THE 'ECONOMIC RECOVERY' THAT ISN'T


Our local media is so predictable. Whenever there's any good economic news, however flimsy, the media goes into cheerleading mode. There's no serious analysis but there's a whole load of hype with the implication that the economic recession has just been a temporary blip on capitalism's radar screen.

And so when it was announced that the United States gross domestic product (GDP) grew 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009, there were the usual 'once over lightly' stories about 'the American economy turning the corner', 'the recession is over', blah blah blah.

While there are many economists who dispute these claims they never appeared on our television screens but we did see plenty of Barack Obama. He described the GDP figure “an affirmation that the recession is abating and the steps we’ve taken have made a difference.”

Well, Obama is half right. Sort of.

No, the recession is not 'abating' but, yes, he and his administration have made a difference in that they bailed out the banks and the corporations with trillions of dollars from the public purse.

With the American economy bedevilled by rising unemployment, falling wages and empty factories it is ridiculous to say that the US economy is now in recovery mode.

The GDP rise is misleading because it is mostly the result of the Obama administration ploughing something like $12 trillion of public money into the financial system. It is unprecedented corporate welfare and we should all bear this in mind when we next hear neoliberal politicians attacking 'welfare bludgers' and the like.

The problem for Obama is that this bid to shore up the crumbling American financial system has resulted in budget deficits which cannot be sustained in the long term - and this is has led to the decline of the US dollar on world markets.

And even $12 trillion hasn't done anything to stem the rising tide of unemployment.

Nearly 63 percent (2.2 percent) of the 3.5 percent increase in GDP was due to temporary government tax credits to consumers that have either expired or are set to expire next month.

The result of all this will be a further sharp decline in the American economy with some economists predicting a 'double dip' recession. There's a slight 'bounce' now but with the next 'dip' likely to be as severe as the first one.

While establishment politicians around the world have all bleated on about us 'all making sacrifices in these difficult economic times' it has been ordinary people who have been carrying the burden of an economic crisis they were not responsible for.

While Bloomsberg Television might tell us that the US banks and finance houses are announcing healthy profits again, what Bloomberg doesn't say is that these profits are the result of receiving received billions of dollars from the public purse as well as cheap loans and various other generous government subsidies.

For the wide boys of Wall Street it's business as usual.

But for the American working class Obama has delivered nothing but job losses and cuts in wages. The number of American workers losing their homes continues to rise and the food kitchens are trying to cope with the increasing number of people in need of their help - and they are also reporting an increasing number of middle class Americans lining up for meals.

While our media might be gleefully record the upswing in the Dow Jones - as if this an indication of good times ahead - what it really indicates is that there has been a huge transfer of wealth into the hands of the financial elite who are. once again, engaging in the same kind of speculative activities they were engaged in before the American economy went into a tailspin.

While Obama has talked big about curbing the excesses of Wall Street the reality is that has nothing has really changed.

RIPPED OFF BY RODNEY



Yes, more tales of outrageous expense claims by 'our parliamentary representatives'.

Getting most of the attention has been old Mr 'Perkbuster' himself. Rodney Hide used his travel privileges to take his girlfriend on a ten day overseas jaunt, staying in expensive hotels cost that cost anywhere between $300 -$500 a night. Despite being on a minister's salary Hide wasn't able to pay for his girlfriend himself and he sent us the $25,000 bill instead.

Hide tried to justify the outrageous expense claim on the grounds that he 'worked hard' for New Zealand and he wanted to maintain his relationship. Well, I don't consider bashing welfare beneficiaries and lobbying for further privatisation is 'working hard for New Zealand'

And if he's so keen to impress his girlfriend he should do so with his own money.

Also of note is Housing Minister Phil Heatley's concerted efforts to 'maximise' his 'entitlements'. He spent nearly $12,000 in three months including $1000 for his wife to travel with him to the Cook Islands for a nice wee holiday. This is on top of the nice little earner he's got going renting out his Wellington flat to a colleague while he lives elsewhere. We get to pay the rent.

As I said in a previous post:

we are a stuck with a democracy which allows us to vote once every three years for MPs who then go away and do pretty much what they like. There is no real mechanism available that can hold 'our representatives' to account. We get to pick our oligarchs once every three years, and they get to do whatever they want in the intervening period. Its not much of a deal and it means the buggers can screw the system for everything they can possibly get.

True democracy requires that all elected officials are directly responsible to those they represent. They should be able to be immediately replaced if they go against our wishes. And they should receive an income equal to the average wage nationally.

NEOLIBERAL PROPAGANDA



The fact that TVNZ allowed Bill 'Double-Dipton' English to front the promo for TVNZ 7's Spotlight on the Economy month hardly inspires confidence that it will contribute anything new to the economic debate. The fact that TVNZ actually allowed English to edit his script suggests that here is a broadcaster not overly keen to upset the neoliberal consensus.

One of the central progammes is 'National's First Year' which will see the mediocre Guyon Espiner interviewing Dodgy Bill. Espiner has never questioned the assumptions of neoliberalism and I doubt he's going to start now. Perhaps he'll prove me wrong - perhaps he's been secretly reading Marx, Mandel or even Keynes in his spare time. Yeah right.

Will anyone be declaring that neoliberalism has failed, completely and utterly? Will anyone be offering a real economic alternative?

No.

After the English interview two more neoliberal politicians, Roger Douglas and David Cunliffe, will get to critique English's views.

The programme will finish with 'a panel of union representatives and business commentators discussing and debating the issues raised across the show.'

Given that the CTU hierarchy has shown no inclination to challenge neoliberalism, I'm not expecting anything new from the union representatives either.

Spotlight on the Economy
will be little more than neoliberal talkfest, with the implication that is no viable economic alternative.

After years of the media echoing the same neoliberal phraseology, New Zealanders would be delighted to finally hear and discuss different economic ideas. They won't get that from TVNZ's Spotlight on the Economy. It might admit to a economic crisis but none of its participants want real economic change.

