- Jeremy Agar


by Sam Mahon, Flying Brick Publications, Waikari, 2011

Not long ago Sam Mahon published “The Water Thieves”, an eloquent and entertaining exposé of North Canterbury’s water woes. His final chapter then was a “Letter to Franzi”, a Swiss friend with whom he had explored the rivers of New Zealand, especially those of the Hurunui catchment. This time round, Mahon dedicates his whole book to Franzi as he updates the story. For several compelling reasons, it’s well worth a read. Dairy mania means that agribusiness wants more water from the rivers, some of which already run dry. Mahon looks at the battle between Big Dairy and other farmers, recreationalists and those who just wish the wild rivers - some of them at least - be left alone. Mahon is very much of the latter group, the case for whom he makes powerfully. 

Central Plains Water Scheme

Just to the south an even bigger battle was building. The Central Plains Water (CPW) scheme plans to divert water from the Waimakariri and the Rakaia, the two biggest braided rivers in Canterbury, to irrigate a huge area of the central plains, back to the foothills, all in the name of the “public good”. The original plan aimed to store water behind a dam. That was toned down and since then the project’s gone back behind closed doors. Opponents explain the several issues. There’s the obvious one of who owns the water and how that is decided, and whether irrigators should be charged, and, if so, how the price would be set. There’s the question of justifying one use of water by privileging it over other claims. We’re not talking about one of those win/win situations that lobbyists like to prattle about. It’s very much a win/lose scenario. Cows win; anglers, kayakers, jet boaters, native flora and fauna lose. Christchurch’s presently pristine water, some suspect, could be compromised. These are public goods?

The Christchurch and Selwyn Councils thought so, backing the scheme in the name of their ratepayers. There are only a handful of small farms in Christchurch (a city), so their motivation is not as clear as is Selwyn’s in the heart of dairy country, where one councillor declared a conflict as he was a shareholder in CPW, and another as his family owned one of the farms that would benefit. It’s a dangerous route to take in an intimate little country run on Keysian* principles of deregulating controls which are in the public interest - while re-regulating a tight set of procedures to enable privatisation (*Keysian: a Government run by a former money speculator always looking for a deal so his mates can make a swift buck. Besides draining Canterbury for cows, Keysian economics seeks to scrape Buller for coal and Southland for lignite, dam rivers for electricity, and frack all over for oil).

As Mahon remarks, the official assumption behind deregulation is that it’s in the selfish interests of producers (in this case farmers) to respect the environment so they need to be good stewards of the land. But farmers have been mythologised. As a country we want to believe that Southern Man strides the back country with love in his heart, and we want to believe that Pinetree is solid as. It’s an article of Kiwi faith that the good keen men would do just fine and make us all rich if only the townies and bureaucrats would get off their backs. 

Popular media around the world like farmers because we like the countryside and we like to eat. For comparable reasons they regularly tell their consumers that firefighters and nurses are trusted and that lawyers, politicians and car salesmen are not trusted (thanks to improved technology, car mechanics, plumbers and TV repairmen have come to escape the halls of shame). We should keep this sort of stuff, this playing on historic stereotypes, in the entertainment section, not, as in NZ, base Government policy on it. A less trivial approach would see farmers as no different from any other occupational group which depends on a limited resource. If a river flows through your farm and your paddocks are dry, you’ll want some of its water. There’s no use holding back, you’ll tell yourself, because if you don’t take what you see as your fair share, the other blokes certainly will (more on the tyranny of stereotypes in the review below of “Coal and the Coast”. For a discussion of “the tragedy of the commons”, see my review of books to do with climate change in Watchdog 124, August 2010, especially “Storms Of My Grandchildren” by James Hansen and “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Patel, both online at

Privatising The Commons

There’s a second fundamental misunderstanding involved. The neo-liberal theory which postulates the virtues of a free hand does not in fact say that it’s in the interests of capitalists to be nice. It says that they might well be rogues, but that doesn’t matter as the search for profit will guarantee that they make things we want and at a low price. In the case of dairying in New Zealand that involves a near-monopoly commodity whose price is set by global demand. The sole imperative is to produce as much milk as possible at the lowest possible cost. Local sensitivities and economies are not factored in. If a river is in the commons and it can make you rich and its use is not controlled, it will be abused by some. If, that is, local democracy allows it.

