Wednesday, December 31, 2003

We Wish It Were True, But...

When New Zealand's paper of record (sic) The Herald isn't busily encouraging anti-Asian sentiment, it does find the time to comment on weighty international affairs. Today's editorial on Iraq takes on that tone that newspapers always do at the end of the year, blending a kind of wise survey of history with an attempt at prognostication that in this case misses the mark. The funny thing is that I wouldn't have noticed why the editorial was so perfectly wrong if I hadn't happened to be reading Hardt and Negri's Empire a little later on the evening.

The editorial contends that the invasion of Iraq may have made the world a safer place, not because of the toppling of Saddam, or the removal of the mysterious weapons of mass destruction, but because it has taught the United States a valuable lesson:

Finally, it appears to have dawned on Washington that it has blundered into a quicksand and that it does not have the resources to extricate itself, or to enter lightly into other such adventures.

When I first read the piece, I nodded my head sagely and paused to appreciate the gravitas of the piece. There was a tone of moral remonstrance in the editorial that I couldn't resist. I told you so, the editorialist seemed to be saying. And I agreed with the writer because I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe that the situation in Iraq has taught the mighty U.S. to respect the will of the international community, to resort to diplomacy before war, etc., etc...

Negri and Hardt's work offers an interpretation of the contemporary world order that should give us pause to reconsider the analysis given in The Herald. Their book theorises the new form of global domination in the post-Soviet era as Empire, a "permanent state of emergency and exception justified by the appeal to essential values." Empire can also be characterised as a perfection of capitalism, the contemporary form of which entails the radical extension of control and exploitation into all areas of human life. What is of interest to us here is their analysis of war as a tool of empire. Pointing to the way in which war is both normalised and exceptionalised, they write:

The traditional concept of just war involves the banalization of war and the celebration of it as an ethical instrument, both of which were ideas that modern political thought and the international community of nation-states resolutely refused. These two traditional characteristics have reappeared in our postmodern world . . . Today the enemy, just like war itself, comes to be at once banalized (reduced to an object of routine police suppression) and absolutized (as the Enemy, an absolute threat to the ethical order).

The point is that war is used as a tool to construct ethical consensus by minimalising armed aggression as a police action, while at the same time justifying military action as ethically positive. If it is true that war is a tool of consensus building, then we need to look differently at the ways in which the various national and international actors (France, Britain, the U.N.) have responded to the situation in Iraq. We need to see that the United States has defined a situation of exceptionalism (Iraq as a rogue state) in order to justify military aggression and, having done so, redefined the occupation as a banal police action requiring international co-operation.

It doesn't matter that the U.S. has failed to secure the participation of the leading military powers in the day-to-day business of the occupation. What matters is that, having created a situation of disorder, they have secured the legal framework from the international community for an ongoing police action that serves the interests of Empire.

Hardt and Negri challenge us to understand the contemporary global order beyond the viewpoint of any particular political entity, such as the United States. Whereas the old imperialism was defined by a rivalry between great powers in conflict over the world's undeveloped spaces, the new Imperialism is a dense fabric of production, communication and control, aimed at colonising the totality of human existence. So in terms of the conflict over Iraq, there is in fact more in common between the Western powers than what may appear to separate them. Empire seeks moral legitimation and consensus for its growth through the mechanism of conflict.

All conflicts, all crises, and all dissensions effectively push forward the process of integration and by the same measure call for more central authority. Peace, equilibrium, and the cessation of conflict are the values toward which everything is directed... This preconstituted movement defines the reality of the process of the imperial constitutionalization of world order - the new paradigm.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Off for the Holidays

I'm heading out of town for Christmas, so I wont be posting for a few days. Have a good time, and for Christ's sake, Kiwi, SLOW DOWN!

Friday, December 19, 2003

Read All About It

Te Ope Mana a Tai is an excellent website for understanding the seabed and foreshore from the Maori perspective. It will only get better in the next few days as new material gets posted.

I especially like Ngati Kahungunu's advice to Helen Clark regarding the issue. In an essay called Time - If We Only Had Time Ngati Kahungunu have some gentle words for Clark:

"Don't panic, Helen. Slow down. Breathe through the nose. Don't allow the drunkeness of power or opportunity blind you to proper and fair process. Don't make eunuchs of our Maori MP's. Don't force us to be anti-government and anti-social."

It's the same kind of cool advice that Tapu Misa offered in her excellent column a few days ago.

With all these calm, cool and above all, reflective commentators in the Maori community, who is really looking like the hasty radical?

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Labour's Big Stick in the Sand

Labour’s new seabed and foreshore policy is a fine example of using a rather blunt tool for a very delicate job. While there are many positive elements in the package, the government has resorted to moving unilaterally when it comes to the definition of what Maori rights to the seabed and foreshore might mean. The “proposal” on offer in some respects resembles a very big, clumsy stick, when maybe what we all need right now is a table and two chairs. Oh, and that spirit of partnership that everyone talks about.

I really can't see how Maori could accept this latest government proposal. And as far as I am concerned, anyone in the pakeha community who is serious about fair treatment under the law should make it clear to government that this proposal represents an unilateral dimunition of Maori rights.

The plan government has hatched is controversial enough that Labour may not be able to muster enough votes to get the necessary legislation through Parliament. And considering the relative strength of Labour in the polls to date, it makes you wonder why Clark would risk the ignomy of having to withdraw a very, very important government initiative. Unless government is prepared to move some considerable distance, there is no way that this proposal is going to make it through the house. Either that, or Labour feels that it can ram this through despite the opposition of Maoridom. That could be a big mistake.