Spotlight on the Economy
would have real relevance if it, for example, it discussed the economic policies that are being implemented by the Chavez government in Venezuela. Perhaps it could discuss the economic policy alternatives that emerged from the World Social Forum in February this year.

We won't get any of this. Instead we will get the ridiculous Roger Douglas, calling for more extreme neoliberal policies and Cunliffe attempting to convince us that Labour's brand of neoliberalism is better than National's.

Pathetic.

CAKE FOR MARRYATT, CRUMBS FOR WORKERS

Sideshow Bob and chums demonstrating the size of Tony Marryatt's salary increase.


The fat $80,000 salary increase for Christchurch City Council CEO Tony Marryatt has caused a stink within the Christchurch City Council.

Council workers are angry that Marryatt got a massive 22 percent salary increase

Adding salt to the wound is the fact that council workers have been given a dismal 2.7 per cent pay rise for both the 2009-10 and the 2010-11 financial years.

I talked with one member of the Southern Local Government Officers Union. The union represents approximately 1400 council workers.

He told me that he was not happy with the small increase and nor were his workmates but they had grudgingly accepted that it was best they could hope for in the economic circumstances.

'I think the union did their best but the increase is no way adequate. I think its a token gesture.'

The Press reported today that the council's pay offer was 'zero until the eleventh hour'.

My source has also a told me that, despite Mayor Sideshow Bob's claims to the contrary, morale is low within the council workforce and Marryatt's big salary increase had just increased the level of dissatisfaction.

'It's pissed everyone right off. People are asking how Parker can defend a huge wage increase for his CEO then plead poverty and budget restraints when it comes to the council workforce. My own view is that Parker can find the money for his own pet projects but then claims there's nothing for anything else.'

He also dismisses Marryatt's claim that he did not demand a zero or minimal wage increase for the council workforce.

'It's not credible what Marryatt is saying. As CEO he must have a view on wage increases and he would have talked with Parker and other councillors about it. Marryatt is just being evasive.'

BOTTOM OF THE CLASS


It was somewhat ironic that it was former Prime Minister Helen Clark who, in her role as United Nations Development Programme Administrator, recently launched its annual development report.

Among other things, the report ranked some 184 countries in terms of wealth disparity.

Thanks to the neoliberal economic policies that have dominated New Zealand for nearly 25 years - and the policies that Clark's Labour Government myopically pursued - New Zealand now has the distinction of being the sixth most unequal society in the world.

In the economic justice stakes, New Zealand is right there at the bottom of the class.

These neoliberal policies rather than ushering in the promised land -as the neoliberal zealots monotonously claimed - have produced a widening gap between rich and poor.

The UN report confirms OECD figures that show that New Zealand has had the biggest rise in inequality among member nations in the two decades starting in the mid-1980s - when the fourth Labour Government unleashed its neoliberal blitzkrieg.

Despite the fact that neoliberalism has created a more unequal and unjust society , none of the parliamentary parties are offering any alternative to this failed economic dogma. This includes the Green Party. Green MP Kennedy Graham asked in Parliament today if the government had read the UN report - it hadn't. Is the Green Party offering a clear economic alternative to neliberalism? It isn't. The phrase about 'throwing stones in glasshouses' springs to mind.

It's worth considering reading this report in the light of the Ministry of Social Development's 2009 Social Report.

This report shows that economic inequality increased during Labour's last year in office - which is basically the time frame of this report.

The report also reveals that the proportion of the population on low incomes increased from 13% in 2007 to 14% in 2008 – again during Labour’s last year in office.

For a more extensive discussion of the report check out Bryce Edwards's post on his Liberation blog.

UNION OFFICIALS SURRENDER TO FACTORY CLOSURE


275 Christchurch workers have been made redundant after the Japanese owners of the Bridgestone Tyre Factory announced it would be closed by Christmas. It opened in 1948.

The closure comes at a time when we are being told that an 'economic recovery' is under way - clearly the owners of Bridgestone think otherwise.

As usual, the gutless trade union bureaucrats have laid down and surrendered. Ged O'Connell of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union, said the factory closure 'would hurt'. Talk about stating the bleeding obvious.

Of any plan to resist the closure , which will have a devastating impact on the local community, there was not a word. And there won’t be.

The trade union bureaucracy have failed to put any real resistance to the numerous business and factory closures that have occurred since the economic recession began to bite, and Bridgestone will be no exception. At the end of it all, the likes of Ged O'Connell will continue to slumber on and pick up their nice fat salaries. None of these union fat cats will be facing the prospect of signing up on the dole.

The trade union bureaucrats have allowed mass unemployment to develop virtually unopposed.

'B' IS FOR BANKRUPTCY!


I've been charting the adventures of failed Christchurch property developer Dave Henderson for some time now. It's a tangled and murky tale indeed and it would be easy to devote an entire blog to the business affairs of the man hailed as an 'urban visionary' by Mayor Sideshow Bob Parker .

But I think I've managed to outline most of the 'themes' that characterise 'Hendo'.

One of my principal reasons for writing about our libertarian hero was that I was absolutely staggered and appalled that Henderson seemed to have no difficulty securing big loans from obliging finance companies and banks. It seemed to me that everyone - the so-called 'economic wizards' of the free market - were seduced by Hendo's self confidence, his belief that he was always right.

Did no-one bother to do a background check on the guy? Why were no red flags raised as soon as Hendo came looking for a loan?

The answer to that is largely because Hendo was in the right place at the right time.

Hendo made his move when the economic bubble was still expanding, thanks to an over-heated housing market. The finance companies and the banks were falling over themselves to lend money. Hendo capitalised on this.

But, of course, the bubble inevitably burst and many property developers - like Hendo - were found out. The finance companies and the banks were left with big debts on their books . The finance sector simply disintegrated and effectively no longer exists in this country.

But even while all this happening, Hendo still managed to secure $17 million from his friends on the Christchurch City Council. In return, the ratepayer got lumbered with five over-valued buildings.

Yes, its true that history does repeat itself - the first time as a tragedy, the second time as farce.