It takes an arrivée from outside to put NZ agriculture in perspective. Ann Brower, a US scholar at Lincoln University, discusses hegemony, the name for a concept that others have called “soft power”. Hegemony is influence, and in NZ few pressure groups have as much of that as Federated Farmers. It’s not so much money or brainpower or their potential votes that make governments listen to the famers’ union. The cockies have benefitted from our national folklore so that we think they’re indispensable, and, as primary produce remains the main source of the country’s wealth, in one obvious sense they are. In Brower’s formulation “their power is so strong that it changes your desires and interests. It shapes what you want”. 

Philip Joseph, a constitutional lawyer, explains that what the dairy farmers wanted should have been too big an ask. When the Government sacked the elected councillors of Environment Canterbury (ECan), the regional council, in 2010, and replaced them with appointed commissioners, conventional principles of jurisprudence were swept away. Ostensibly the elected councillors were sent packing because they weren’t getting the job done. Really it was all about making sure the farmers would get all the irrigation they wanted. Joseph tells Mahon that the coup, which ignored existing regional policy and the local district plan, should have been illegal. Law can’t change existing rules and needs to set out general principles rather than specific instances, but the ECan law was retrospective and singled out one river, the Hurunui.

Joseph reaches back into the misty British past to find a parallel, referring to a Henry V111 clause, Henry being the king who had to keep changing the rules so he could find new reasons he could behead his wives: “Regulations ... enable the Minister to pick and choose what law will or will not apply to the commissioners. These regulations may suspend the operation of specific provisions of the Resource Management Act”. We’ve had to become accustomed to neo-liberalism’s habit of shifting goalposts. Nick Smith, the then Minister of Local Government, took it one stage further. He was moving them in the middle of the game when his team was about to kick a penalty.

He did so on sketchy evidence. Joseph deems most of those interviewed in order to “justify” the coup to have been “farmers or aggrieved councillors and frustrated developers” who provided vague anecdotal evidence to back up their claim that they could never get a fair deal from elected councillors. This seems to be the normal way of doing things these days. Witness the machinations of the Productivity Commission as it seeks to throw out already fragile rules on the workings of ports, airports and town planning (see my article, “The Productivity Commission Is The Latest Name For Rogernomics: The Taliban Of New Zealand Capitalism”, in Watchdog 128, December 2011,

It couldn’t happen in most sophisticated democracies. Federal systems deliberately diffuse power and the unitary UK, whose system we most obviously follow, has a complex set of precedents and conventions. NZ’s version of Parliamentary sovereignty is in fact, in Geoffrey Palmer’s words, an elected dictatorship. Essentially the Government in Wellington can do what it wants (yet Rogernomic politicians want to chuck out MMP, the only fig leaf covering its naked power.) The attitudes and behaviours on display have been entirely predictable. On the one side, developers and agribusiness have local councils lined up; on the other side, people struggle to preserve their homes and their heritage. This might sound simplistic, too much a morality tale, but when a scheme to build a big dam just above a town in order to flood Farmer A’s existing farm so that Farmer B might get a lot more water is said to be in the “public good” we’re in trouble. Nothing about the Central Plains scheme is about the public and not much is likely to be good. It’s to enrich private dairy agribusiness, which needs maximum production. But why, in a society with values of moderation and fairness, do the big players always seem to get whatever they want? Why has the word ‘public’ come to mean “private”? 

It’s because of hegemony. The importance of farming in the history of NZ is so obvious that it’s not too much to say that it’s the reason Europeans came here, and it’s why they stayed. Like Australia, we were even known in some quarters as “Britain’s farm”. Historically, governments regarded the interests of famers as identical to the interests of the exporting nation, and big capital projects like the railways and the roading network served primary, extractive industry. As a pioneering venture, NZ needed to cut down trees and put up fences, and elite opinion didn’t linger over fine distinctions between private need and the public interest.

