with people and places (and even ideas or political creeds) had an emotional intensity that we can look back on with envy. There can be regret or sadness in recalling our past, but part of us wishes we were still there. Taylor Swift understands that contradiction, like when she sings in ‘August’: “Back when we were still changing for the better/ Back when I was living for the hope of it all.”

In ‘This is me trying’ she likens herself to a once flash new car or bike: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/ I had the shiniest wheels/ Now they’re rusting.” There is no going back. That’s accepted. Contentment, if not drama and adventure, can be found in the present. As in these poet-worthy lines: “Time, mystical time, cutting me open, then healing me fine.”

Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from slow piano ballads, with textured and subtle, mood-amplifying guitar. There are accompanying electronic effects, and the album sounds very produced, but it’s intimate in a way that past Taylor Swift albums are not. For all its layered production, the album still feels like musicians making music in a cabin somewhere in an untouched forest in a mythical place called America. To understand, perhaps, what this album feels like to listen to, go back to that cover photo. If the photo speaks to you at this time of coronavirus, then so might these 17 songs.

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Poetry

Our dog is like Frank O’Hara

our dog is like Frank O’Hara
aaaaaaalover of gregarious freedom!
we don’t want to train him—he’s untrainable
half wild, like a Coltrane solo
he takes free rein, takes it where it will go
he barks at everyone he sees        with no malice
he just wants to say hello
and tell everyone        he loves them
he can jump up in the air in crazy yelping pirouettes
he’s a bit of a show-off

he’s too quick footed for the big slow dogs
who can’t pin him down        there’s no easy walk
trotting along beside in regular rhythm
it’s all full tilt, nose down, tail up, pulling forward
choking against the collar—sudden stops
deviations         instant enthusiasms
abandoned for the next delicious scent        tiring
and exhilarating, like keeping up with Peter
when his brain’s exploding
T.S.Eliot mixed with obscenities

he sleeps close to us on the bed
any noise, 2am, 5am, and he’ll leap off
and run around barking in circles       it’s idiotic
and pisses us off
he wants to lick your ears in the morning
loves it when you scratch his head
he hardly eats, but likes to clean your plate
flies annoy him       (he’s mostly content)

he escapes often, being small and agile
always finding a new way to get out
we’re lucky he hasn’t been hit by a car
we would miss him a lot
aaaaaabecause he’s full of the genius of life
our dog
a destroyer of shallow boredom
like Frank O’Hara.

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