But there is now a certain inevitability to the way events are unfolding. Hendo's empire has been virtually wiped out and he is now is facing bankruptcy - not an uncommon experience for 'The Great Man'.

He avoided the big 'B' this week when he was given a week to pay Perpetual Trust some $157,000.

The issue will come before the High Court again on Tuesday.

How long will Hendo will be able to fend off bankruptcy? How long will this farce be allowed to continue? Stay tuned.

CALL ME LOYAL


Remember Councillor Gail Sheriff? She was the Christchurch City councillor who took a ten week holiday in Bali last year - on full pay - and claimed she kept up with her council work by checking her email twice a day.

Sheriff abdicated her responsibilities but as she is one of his loyal supporters, Sideshow Bob didn't think that the lazy Sheriff's extended Bali holiday was of any concern at all.

And then there was Councillor Barry Corbett. He told a council meeting that he would of 'let off' the killer of a young Auckland teenager whose only crime was that he had tagged a fence.

But because he's another one of his loyal supporters, the loathsome Corbett was defended by Sideshow Bob who claimed that Corbett 'regretted' making the comments. To this day, Corbett has never publicly apologised for them.

And then, of course, there's failed property developer Dave Henderson. Despite the fact that Hendo was up to his neck in debt, Sideshow Bob thought it would just great to give another of his supporters $17 million for five over-priced buildings. Even local MP Gerry Brownlee was staggered by the bailout. He wanted to know why the Christchurch City Council had suddenly become the personal bank of Henderson.

So are we surprised that another one of Sideshow's loyal minions has been given a massive $80,000 salary increase?

The council's annual report reveals that CEO Tony Marryatt's total pay and benefits for the 12 months to June 30 was $452,945, compared with $370,825 for the previous year.

This disgraceful increase for Marryatt should be considered against official data that shows that real wages in New Zealand declined approximately 25% between 1982 and the mid 90s and have never recovered. Wages still lie 25 percent below their peak in 1982 - while costs have continued to rise.

While the rest of us are trying to make do on less, CEO's like Tony Marryatt are laughing all the way to the bank.

Council of Social Services executive officer Sharon Torstonson got it right when she commented today that Marryatt's salary increase was unacceptable.

'A pay increase of that magnitude at a time when there is a backlash against executive pay rises and cuts in community grants that look after the wellbeing of our city is kind of sad. Many citizens are struggling through the recession, ' she said.

Sideshow Bob has laughably claimed that the big increase was justified because of Marryatt's 'excellent' performance.

Oh really?

Is this the same Tony Marryatt who played a significant role wasting $17 million of ratepayers money on five over-valued properties from the dismal Dave Henderson?

This is also the same Tony Marryatt who backed Sideshow Bob trying to put council rents up by a massive 24 percent.-

Sideshow Bob though got reprimanded by the High Court who ruled that the council had acted illegally - and cancelled the increase.

Earlier Marryatt had informed us that the 'council's legal team was confident that the correct processes had been followed.'

These are not the actions of a talented executive - as Sideshow Bob claims - but they are the actions of a CEO who is generally regarded as Bob's loyal lieutenant.

What price loyalty? In Marryatt's case, its another $80,000.

'THE GREEN PARTY HAS LOST ITS RADICAL EDGE'


Sue Bradford spoke out about her resignation from the Green Party on National Radio's Focus On Politics on 9 October

This interview completely escaped me but Bryce Edwards has helpfully highlighted it on his blog.

It confirms what some of us knew already - Bradford resigned from the Green Party because she was unhappy with the conservative direction that the party was taking.

She agreed with National radio interviewer Julian Robbins that the party had lost its 'radical edge'. Said Bradford:

We did have a real radical cutting edge [in 1999]… I think that we have, to some extent we have begun to lose a little bit of that differentiation with the other parties in Parliament - in terms of being a little less willing to take risks; a little less willing to be radical and “out there”; and the sense that too many political parties – including perhaps our own – are focused on winning the middle ground voters and not seeing the voters out to the sides – in our case, out to the left, and to the environmental left, as being as important as the voters that are in the middle and to the right.

Bradford reveals that, during her campaign to succeed the outgoing co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, she argued that the party had to 'become more risk-taking', and that it had to 're-capture that radical edge.' This was an implicit criticism of co-leader Russel Norman's conservative strategy.

In fact, in another implied criticism of Norman, she argues that the Green Party has failed to fulfil its electoral potential because it has been too concerned about appealing to the 'centre ground' of the New Zealand electorate.

Some pro-Labour Party commentators on The Standard and elsewhere have argued Sue Bradford's resignation has moved her closer to Labour.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bradford's rejection of conservative and centrist politics clearly shows that while she may presently have little in common with Russel Norman's Green Party she has even less in common with Phil Goff's Labour Party.

THE NAME GAME


The Christchurch Hack Circle was an amphitheatre in the central city that, for a time, was a favourite Hacky Sack venue for Christchurch youth.

Long after the Hacky Sack fad receded it remained a popular meeting place for a wide cross section of Christchurch youth who had made the trip into the city from the suburbs.

It was a generally peaceful area, no worse than any other part of the central city. I walked through the amphitheatre on many occasions and was never once harassed or intimidated.

The Christchurch police though claimed that the Hack Circle was 'a breeding ground for crime'. After smearing the reputations of youth who used the area, the police later backpedaled on that claim and admitted that only a handful of kids ever caused any trouble.

Indeed the Hack Circle was a trouble-free zone compared to the alcohol-fuelled mayhem that regularly erupts out from the Oxford Strip of bars on Friday and Saturday nights.

But, as I said in a earlier post on the subject, local business interests and their allies in the Christchurch City Council always disliked the Hack Circle because they simply didn't like poor working class youth hanging around the mall, making it look 'untidy'.

Class snobbery is alive and well although no-one will own up to it.

Eventually the business and political interests got their own way and the Hack Circle was demolished in early 2008.