Farmers have successfully fostered their mystique as put upon stoical heroes, but like the rest of the economy, the country’s agriculture has been a team effort. Good luck provided the climate and the land that were ideal for temperate zone farming; technology provided refrigeration, enabling meat exports; politics created guaranteed markets for the meat; science  provided ever more productive seeds, fertilisers and controls of disease; workers drove the trucks and trains, and sheared the sheep; councils maintained rural roads. As a country, we should have progressed beyond pioneering notions. When the first European settlers topped the Port Hills, they saw marshes, so if they were to make a go of the new land, they had to drain them. The next job was to make the alien land more like home, so they introduced gorse and broom, stoats and rabbits, and all the hundreds of plants and animals that, with more knowledge, we now know to have been a mistake.

Beyond the swampy plains, the Southern Alps were a nuisance, of no economic use, and, until gold was discovered on the West Coast, they formed a barrier that the east coast settlers had no wish to cross.  Early maps depict a blank space covering much of the South Island as “The Waste Lands”. Mahon also sees a wasteland, but for him it’s what has resulted from the 21st Century culmination of the drive to make the land “productive” for cows by giving them much more of Canterbury’s remaining water: 

“Yes, legally they took it from us, legally it stands, 
that the water from our rivers flows abundantly through private hands. 
And turns the Corporate wasteland into cattle feed and milk,
so a New York banker’s whore can lay her body down on silk  ...”

(he could have lost the last line, which reads as though lifted from a generic song sheet of the early 20th Century Wobblies, [the International Workers of the World], the American radical union confederation. Mahon’s prose is surer: always fresh and never hackneyed).  

Ideological HQ Of Canterbury Agribusiness

In the heart of Selwyn, Lincoln University, like Massey in Palmerston North, has traditionally been a centre for agricultural research, and while over the decades it’s done massive amounts to benefit the national economy, it seems these days to act as the ideological headquarters of Canterbury agribusiness. Its hegemonic position induces local elites to suppose that what’s good for cockies (who are in fact being replaced by agribusiness) must be what’s good for NZ. A footnote here: I remember in a social context asking a Lincoln professor about the designation of CPW as a “public good”. Yes, of course, he replied, it would boost the economy and that’s good for everyone. He was unaware that there might be an alternative view.   

But in Brower’s case, there were overt threats and attempts to ruin her career. One Lincoln hack let it be known that Brower was unworthy of Canterbury, having been “contaminated” by her native and “socialist” (sic) USA. We’re not talking soft power. Leaked documents revealed that aspects of the CPW project were being kept secret as there would be an adverse public reaction if ratepayers knew what was being planned. The privatising ideologues in their nominally public institution were keen to make it look that if things went awry the councils (which would then revert to being dumb public institutions) could be blamed.

The final sentence of Mahon’s introduction states that his “book is designed as a portrait gallery of those who continue to abstract, partition and deliver by stealth the commons into private hands”. In this it succeeds admirably, providing sharp and amusing detail. It’s not surprising that a sculptor who renders politicians alive from cowpats or dead from gunshot is not going to sketch the privatisers kindly. They’re used to it. But what’s unusual in a book to do with politics is the breezy way that the narration provides personal detail about his mates. The people involved will be known only locally and then not widely, and for those not up to speed with North Canterbury environmental issues, the names won’t register. This doesn’t matter. It’s in fact a virtue, the essence of Mahon’s novelistic method. Good art - and good reporting - reveals the universal by observing specifics.

Some might find Mahon indiscreet, and more than once he quotes friendly witnesses to the effect that he lacks the quality called “credibility” - a gauche term that Mahon himself would never employ. You feel that Mahon is not being self-deprecating in the usually prescribed manner, but that he relishes being unacceptable to the usual suspects. He’s not a systems man, let alone a politician. He’s first and foremost an artist, and if conventional opinion sees him as being a tad emotional he’ll take that as a compliment. So he should. His descriptions of his favourite rivers are lyrically evocative. Language of Mahon’s power and conviction would never be acceptable to an officialdom bent on bureaucratising experience. Clear language is too truthful. It does not allow for the evasion, the pretence of good manners that has enabled the pillage. There’s a minor downside to Mahon’s method. He could use an editor, not to tamper with the author’s distinctive voice, but to impose a conventional use of capital letters and the spelling of people and places. When some on his enemies list are misspelt it looks like cheap shots, but, no, it’s just that he’s impatient. Mahon surely has no quarrel with Fairley (Fairlie) or Lyttleton (Lyttelton).  