Some clues to Labour’s heavy-handedness were revealed by Michael Cullen’s interview this morning on Nine to Noon. Cullen underlined the substance of the government’s approach when he said that the decision of the Court of Appeal in the Marlborough Sound case did not recognise in any way the concept of Maori sovereignty. Now, while this is true, it is also true that the case put before the Court of Appeal was not about sovereignty. It was about customary property.

By subtly defining the debate over the seabed and foreshores as a struggle over sovereignty, government is allowing itself to use a very heavy hand to deal with an issue that should really be treated with a bit more delicacy. The judgement of the Court of Appeal found that under common law and subsequent legislation, Maori customary title remains to be disposed of and may or may not give rise to rights in such areas as seabeds and foreshores. As a result, the question of customary rights to the seabed and foreshore is a matter for the Maori Land Court to decide. But the proposal actually predetermines the scope of the rights to be decided upon by the Maori Land Court.

In effect the government “proposal” unilaterally defines what those rights to customary property are. I don't think that is a respectful way of dealing with a treaty partner. There are some pretty narrow definitions in the government proposal. For example, the continuity provision makes it clear that any Maori claims must be for activities that are practised continously until the present time. But that means that Maori groups that have been excluded from customary activities for whatever reason are out of luck.

While I applaud the decision to put seabeds and foreshores in the public domain, the unilateral nature of the government’s response is a little frightening. If the legal basis of New Zealand really is founded upon a partnership between Maori and Pakeha, the question of customary property and rights should be arrived at through a process of negotiation. And by the same token, Maori participation in regulatory processes should move toward a model of effective co-management rather than in the nebulous “veto” that is being offered.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

More on Film

Following up on my last post, I came across commentator Russell Brown musing on the virtues of tax incentives for film production. Writing in his
Hard News he says: "The last time tax advantages had a lot to do with movie production decisions here, all we got was Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence."

The problem with this argument is that cinema production has become a much more globalised industry since 1983. Back then, there was no such word as run away production. If anyone wants to see how effective a system of tax incentives can be for the development of a very lucrative industry, look at the British Columbia Film Commission. The scheme in place there encourages film, television and animation production in BC and is specifically targeted to helping studios hire B.C. labour.

And it works.

"In 1978, the film and television industry spent $12 million directly on production in British Columbia. In 2002, the film and television industry spent over $994 million, creating an economic impact of $2.5 billion. On average, more than 90 percent of the production crews are British Columbians. About 50,000 British Columbia residents rely on the industry for their livelihood."

So while New Zealanders argue about whether the Lord of the Rings did or didn't need an incentive to come to New Zealand, they're missing the point. Big productions like Jackson's are not as important as all the other smaller productions, the movies of the week that keep everybody in work. Those are the productions that are most sensitive to things like labour costs.

If you want to have the work, ya gotta stop arguing about orthodox neo-liberal economics and get on with creating the conditions for a viable, sustainable industry.

I'll be away for a few days. Please post a comment or two. I know you're out there.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Industry and Art Are Two Different Things

This morning on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon, Linda Clark interviewed veteran Kiwi filmmaker Gaylene Preston about her work and the state of the film industry in New Zealand. It was a telling conversation.

Preston argued that the lack of tax incentives in New Zealand means that the film industry in this country will never amount to much. That’s because the major studios look for more than scenery. They have become used to an international system of tax rebates to help lure projects away from California and to new centres like Vancouver, Australia and Britain. Although Preston was critical of major studios (she is after all an independent, creative director) she had to admit that relocating major projects to places like New Zealand helps to develop opportunities and skills for people in this country.

If you are reading this from “overseas” as they say here, please be patient. This is all very new in this country.

Predictably, Linda Clark was hostile to the idea of giving corporations a tax incentive. And what was really interesting was Linda Clark’s inability to distinguish between major international projects (the “industry”) and lower budget, local films that told New Zealand stories. Her argument went like this: if the studios aren’t going to tell our stories, why should we give them anything? It’s a typical Kiwi attitude, one that fails to see the connection between using tax incentives for key industries (such as film and television) that directly and indirectly help to foster local, independent production.

Notably, Linda wasn’t too concerned that there wouldn’t be anywhere to show such films, since New Zealand has no publicly funded national television broadcaster.

New Zealand’s neo-liberal ideological climate is so pervasive that, as I have argued before, there are many on the left who are utterly opposed to the idea of tax incentives. This country’s “neutral” tax structure, lauded by the OECD and conservatives, also finds its supporters among those who should be defending the ability of a democratic state to intervene in the economy for the benefit of its citizens. Lack of tax incentives has led to a dearth of investment in sectors of the economy that are critical to Labour’s project of building a knowledge economy.

Now comes news in the New Zealand Herald that government is considering resorting to tax incentives as a way to boost New Zealand’s pathetically low level of investment in information and communication technologies (ICT).

The Herald, no friend of the kind progressive economics practised everywhere else in the world, gave the story the bizarre headline: “Government taskforce promotes politically incorrect tax incentives.”

It just shows how skewed the debate is here. Let’s hope that the recommendations of the ICT taskforce provide a focus for reasoned policy that emulates the successes of other jurisdictions.