The Christchurch City Council though is seeking to obliterate all references to the Hack circle and it set up a committee to consider new names for the area. That committee is made up of councillors Bob Todd , Mike Wall, Bob Shearing, Hagley-Ferrymead Community Board member Brenda Lowe-Johnson, the council acting general manager of public affairs Chris Till and Central City Business Association manager Paul Lonsdale.

None of these people will see forty again.

No youth representative was chosen for the panel - which councillor Yani Johanson strongly objected to.

The panel considered a list of 23 names for the former Hack Circle and they were all rejected. These included 'The Philosopher's Circle' and 'The Quadrant'.

According to Lonsdale the suggested names did not 'reflect' the character of the area.

Of course Lonsdale, a supporter of Mayor Sideshow Bob, is the guy who in March this year came up with the bizarre idea of pumping the music of Barry Manilow through the Cashel Mall in order to drive out Christchurch youth from the area.

It was such an absurd idea that it made the international media.

The problem for the councillors and the business suits is that the area is still commonly referred to as the 'Hack Circle' and no-one, except Paul Lonsdale and his chums, regards it as an issue.

When the panel eventually comes up with its business-friendly name it may well be simply ignored anyway.

As one writer to The Press said recently : 'Why does it need a new name? When you consider it was named by the people who used the area not some over-paid idiot in an office then let it stay.'

THINKING LABOUR? THINK AGAIN


Whatever way you look at them, the figures look bad. Even that eternal optimist, TV1's business reporter Corin Dann, couldn't find something in the figures to talk up the 'free market'.

The final government accounts for the year ended June showed a massive $12.9 billion annual decline in the headline operating balance - to a $10.5 billion deficit at the end of 2009 compared to $2.3 billion surplus in 2008. This, according to Treasury,is the worst budget turnaround since comparable statistics began in the 1990s.

The figures would have been worse if the Inland Revenue hadn't managed to claw back $1.4 billion in back taxes from the BNZ and Westpac - who have been engaged in tax evasion on a grand scale

The consensus among the world's power brokers is that governments need to curtail their spending. This is the message that the IMF has been pushing all year.

Yesterday the Minister of Finance said that 'government spending had to be brought under control'.

So are major cuts on the horizon?

There is a push for further austerity measures but will John Key, the jolly populist, go for it? His natural instinct is to head for high ground and go for the option least likely to offend voters but when the pressure goes on ..

There is space on the left for a real economic alternative to neoliberalism, and a chance to outflank the government.

Labour though is nowhere to be seen.

With Captain Goff at the helm,the battered and discredited ship that is Labour is still becalmed in neoliberal seas.

Having already dispensed with the party's social liberalism, Goff and Labour's economic program is more of the same neoliberal nonsense we are all too familiar with. You know things have not changed when you hear Labourites retreating to that well-worn position of 'At least Labour isn't as bad as National'. Even if that was true, it doesn't suggest there's been much soul-searching going down in Labour ranks, bar a few desultory discussions at the recent conference - which the parliamentary party will just ignore anyway.

There has a been rising tide of revolt against neoliberalism but it has barely touched the Labour Party.

At the recent Labour Party conference President Andrew Little, a trade union 'leader' who has shafted workers' struggles up and down this country, claimed that Labour was a party of 'new ideas'.

But, as is mostly the case with Little, the reality never lives up to his rhetoric. There is no new thinking going on in Labour. Its's business as usual - which is a mix of neoliberalism and a few nods in the direction of some very mild and inoffensive social democratic measures.

Excited yet? Me neither.

HENDERSON 'UNCOOPERATIVE'! ARE WE SURPRISED?


It will come as no surprise to Hendo followers that our 'favourite' libertarian and celebrated 'urban visionary' is running true to form. When the going gets tough Hendo throws his toys out of the sandpit.

The receivers for one of Dave Henderson's companies, Tuam Ventures, have described the high profile Christchurch City Council beneficiary as 'uncooperative'.

Tuam Ventures was put into receivership by the Bank of New Zealand in July after it had failed to meet its payments.

The bank is owed $7.49 million, South Canterbury Finance $3.19m and unsecured creditors $67,347, the report says.

According to the report, prepared by Colin Gower and Stephen Tubbs of BDO Spicers, 'the director (Henderson) has been uncooperative in making information available for the purposes of this report and the receivership in general'.

Of course, this is one of Hendo's trademark tactics. At the same time he'll often claim he's being 'victimised' by journalists/ bureaucrats/ business competitors/ politicians/ anyone else he can think of.

It's interesting to note that Tuam Ventures owes South Canterbury Finance over $3 million since this is yet another finance company that has had questions raised about its continued viability.

ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE


It was hardly a revelation by the Sunday Star Times yesterday that Sue Bradford resigned from the Green Party because she disagreed with the direction that the party was being taken by the conservative leadership of Russel Norman and Jeanette Fitzsimons. The election of the bland and equally as conservative Metiria Turei as Fitzsimons successor simply brought matters to a head. Bradford saw the writing on the wall and decided that was it. Hasta la vista Russel!

For anyone inside the Greens who still retains their critical faculties and holds out the prospect for a progressive solution to New Zealand's economic and political problems, the Green Party must be a lonely place indeed. About as lonely as being a socialist in the Labour Party in fact.

Are these poor Green members awakened by nightmares of yet another monotonous Russel Norman speech about 'market mechanisms' to achieve environmental goals? Do they feel sick when they hear Metiria Turei - marginally more exciting than a dishcloth - talking about broadening the Green's support to include people like Mr and Mrs Tory Voter of Remuera?

Although the Green's started to shift right once they departed the Alliance, the pace was accelerated once little Russel arrived - having already discarded his former socialist politics for the politics of neoliberalism.

In quick succession, the Green Party has bid farewell to most of the programmatic points and positions with which they attracted their base supporters for many years.

The lack of any real debate within the Green Party and the election of Turei has demonstrated to all that the very real monotony of bourgeois politics has settled on the Green Party like a wet blanket.