A Reflection On The Pike River Disaster

by Paul Maunder, Canterbury University Press, 2012

In the years after European migration began in earnest, from about 1840, New Zealand existed as a source of raw materials for the Mother Country, the economy being designed to grow wool or meat or milk for the industrial workers of Britain. NZ’s cities were seen as service centres for primary industries. The real economy was elsewhere. Wealth was generated on the land.  And under it. Just as Taranaki or Waikato meant cows, and Canterbury meant lambs, the West Coast meant coal, and coal meant dirty, dangerous work in dim tunnels. All of New Zealand might have been one big exercise in extracting natural resources, but other provinces could pretend to some urban sophistication. Not the Coast. That was unremittingly working class, hand-to-mouth, day-to-day territory. No squatters rode into Greymouth for a concert or a ball (see my review above of Sam Mahon’s “Franzi And The Great Terrain Robbery” for a look at how this theme still plays out over the Main Divide - with dairy having replaced wool as the power product). 

This was one reason that, in our unreconstructed days, the Coast was the butt of condescending jokes, a national metaphor for colonial simplicity. Well into the 20th Century, Canterbury sheep men, anxious to cling to the perceived values of Tory England, tended to dismiss Westland as Irish, Catholic, Labour, and usually drunk. And then there’s Blackball. Off a side road, at the end of a cul-de-sac, remote even by Coast standards, Blackball is to Greymouth or Hokitika what Westland is to Canterbury. It should be a ghost town. The mine closed long ago and there’s nothing else doing. There used to be a gold dredge in the nearby river, but the gold’s gone too. 

Tourists probably don’t know it’s there, and if they happen upon the few straggling houses, they might find little to see. There’s the hotel, the Formerly the Blackball Hilton, so named following a legal stoush with the Hilton chain. For New Zealanders, though, Blackball is much more than a quirky village trying to survive. It’s a centre of labour history, one of the few places where we are invited to consider the country’s passage from antipodean outpost to post-modernity. Paul Maunder lives in Blackball, where he’s a driving force behind the recently opened Blackball Museum of Working Class History. It’s there because the mine was a big part of forging impulses like the Labour Party and trade unionism.  Blackball was where the 1908 “crib time” strike won workers the right to a semi-decent lunch break.    

Maunder has sub-titled his discussion of life in Westland, “A reflection on the Pike River disaster”, which occurred a few minutes down the road. Because lots of analysis was coming out in the media around publication time, Maunder doesn’t repeat details about the disaster itself. Neither does he elaborate at length on the early labour history. They’re smart choices, as they allow him to avoid repeating what informed readers would already know. Instead he uses his vantage point to chat about the social context. The lessons from PIke River will be many. They await a later review.

He detects two crucial historical influences. Migrants came to NZ to escape the restrictions of a cramped and rigid class society. We liked to think we were neither masters nor servants and getting on typically meant a block of land or a small business. The other strand is what historian James Belich has called the “crew culture” of what happens when gangs of men working in isolation hit town. In Maunder’s view this is “a sub-proletariat without the developing working class consciousness of ... workers in factories and mines, or on the wharves and railways”.  The crews might get mad as hell from time to time but they weren’t about to develop an alternative to the rule of the boss. 

Class Consciousness

Coal enabled a class consciousness - the ability to see the economy’s structure through the eyes of a worker rather than being trapped in a “crew culture” mode which is limited to reacting to exploitative forces. Mining was skilled, and many miners were recent migrants from the UK, where such a culture already existed. In the Blackballs of the world, isolated villages where there was just the one industry, communities could realise the elusive ideal of solidarity. Another advantage of Maunder’s choice of residence has been the way it’s allowed him to observe at first hand what happens once the mines shut down. In Blackball, it’s been a clash of cultures as “hippies and their nubile women” arrived in search of cottage industries and cheap housing. Remaining miners were confounded by “feminists and Maori (who) accused them of patriarchy and colonialism”. It’s been a typical pattern, as Old Left, New Left, Ex-Left and Post-Left struggled to appreciate each other.