Norman, the person most responsible for taking the Green Party down the neoliberal road to nowhere, has been trying to mitigate the damage that Bradford's resignation has done to the Green's - and his - credibility. Having spent a lot of his time currying favour with New Zealand business, Norman's sudden reference to his own 'workng class childhood' was as calculated as it was cynical.

He told the Sunday Star Times that the Green Party was as committed as ever to 'social justice.' and would not turn its back on working people. What Norman didn't say is that he believes that 'social justice' can be achieved without any radical change in economic policies.

Norman has become adept at churning out the meaningless rhetoric and the catchphrases - which is not surprising since he is just another one of those politicians who thinks modern politics is all about advertising agencies and marketing.

Thanks largely to Norman, the Green's 'radical veneer', always paper-thin, has been stripped away to reveal a party that is no different from National or Labour.

OBAMA IN NOBEL SHOCKER!


Presently engaged in a fierce and losing war in Afghanistan and also not doing very much about the violent suppression of protests by the illegal Honduran regime, awarding Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize is curious - to say the least. Or has he been given it because everyone is still relieved that the President of the United States is no longer George Bush?

He has also, according to the Nobel Prize Committee. 'given people hope for the future'. This will be the news indeed to the millions of American workers who have lost their jobs in recent times while Obama has given billions of dollars to the villains of Wall Street. Or does economic violence not count?

Anyway, on the back of this surprise announcement, an English blogger has come up with his own list of prizes. Here they are:

* Best role model for young women – Victoria Beckham
* Most welcome musical comeback – Spandau Ballet
* Least ludicrous head of government – Silvio Berlusconi
* Successful rise from deprived background – David Cameron
* Least cynical use of own dead child for political advantage – David Cameron
* Most self effacing public figure – Bono
* Flogging a dead horse – JK Rowling
* Friend of the Palestinian people – Benjamin Netanyahu
* Most charismatic politician – that man who’s the British Minister of Defence
* Thanks for staying alive so long – Margaret Thatcher
* Tallest head of state – Nicholas Sarkozy

And a piece of trivia. One notable nominee for the Nobel Peace prize was...Adolf Hitler. Yes, peace-loving Adolf was nominated in 1939 by Erik Brandt, a member of the Swedish Parliament. He later withdrew his nomination.

SCREWING THE SYSTEM


Screwing the system for personal financial gain is a popular activity among our Parliamentary MPs. While much of the recent focus has been on the dodgy dealings of the Minister of Finance, Bill English isn't the only one who has been busy 'maximising' his bank balance.

Fleecing the taxpayer is rife among all MPs, across all parties. Not content to be on huge salary packages plus generous allowances, 'our representatives' have been working the system to ttheir financial advantage and to our financial cost.

That these MPs are the very same people who expect ordinary New Zealanders to make economic 'sacrifices' in these difficult times makes this situation even more unpalatable. While we're having our belts tightened, the fat cats in Parliament are working out ways to get even more cream for themselves.

The latest 'get even richer quicker' scheme that has come to light is MPs buying the properties they use as out-of-Wellington electoral offices then billing us for the rent. Some properties are owned directly by MPs while other properties are held by pension funds or companies that the MPs own.

This little exercise in self-enrichment has allowed the various MPs to accrue substantial capital gains.

One such MP diligently working this loophole is Minister of Housing Phil Heatley. He charges us $15,000 rent on his Whangarei electoral office through one of several companies he owns. This is on top of $1000 a week he receives to house himself and his family in his ministerial residence. He is also receiving $355 a week on a flat he owns in Wellington which is rented to National MP Louise Upston. The rent is therefore paid for by us.

Other MP's renting back their electoral offices to us are National MP's Gerry Brownlee, Nick Smith, Amy Adams and Aaron Gilmore and Labour MP Stuart Bash

Even the Prime Minister is at it. He is receiving rent for his Helensville electoral offices. The property which was bought in 2002 for $245,000 but was valued in 2007 at $510,00.

Of course we are a stuck with a democracy which allows us to vote once every three years for MPs who then go away and do pretty much what they like. There is no real mechanism available that can hold 'our representatives' to account. We get to pick our oligarchs once every three years, and they get to do whatever they want in the intervening period. Its not much of a deal and it means the buggers can screw the system for everything they can possibly get.

True democracy requires that all elected officials are directly responsible to those they represent. They should be able to be immediately replaced if they go against our wishes. And they should receive an income equal to the average wage nationally.

I can imagine some people saying that this is not 'realistic'. Well, its worth remembering that MPs salaries were once linked to the salary of a deputy school principal. Over time the MPs worked the system to gradually inflate their salaries - and it was rubberstamped every time by the Renumeration Authority.

Of course its all very well saying that MPs need to be held to account but it can be difficult finding out what the MPs are up to in the first place. As Bill English has shown us they can be very evasive when they want to be - which is most of the time.

The machinery of government effectively becomes the private property of each batch of MPs and what they do with it is often hidden behind a veil of secrecy.

While many of us have often called for companies to open their accounts so we can see just where all the money is going, it can equally apply to the state.

We should also be demanding full transparency and we have long way to go before we will ever achieve that.

PSYCHIC BABBLE


Television New Zealand has descended to new levels of lunacy.

Unbelievably it sent Sensing Murder medium Deb Webber to 'assist' the family of Aisling Symes just two days after the little girl went missing.

The Sensing Murder television series which debuted in 2006, follows psychics like Webber who 'attempt' to solve unsolved police cases.

The psychics have never solved any of the twenty cases they have investigated. But its a lucrative trade 'talking' to dead people. Webber charges as much as $400 for a two hour session. She likes staying in the public eye because it means more business for her.

Webber begins a nationwide New Zealand tour today - tickets are $70 each.

The fraudulent nature of the show has greatly concerned Wanaka resident Stuart Landsborough. He has put up $100,000 and challenged the Sensing Murder psychics to undergo a test devised by him to prove actual psychic ability. The producers of the show have declined to participate.

The show was exposed on a 2007 episode of Eating Media Lunch, in a section called Sensing Bullshit, which showed footage from the Australian TV show Caught on Hidden Camera where Deb Webber answered questions about someone who didn't exist - namely the fictional sister of the presenter.