As a writer, theatre director and film maker with a fondness for French post-Marxist philosophy, Maunder admits to occasional incidents of cultural misunderstanding, and you get the feeling there might have been lots more. There wouldn’t be many in Blackball who come home from a day shooting pigs or firing pots to chew the fat about French philosopher Alain Badiou, but it’s Badiou, with his notion of “multiplicity” - the idea that people can be defined in a variety of ways - who provides Maunder with his theoretical framework. This style of identity politics could be timely in Blackball, where the old industrial homogeneity is precisely what’s become extinct. 

Despite this, Maunder finds a unifying causation for Coastal travails: Rogernomics and neo-liberalism. His discussion of how the resulting deregulation and casualisation of work is the root cause of Westland’s woes is stimulating and largely convincing. The story of the Coast’s alienation, he writes, is a “narrative of betrayal: the closure of the mines, the dishonouring of the forestry accord, the tying up of land in national parks, the closure of schools, a health system in constant crisis, the poaching of talented kids by city schools, a lack of jobs for young people leading to an unbalanced population, and the inevitable battle with conservation groups when development is attempted”.

This skews matters in favour of “old” Blackball, as against “new” Blackball, in part because the town didn’t take kindly to Labour PM Helen Clark’s opinion that Coasters were a “feral” bunch. This scratching of old wounds might explain why, in the course of a longish and unattributed quotation, Maunder includes without comment the accusation that the Clark government’s move to preserve native forest was motivated by the need to appease “northern city electorates”. This coded attack on townies, especially if they’re Aucklanders, endorses more tired old insults from the bad old days, but it’s closer to “crew culture” than the culture of class consciousness. Surely the one essential for a future Westland is that the misunderstandings between environmental and economic interests, both of whom have tended to view life on the Coast as a zero sum game, is a relic from the earliest days of extraction and exploitation. To borrow a banned phrase from the Clark lexicon, the gap needs closing. 

Focused Planning Is Needed

Better is Maunder’s conclusion: “What is certain is that without focused planning, the Coast is doomed over the next 50 years to the continuing betrayals of any Third World economy, with its valuable resources being exploited by outside capital”.  It’s axiomatic surely, from any progressive viewpoint that the whole country needs to see this. That includes the millions of townies who aren’t too happy with neo-liberalism either. They might be allies after all. Is it time to lose the language of victimhood? A siege mentality won’t help.

As Maunder points out, the Coast’s three “parochial” district councils lost tons of money in some really dumb - you might say “Third World” - investments.  That wasn’t Auckland’s fault - or Clark’s. The Coast is further weakened by its inclusion in an electorate with the more influential Tasman and Golden Bay. Neither does Maunder mind reminding us of the small town spite we’ve seen between Greymouth’s biggest landlord, the Maori-owned Mawhera Incorporation and its tenants, the businesses and residents of Greymouth. 

What of Blackball’s future? Short term, Maunder argues for a continuation of existing mining, though he admits it’s never made the region rich and he knows that miners follow the available work, which for the foreseeable future is going to be in Australia, where they can earn big money. It’s too easy to sympathise with a sentimental wish to maintain an imagined culture of extraction, but one inescapable fact remains: coal burning is killing the planet, and in towns like Blackball, the settlements which embody Coastal traditions, most of the mines were boarded up long ago anyway - though a small operation still continues at Roa, at the end of the road past the town. So why not close the rest of them down now and start thinking seriously about a way of life that’s sustainable for everyone. For a start the old style rhetoric could be deleted. Maunder understands as well as anyone that the environment and the economy must reinforce each other. He’s well placed to join a new conversation.

It’s worth mentioning that both Sam Mahon and Paul Maunder are among the judges of the 2012 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand, as they were for the 2011 Roger Award. Paul Maunder is the 2012 Chief Judge. Ed.