It was further lampooned in the season finale, where host Jeremy Wells humorously highlighted the fact that not a single case had been solved.

Yes, its all nonsense and something no sane person would touch with a barge pole. But according to TVNZ spin doctor Andi Brotherston, a supporter of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, TVNZ was 'just being human'.

"We are just being human by ringing a family friend and asking if they want the medium's contact details. After the family friend said they would be interested in talking to her all we did was facilitate the exchange of contact details."

Just 'being human'? Well, Webber apparently appeared on TV1's Breakfast yesterday and told Paul Henry that she thought the little girl was dead.

Brotherston neglected to mention that TVNZ News have been filming Webber as she 'assists' the distraught Symes family.

Also worthy of note is that the new series of Sensing Murders is scheduled to appear on TVNZ later this year.

MORE COURT TIME FOR HENDO


Dave has a long history of success in business and real estate. He has proven to be a strong leader for the company and has facilitated the impressive growth of the company over the past seven years. (Property Ventures website.)

Struggling Christchurch property developer Dave Henderson will be back in court again next February. This time, just for a change, its not about winding up yet another one of his companies.

Henderson appeared in court yesterday at a hearing to make arrangements for a judge alone trial.

Hendo will be defending three charges laid under the Financial Reporting Act.

The charges relate to Henderson’s company Property Ventures, for the year to March 31, 2008, and allege that he failed to meet reporting deadlines.

Meanwhile, a regular reader of this blog has raised some interesting questions about a former Henderson property - the old Sydenham school grounds on the corner of Colombo and Brougham Streets.

This was one of the five properties that the Christchurch City Council bought from Hendo.

Hendo began developments on the site but, as his financial problems mounted, work came to a grinding halt.

'Declarity' writes: 'The only building to begin was a couple of monstrous two-storey tilt slabs covering part of the lovely old Post Office facade (now Blue Jean Cuisine). I saw last week that they had been taken down (no small task). Presumably a safety concern rather than a blow for aesthetics. Since the site is now owned by "us", I assume we paid for this de-construction. '

And, as 'Declarity' points out, the council is forking out additional money simply to pay for the upkeep of all five properties.

Fabulous. Thanks to Mayor Sideshow Bob and councillors like Sue Wells and Barry Corbett, the good citizens of Christchurch are saddled with five over-valued buildings that continue to depreciate while, at the same time, even more money is being spent just to maintain them.

I think this is called throwing good money after bad.

DUMB TELEVISION


According to Maori radio presenter Dale Husband it'll be great if Maori Television gets the free to air rights to the World Cup Rugby rights because it'll mean that Maori TV will be right up there, competing with the big boys. Yes, we can be big fat media capitalists too!

And I thought Maori Television was a small public broadcaster with largely non-commercial objectives, namely promoting Maori culture and language. When did its public service mandate transform into a desire to be a major commercial operator?

To compete with the big boys the Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples has given his blessing for Te Puni Kokiri to sink up to $3 million into Maori Television to support its bid for the free-to-air rights to broadcast the Cup.

For a station that only transmits to 86 percent of all households, the Maori party and its allies in the Maori media had to put up a convincing case on why spending millions on rugby broadcasting rights would be just fantastic for ordinary Maori, many of them at the sharp end of the neoliberal economic policies that Sharples and the Maori party support.

They haven't done that. I've heard Sharples waffle vaguely about the 'benefits' for the country and for 'Maori business' but he sounded like a Minister who hadn't done his homework before jumping into this particular media maul, boots and all.

Sharples didn't even bother to consult Prime Minister Key or the cabinet before approving this bid. This is extraordinary. Where was Jonathan Coleman, the Minister of Broadcasting, while Sharples was talking with the executives at Maori TV? How come he wasn't in the loop? Is being a Maori Party MP mean you have a licence to be a loose cannon?

And why hasn't John Key stepped into prevent public money being spent on this misconceived bid? Perhaps he's hoping that his public disapproval will be enough to kneecap the bid. Even so Key looks like a leader allowing the tail to wag the dog. And, to use Bill English's phrase, that's 'not a good look'.

If Maori TV wants to take on the big media players then it should use its own money. Its just unacceptable that public money should be used to secure a commercial event, especially when that money could be used to benefit ordinary Maori in more direct and immediate ways. Its a shame, that despite appearances to the contrary, Maori TV just wants to ape the Sky TVs of this world.



Breakfast TV is often the place to be when you want to see really bad/stupid/offensive television. Many of those moments have involved TV1's Paul Henry but, this time, its the other lot on TV3's Sunrise.

A large chunk of the show which I saw today was used to promote an inane contest where competitors have to keep their hands stuck on a Suzuki car and the last man/woman standing wins the car.

This is happening in five Suzuki dealerships throughout out the country with twenty 'lucky Kiwis' participating at each location.

This competition is of such staggering news significance that we were 'treated' to countless and extensive 'reports' from the various venues. Sunrise co-host Carly Flynn - out on location somewhere - was all excited and bubbly about the stupid competition but her colleague Oliver Driver - hiding away in the studio - looked less than happy with the whole affair. He looked uncomfortable and faintly embarrassed. Perhaps he was under the impression he was supposed to be co-hosting a proper news show but had wandered on to the set of Deal Or No Deal? by mistake.

The most pathetic moment - and there were a lot of them - was when Driver had to cut off political commentator Linda Clark mid-sentence in order to, yes, go to yet another hot report from the competition where nothing new had happened since the last report but we were informed, yet again, that the 'fantastic competitors' were all competing for a Suzuki car. Did you get that? A SUZUKI car!

WAR CRIMES AND THE CULT OF THE IDIOT



THE GHOST
Robert Harris (Arrow)

Quite by chance, I was about two-thirds through this novel when the film director Roman Polanski was arrested on a historical rape charge. He had just completed shooting the big budget film version of The Ghost. It's likely that Polanski will be doing jail time in the not too distant future so this may possibly be his last film. Polanski is 76.