The New Zealand Seamen’s Union 1879-2003

by David Grant,  Canterbury, University Press, 2012

David Grant, a historian with an impressive résumé, has looked long and hard at New Zealand’s labour history, this being his fourth book on the topic. “Jagged Seas” is the history of the Seamen’s Union from its start in 1879 up to 2003 when the Maritime Union of New Zealand was formed by the merging of the Seafarers’ Union with the Waterside Workers Union. It’s a thorough, informed account, essential reading for all interested in trade unions. Working on anything to do with shipping in New Zealand has been a tricky business. With the economy depending on traded commodities, employers have exerted constant pressure to keep freight lines running fast and cheap. Because of the importance of sheep and cows, governments have taken the side of the bosses in any dispute with workers. This holds true obviously for National, “the famers’ party”, and its predecessor, the Reform Party, but also for the Labour Party, unwilling to be seen to be standing in the way of healthy wool or dairy receipts.

In the early years conditions on ships were awful. Grant explains that seamen had limited bargaining power. Being isolated at sea and transitory on shore, chasing work, it was hard to build stable or lasting relationships. With unremitting pressure from the shipping lines and governments, seamen were in a difficult negotiating position. It would always be hard, and it was made all the harder by having to contend with the ups and downs of markets over which the local union had no influence. Grant records the many aspects of life at sea, where ships were infested with rats and cockroaches, and sailors spent weeks crowded aboard with no proper facilities. It was easy to die; either from the ship’s foundering or colliding, by fire or by being swept overboard. Ships were rusted and equipment broken. The coasts were littered with wrecks, the consequence of the freight shippers having the sole objective of conveying cargo across the world as fast as possible at the lowest possible cost. For them the lack of investment in safety measures was positive, a measure of “productivity”. 

“Impracticable & Extravagant”

It all sounds contemporary, the basic needs of ports and shipping lines not having changed. Think Rena or Pike River but without the subsequent demands for someone to be made responsible. In 1893 the Government rejected union proposals for some minimal health and safety measures as “impracticable and extravagant” (anything to get in the way of “productivity” is always impracticable and extravagant). The State backed up the system by imprisoning deserters and drunks (which must have cost something). For a take on how the current Government sees freight productivity, check my article, “The Productivity Commission Is The Latest Name For Rogernomics: The Taliban Of New Zealand Capitalism”, in Watchdog 128, December 2011,

In the circumstances of a century ago the union saw its best choice in taking local political action to rouse public interest in their plight. After an acrimonious and unsuccessful strike, a seaman ran for election in Port Chalmers. Despite a barrage of insults from the likes of the Otago Daily Times, which bewailed the “effrontery”  of  putting up for public office a man “who has been chiefly instrumental in so recently bringing disaster upon the whole community”, John Millar, the union’s first fulltime General Secretary, lost only narrowly.

Millar subsequently won as a Liberal and was in Seddon’s Cabinet. Richard “King Dick” Seddon, an arch pragmatist and populist, has been rated NZ’s most successful Prime Minister as well as the longest serving (1893-1906, dying in office), but despite the progressive legislation associated with his Government, he was no friend of labour. Cut off from his base, Millar veered to the Right as he became an enforcer for Seddon. He ended his career reviled by workers. The movement of union bureaucrats to politics (“to effect change from the inside”) and from reform to reaction was to become a pattern in NZ. 

Grant places the union in its context within the national scene. Three big confrontations shape his account: the strikes of 1890 and 1913, and the 1951 lockout. In none of them did the union movement fare well, but looking back, the setbacks are understandable, given the range of forces arrayed against the seamen. Grant’s assessments of the tensions between the unions, particularly between the seamen and the watersiders, are insightful. His emphases as to the relative importance of his material are well chosen. He’s a reliable guide.  

Partial & Provisional Victories

So much of the story has contemporary echoes. Shipping companies tried to play off local workers against cheaper foreign sailors, knowing that they were on to a sure thing by stirring up racist resentment. One of the union’s memorable achievements has been its record in supporting issues like the fights against apartheid and the Vietnam War and its fostering of international solidarity. One surprisingly early victory was a 1906 ruling that ships in NZ waters had to comply with NZ standards, but the effort to gain NZ control over NZ trading is a continuing story. The 1972-1975 Labour government gave it a shot with its “commercial” mandate to a national shipping line and the union has posted some impressive gains. From the early days of appalling destitution, NZ seamen were by the 1960’s better paid than their European counterparts. 

But overall, victories have been partial and provisional, and sometimes it seems that little has changed from the days of rats and wrecks. A recently as 1993 a moderate negotiation for improved job security of the sort most take for granted was said to exhibit an “outrageous moddycoddling of NZ seamen”. The seas around New Zealand’s coasts have been jagged more often than calm. Grant has charted a sure course through the troubled waters. “Jagged Seas” has an authoritative sense of the general current of maritime history within the context of the country’s wider labour history, all without sacrificing detail. Grant has a sure grasp of his subject. Depending on your perspective, union politics are always going to rouse either passion or boredom, so, despite its quality this book won’t be a best seller. Those who do open it will be rewarded, above all, by its balance and fairness.  

For a brief account of CAFCA’s long working relationship with the former Seamen’s/Seafarers’ Union, specifically the Lyttelton Branch, see “Southern Seafarers Sunk” by Murray Horton in Watchdog 90, April 1999, unbroken working relationship has continued with the Maritime Union of New Zealand (e.g. see the article elsewhere in this issue by MUNZ’s General Secretary Joe Fleetwood.) Ed.


Towards A New Political Economy

 by Gavin Mooney, Zed Books, London and New York, 2012


A Structural Genocide

by Garry Leech, Zed Books, London and New York, 2012

Over the last 20 years 360 million people have died from preventable diseases. That’s a statistic from Gavin Mooney’s monograph on global health policy. In a year Americans spend $US8 billion on cosmetics, Europeans spend $US11 billion on ice cream, and the US and Europe together spend $US17 billion on pet food. These are statistics from Garry Leech’s analysis of global capitalist policy. The $US17 billion would be enough to provide good health care for everyone on Earth. That would allow us to reprieve an annual average of 18 million death sentences, but that money wouldn’t be necessary anyway were the amount equivalent to what Americans spend on cosmetics added to the present miserly sum allocated to providing education and clean water in the developing world. That’s because all the children in the world could be educated for $US6 billion and all the children and their families could have clean drinking water for $US2 billion. Then they wouldn’t be dying in their millions and the rich world could go on lavishing absurd sums on fripperies with a clear conscience.

These books are complementary. Mooney, an economist specialising in health issues, is based in Tasmania; Leech, based in Nova Scotia, a political scientist, is more of a generalist. The grim news of misallocated resources, as revealed in these numbers, could be explained in different ways, but Mooney and Leech agree on the cause. It is capitalism, or more precisely, neo-liberalism, an ideology well known in New Zealand, where its current manifestation is seen in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and asset sales.

Extreme Capitalism

Neo-liberalism is extreme capitalism, a reversion from the moderating influence of social democratic governments (at least in parts of the world) back to values from the wild days of robber barons and imperialist war, when big money didn’t have to worry about public opinion. The pair also agrees on the United Nations, the source of Leech’s examples. The UN and its health agency, the World Health Organisation, have described the symptoms of an unhealthy global economy well enough but not their cause. The UN has counted the numbers but not the cost, an omission which Mooney says is “astonishing” - but really he knows it’s inevitable. All of the big powers at the UN, and most of the other smaller countries, are devotees of the neo-liberal cult. Only if their eyes are blind will they lift a telescope to look (this was a conclusion I reached in reviewing annual reports of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development [UNCTAD]. For example, see ‘World Investment Report 2002: Transnational Corporations And Export Competitiveness” Watchdog 102, May 2003, This UN Report reads like a briefing paper for the Key government).