Anyway this is my excuse for reviewing a novel that was first published in 2007, although the paperback edition didn't appear until last year.

I liked Harris's other political thrillers - Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel - and although I don't think The Ghost is quite as strong as those novels, its still a good read. Harris is a clever writer who is at ease with the conventions of the commercial thriller.

What makes The Ghost interesting that the central character, former British Prime Minster Adam Lang - is clearly Tony Blair by any other name.

This allows Harris to take a fair number of swipes at a former Labour Prime Minister he obviously loathes - particularly his role in sending the British military into Iraq, his subservience to the Bush administration and his role in the illegal imprisonment and torture of so-called 'terrorist suspects'. Harris thinks that Blair should be charged with war crimes.

Says one character: 'There was a time when princes taking their countries to war were supposed to risk their live sin battle - you know, lead by example. Now they travel around in bomb proof cars with armed bodyguards and make fortunes thousands of miles away , while the rest of us are stuck with the consequences of their actions.'

Harris condemns Blair for allowing the Bush administration to dictate British foreign policy and, in this novel at least, the CIA were closer to the seat of British political power than anyone knew. As this is the trademark Harris 'surprise twist', I will say no more.

As an aside Harris also fires a few salvoes at the publishing industry - which like most of the corporate media -is continuing its descent to new levels of dumbness.

Says a disillusioned editor: 'Tell me, when did it become fashionable to be stupid? That's the thing I really don't understand. the Cult of the Idiot. The Elevation of the Moron. Our two biggest-selling novelists - the actress with the big tits and ex-army psycho - have never written a word of fiction, did you know that?'

I'm writing this review a few days after it was reported that Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, has 'completed' her memoirs just four months after she signed a publishing contract. She didn't write a word of her 'memoirs' - it was all 'ghosted' for her by some hired hack.

'Governor Palin has been unbelievably conscientious and hands-on at every stage, investing herself deeply and passionately in this project," Jonathan Burnham, of Harper Collins told the media this week.

Unbelievably the 'autobiography' is already at the top of the US bestseller lists on the strength of advance sales.

'The Cult of the Idiot'? You bet!

CHARLES DARWIN: RELUCTANT REVOLUTIONARY


While Darwin's science was revolutionary, Darwin himself was not. Ian Angus examines the politics of evolution.

In 1846, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The German Ideology, the first mature statement of what became known as historical materialism. This passage was on the second page: “We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here….”

At the last minute, they deleted that paragraph from the final draft, deciding not even to mention a subject they had no time to investigate and discuss properly.

What the founders of scientific socialism couldn’t have known was that a compelling materialist explanation of the history of nature had already been written by an English gentleman who had no sympathy for socialism. They couldn’t read that account, because the author, Charles Darwin, was so shocked by the implications of his own ideas that he kept them secret for twenty years.

Darwin’s views on evolution were fully developed by 1838, and he wrote, then hid away, a 50,000 word essay on the subject in 1844. But he didn’t publish what Marx was to call his “epoch-making work” until 1859.

DARWIN'S INSIGHT

Others had speculated about evolution before Charles Darwin, but the dominant view in scientific circles and society at large was that all the different types of plants and animals were created by God, and that the various species were forever fixed. The few who believed that species had changed over time couldn’t explain those changes without resort to the supernatural — that evolution was God’s long-term plan, or that some force (God by another name) caused nature to strive towards perfection.

What made Darwin’s work unique was not his assertion that evolution was a fact, but his entirely materialist explanation of how all of life’s wonderful variations and designs had come to be. He argued that the main factor in evolution is “natural selection,” a process that can be summarized simply.

1. All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive.

2. There are many differences between the individual members of any species.

3. Variations that increase individuals’ chances of surviving to reproduce are likely to be passed on to the next generation.

4. As a result, over long periods of time, such favourable characteristics will spread through the population, while harmful characteristics will decline, so the population as a whole will increasingly be better adapted to its environment.

5. If part of the population finds itself in a different environment, it will change in different ways, and those diverging changes can eventually lead to the development of separate species.

This simple and elegant concept took the evidence most commonly used to defend creationism — the seemingly perfect design of plants and animals — and explained it by natural processes. In the words of twentieth century evolutionist Ernst Mayr, Darwin “replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. … Darwin’s explanation that all things have a natural cause made the belief in a creatively superior mind quite unnecessary.”

DARWIN'S DELAY
Darwin’s theory was entirely materialist at a time when materialism wasn’t just unpopular in respectable circles, it was considered subversive and politically dangerous. Between 1838 and 1848, while he was working out his ideas, England was swept by an unprecedented wave of mass actions, political protests and strikes. Radical ideas —materialist, atheistic ideas — were infecting the working class, leading many to expect (or fear) revolutionary change.

Darwin was never actively involved in politics, but he was a privileged member of the wealthy middle class and that class was under attack. As John Bellamy Foster writes, “Darwin was a strong believer in the bourgeois order. His science was revolutionary, but Darwin was not.”

Rather than risk being identified with the radicals, Darwin set evolution aside, and devoted the next years to writing a popular account of his voyage around the world, two scientific books on coral reefs and volcanic islands, and an exhaustive four-volume study of barnacles. Only in the mid-1850s, when his scientific reputation was assured, and the social turbulence of the 1840s was clearly over, did he return to the subject he is now most famous for.

Even then he would likely have delayed into the next decade had not a younger naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, sent him an essay containing ideas virtually identical to his own, in June 1858. Pressed by friends to publish first, Darwin set aside “the big book on species” he had barely begun, and quickly wrote a much shorter one — On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It was published in November 1859.

Brilliantly argued, and written to be understood by non-scientists, Origin was an instant best-seller. The publisher printed 1,250 copies but received orders for 1,500 copies on the first day. A second edition of 3,000 copies followed in a few weeks, and four more editions in the next ten years: some 110,000 copies were sold in England alone by the end of the century.