Neo-liberal apologists bang on about “growth”, but both authors show that the money is flowing from the poor world to the rich world - as it did in the days of outright colonial exploitation. Besides, it’s not a lack of money in itself that bedevils Africa, Latin America and south Asia. The problem is inequality. Relative differences within societies lead to a loss of autonomy and cohesion. Poorer people in poorer economies lack both wealth (money) and power (influence and control). Violence is an “inherent and permanent” feature of capitalism (Leech), overt in the poor world, if often disguised and indirect in the rich world, where neo-liberalism’s obsession with individualism has induced consumers to chase after ever more lipstick and ice cream. As a system, capitalism requires growth and expansion, which is why our neo-liberal government wants to mine the wilderness and flog off our communal property. 

Inequality and individualism (which has the perverse effect of discouraging difference) are in themselves, a sort of violence, which is why both books advocate for communal and democratic values. That’s where we come to their bottom line (a metaphor from neo-liberalism, which equates happy outcomes with profit on the [im]balance sheet): the more that societies foster equality and local, communal power and wealth, the more healthy they will be. In Mooney’s neat summary, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states talk too much about health care and not enough about health. This is largely because Big Pharma needs to medicalise health in order to make its massive profits, but also because poor people in poor countries can’t pay for expensive drugs. Between 1975 and 1997 just 13 of 1,233 of new health products were for treating poor world tropical diseases, the biggest killers of people.

Big Pharma and Big Food have global reach. Mooney looks at the politer form of their hegemony in Australia and New Zealand, where corporations advise government on food policy. Governments exist to protect citizens; food corporations exist to get money from consumers. By law they exist to maximise profit, so their role must be anti-social. Mooney’s example is fast food and increasing obesity. Fat people bring about fat profits for the fat corporations in the Beehive. Mooney wants fat food ads taxed up to 100%. This would give them an incentive to lower fat content. In other words, neo-liberalism and ill health are causally linked. The one workable solution, writes Mooney, is to “change the rules” so that policy is made by agencies accountable to the public rather than by privateers.

Chasm Between Rich North & Poor South

There’s a chasm between the rich North (which includes NZ) and the poor South. At the culmination of the first great industrial revolution, around 1820, when a poet like William Wordsworth could bemoan his country’s appetite for “getting and spending”, England was - in our terms - a very poor and undeveloped country. The North was then three times better off than the South. Now it is 72 times richer. And the gap is widening at an increasing rate. This is unsustainable, and not just because it is violent, wasteful and immoral. Mooney is right to argue that the biggest health crisis the world faces is climate change (which he calls “global warming”. But there are instances when a hotter planet means local instances of cooler temperatures). Ultimately an increase of a few more degrees will be irreversible, and life as we know it unviable.* Mooney concludes that the only way to avert this fate is to end capitalism, as capitalism needs growth to survive and the profit motive necessitates short-term thinking. That’s more ice cream and more cosmetics.  *See my reviews of five books on the subject, especially “Storms Of My Grandchildren” by James Hansen, in Watchdog 124, August 2010,

Over howls of outrage from the big polluters, who want the public to pay for any clean up, carbon pricing is presently being introduced in Mooney’s Australia. He’s sceptical about the tactic, if only because it will take too long to make much of a difference. Neo-liberals would like nature and all human activity and experience (except carbon) to be tradable commodities, so ice cream and cosmetics are relatively benign examples of rich world consumption. There are many much more wasteful and destructive products out there.   

Yet another convergence between Mooney and Leech is in their examples of an alternative model. Cuba and, more recently, Venezuela, have shown that “Southern” places can have educated and healthy people living in harmonious communities (though if Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez were even braver he might raise the ridiculously low price of petrol). Leech does not include Mooney’s third example, the Indian state of Kerala, but that’s probably because his area of expertise has been Latin America.

Of the two, Mooney might be the better pick. He makes the same essential points as Leech, grounding them in the specifics of health policy. Read Leech if you want a serviceable introduction to current Marxist analysis, a way of thinking that is left implicit in Mooney. Like virtually all progressive observers, both stop there, but for every Fidel Castro or Chavez there are scores of corrupt dictators who abuse their populations and squander their resources. The culpability of the rich exploiters is not in doubt, and it’s not easy for the rest of the world to resist the power of money, missiles and propaganda, but there are stupid and greedy bullies in the South as well and they’re not all helplessly in the grip of history.


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