While Darwin’s ideas were quickly accepted by many scientists, especially younger ones, they were roundly condemned by the scientific establishment and by religious leaders. Again and again the critics raised two related arguments: that natural selection excluded any role for God; and, that although Darwin had cautiously avoided the subject, human beings must also be products of natural selection. Both ideas were blasphemous; both would undermine the existing social order.

Even among scientists who rejected Biblical literalism and agreed with much of Darwin’s argument, there were many who insisted that God had to be part of the explanation, as the guiding force of evolution or as the divine source of the human soul and intelligence. Some used that view to defend their own reactionary and racist prejudices: for example, that God had created blacks and whites as separate species.

WORKING CLASS SUPPORT

The discussion of Darwin’s book wasn’t limited to scientists and clergymen. At fifteen shillings, several days’ pay for a skilled craftsman, The Origin of Species was too expensive to be found in many workers’ homes, but groups of radical workers in several cities took up collections to buy one copy that could be passed around.

One of Darwin’s closest collaborators, Thomas Huxley, organized a series of very well attended public lectures on evolution for working men in London. In those talks, which were subsequently published as a popular pamphlet, Huxley had no hesitation in defending a key point Darwin only hinted at in Origin, that humans too are a product of natural selection and share common ancestors:

“there is no evidence whatever for saying that mankind sprang originally from any more than a single pair; I must say, that I cannot see any good ground whatever, or even any tenable sort of evidence, for believing that there is more than one species of Man.”

Karl Marx attended several of Huxley’s lectures and encouraged his political associates to do likewise. His friend and comrade Wilhelm Liebknecht later recalled that “when Darwin drew the conclusions from his research work and brought them to the knowledge of the public, we spoke of nothing else for months but Darwin and the enormous significance of his scientific discoveries.”

Friedrich Engels obtained one of the first 1,250 copies of The Origin of Species: he wrote to Marx that it was “absolutely splendid.” Marx agreed, but that did not mean that they were uncritical. They disliked Darwin’s “clumsy English style of argument,” and ridiculed his positive references to Malthus. Since they were not themselves biologists, they didn’t take sides in the highly contentious debate on whether natural selection or some other natural process was the principal driver of evolution: in his strong defense of Darwin in Anti-Duhring (1877), Engels wrote, and Darwin would surely have agreed:

“The theory of evolution itself is however still in a very early stage, and it therefore cannot be doubted that further research will greatly modify our present conceptions, including strictly Darwinian ones, of the process of the evolution of species.”

What he and Marx most admired about Darwin was his demonstration that nature has a history. Again in Anti-Duhring:

“Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically … she does not move in the eternal oneness of a perpetually recurring circle, but goes through a real historical evolution. In this connection, Darwin must be named before all others. He dealt the metaphysical conception of Nature the heaviest blow by his proof that all organic beings, plants, animals, and man himself, are the products of a process of evolution going on through millions of years.”

The insight that Marx and Engels had written and then deleted in 1846 — that the history of nature and the history of men are inseparable and dependent on one another — was confirmed by The Origin of Species. In it they found a materialist explanation of nature’s history to complement their materialist explanation of human history. Darwin’s work was, as Marx wrote in 1861, “the basis in natural history for our own view.”

A TRUIMPH FOR HUMANITY
It is a testimony to Darwin’s commitment to scientific truth that, once he overcame his reluctance to publish his ideas, he devoted the rest of his life to defending them against some of the most influential opinion leaders of his day. By the time he died in 1882, the fact of evolution was almost universally accepted in the scientific community.

Subsequent research has deepened our understanding of evolution — it has also confirmed Darwin’s conviction that natural selection plays a key role. Above all, Darwin’s commitment to materialist explanations of natural phenomena has triumphed. No modern scientist, not even one with deep religious convictions, would suggest that “then a miracle happened” is an acceptable explanation for any natural phenomenon, including the origins, immense variety and constantly changing nature of life on our planet.

This materialist victory in science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. For that reason alone, no matter what his hesitations, delays or middle class prejudices, Charles Darwin deserves to be remembered and honoured by everyone who looks forward to the ending of superstition and ignorance in all aspects of life.

The idea that “nature does not just exist, but comes into being and passes away” (Engels) is just as revolutionary, and just as important to socialist thought, as the idea that capitalism doesn’t just exist, but came into being at a given time, and it too will pass away in the future.

Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism (www.climateandcapitalism.com) and an associate editor of Socialist Voice (www.socialistvoice.ca)
This article is taken from Socialist Resistance

Suggestions for further reading.

* The best short overview of Darwin’s life and ideas is A Brief Guide to Charles Darwin, His Life and Times, by Cyril Aydon (Constable & Robinson, 2002).
* Chapter Six of John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (Monthly Review 2000) is essential reading on the relationship between Marxism and Darwinism.
* John Bellamy Foster’s latest book, Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present, was not yet available when I wrote this article, but having read his previous works, I have no hesitation in recommending it.
* Ernst Mayr’s What Evolution Is (Basic Books, 2001) isn’t light reading, but it is a superb presentation of modern evolutionary theory for non-scientists.
* Finally, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species may be the only great work of science that is also a work of literature. The Penguin edition includes a good introduction by historian J.W. Burrow, and is widely available.

FOR SALE: A BIG HOLE IN THE GROUND


Despite silly stories in the media about the recession being 'over', none of the economic news suggests that all.

Take troubled finance company Hanover Finance for instance. Once hailed as an example of 'New Zealand's new creativity and entrepreneurship' - which is how TVNZ once described the finance company - it has just given its poor investors an update on the current state of the New Zealand property market.

The news is bad. According to Hanover, the property market has continued to move 'in a negative direction' over the past three months. It says that assets are proving difficult to sell.

Also of interest is that Hanover has told its less than happy investors that it is also having difficulty recovering loans because of the collapse of the property market.

Hanover Finance lent Dave Henderson some $70 million for his ludicrous village project near Queenstown.

All that remains of Hendo's folly is a big hole. Hanover are trying to sell the land but are not exactly being swamped with offers.

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