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Tuesday, 12 June 2018

You don’t care about the Northcote by-election so let’s review these books instead

I spent my weekend NOT thinking about the Northcote by-election and instead caught up with friends for a birthday in Wellington along with some time for coffee (it is Wellington), poker and record shopping. I was definitely not trying to think about Northcote, the inhabitants of Northcote or any pending elections that Northcote might be having.

So instead of talking about the Northcote by-election lets instead review some books.

First up is The Road to Ruin: How Tony Abbot and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government by journalist Nikki Saava. It’s the kind of book which makes great reading if you like detail heavy, blow by blow accounts of semi scandalous political events; which is fortunate because I do.

Ever wondered how Tony Abbot helped keep up the current tradition of revolving door Ozzie Prime Ministers when in decades past Australian politics operated at the same level of stability as New Zealand?

Or how Abbot, as opposition leader, criticised the circus clown level of behaviour during the Rudd, Gillard, Rudd governments but then ended up to mangling it infinitely worse when he got into the hot seat?

So if you have ever looked across the Tasman at our Ozzie cousins and the shambolic mess politics in that country* has become then this book is for you.

Saava, a long term political correspondent in Australia, has all the dirt and details, puts names to faces and paints a vivid picture of a PM (Abbot) so dependent on his Chief of Staff (Credlin) that when he was unable to rein Credlin’s increasingly brutal and bullying behaviours inside his office it spilled over into the party and eventually Australian politics in general.

And as I read this woeful tale I did start to get the feeling that Saava was taking catty to a whole new level with her descriptions of Credlin, who she paints as an emotionally unhinged control freak, who was possibly having an affair with Abbot (which in the age of the Barnaby Joyce scandal does not sound so mind-blowing), that she overwhelmed Abbot and in the process ended up nearly running the country.

Meanwhile Abbot is depicted as a good guy with his heart in the right place who just seemed to melt under Credlin’s insane levels of dictatorial frenzy into a namby-pamby mummy’s boy who would meekly follow Credlin out of the office when she was having one of her numerous “emotional tantrums” with office staff to comfort her before coming back in and making staff apologise to her for their behaviour! Imagine Jacinda Ardern being bossed around by Labours top advisor Heather Simpson** like that.

That aside, what’s fascinating about all of this is that it played out right at the highest level of power in Australian politics and in such a manner that it completely destroyed Tony Abbot’s political career in the process.

Before he became PM Abbot was Leader of the Liberal Party, ex Rhodes Scholar and all round conservative top prospect but once in office he fumbled the ball on almost every occasion it was passed to him.

Also, much like Bill English, Abbot was blinded by his religious beliefs in regards to same sex marriage and women (as evidenced in his evisceration by Julia Gillard in 2012) which in the end doomed his office and made his party seem like a bunch of intolerant religious bigots even more than they had before.

But, as some people who have reviewed the book have also noted, by the end, the tale seems more than a little one sided and bordering on either partisan propaganda or some sort of political hit piece by a jilted lover (which I am sure Saava is not but that is how it reads in places) where both the main parties (Abbot and Credlin) have not been given any right of reply (either directly or via the more usual “sources” close to them) and the continual barrage of gossipy details just turns the book into something akin to entries in some teenagers diary about the trials and tribulations of high school rather than an in depth analysis of Abbot and Credlin’s relationship and how that dynamic so effected Australian politics.

Finally it’s worth noting that such a book would not even exist in Aotearoa as mainstream political journalism in NZ is far too sycophantic to write such a thing. The closest NZ has ever gotten to such a book is either The Spin (written in the 90s by an anonymous source) or The Hollow Men by Nicki Harger (by a political outsider) so while sometimes over the top and hysterical in tone and portrayal The Road to Ruin makes for a gripping read of what brought down the Abbot Government and helped make Australian politics into the mess it has become.

Rating: three out of five on the John Howard scale

Other reviews of the book herehere and here but not this one.

Meanwhile in the Northcote by-election both Labour and National have been trying to claim victory (of sorts). National simply by having its candidate, Dan Bidos, win the actual vote but with Labour saying that it reduced the majority that Jonathan Coleman had previously had.

The reality is that the turnout for the election was low (by then turnouts for by-elections are always low), neither candidate had anything to really give (hence why both main parties ran faceless unknowns) and if the electorate is a bellwether for the rest of NZ (something I think is a crock of s**t but what do I know) then the mood of the nation could be summed up as “meh” because only 37% of the electorate voted and that means that Nationals “mandate” hinges on  18.5% of the “people”. Meh indeed!

But you still don't care so on to the next review.

The other book on review today is The New Zealand Project by Max Harris.

From the start this was a book in which I entirely agreed with its opening premise, that being that something is wrong with this country, and found much in sync in his depiction of the issues facing NZ (the usual list of environment, social, health etc) but when it came to propose solutions Harris falls into the beginners trap, as noted by Dimitri Orlov in his book The Five Stages of Collapse, of saying things like “unless we” or “we must” but without providing any rational or coherent motive to do so other than vague appeals to doing what is right (as oppose to what is Right - geddit?).

To be fair, it’s clear that Mr Harris is a bit of rising star in the somewhat limited academic world of NZ (although he has a long way to go before he becomes the next Jane Kelsey or Nicky Hager) and his writing style and argument construction has that clean, logical flow that the best academic authors have.

But a book that spends it bulk carefully cataloging the problems gnawing away at NZ and then can’t even make the intellectual money shot in the final chapter because his ideas for a fix boil down to a list of vague liberal prescriptions which often have only tenuous connections to the problems he has spent the bulk of the book building up leaving the increasingly concerned and motivated reader saying "thats it?".

In short no clear policy prescription (ala Kelsey) or coherent rational for change based on the events (Hager) which then leaves the book little more than disaster porn for angst ridden liberals.

Want to read chapter after chapter of the degradation of NZ in all its forms but with little payoff for all the buildup; then The New Zealand Project has you covered.

As the Spinoff’s review of the book clearly notes “Now that we have it all set down in one place, maybe the Left can stop talking about What Must Be Done and start thinking about How To Actually Do It” which was pretty much the same feeling I had by the time I had finished the book. 

Harris clearly has his heart in the right place and I more than agree with many of his assessments of the issue but (as other reviews of the book have noted) the issues have been well known for a long time and repeatedly pointing them out comes down to just another angry gob of spit in a river of discontent.

Where this book starts to muck things up is that after a great opening chapter which mostly manages to avoid sliding too far into ideological propaganda the rest of the book (like many economic tracts) assumes its audience is down with the programme and just goes hell for leather into preaching to the quior but instead of economic pseudo-science masquerading as cold hard real politic we get liberal pseudo-science masquerading as warm fuzzy feel good politics.

It’s not that there are no facts to back Harris’s arguments up, there are plenty, but in places it’s clear that there has been some selective picking of data or simply pulling on one thread of what is often a many threaded argument.

Max Harris is young and the idealistic tone of the book is unmistakable and very catchy (specially for older jaded idealists like myself) and Harris might mature with time, and some actual real life experience, to write a work that is little more than a Masters level series of essays on the issues at hand.

Thus when you are going to title your work The New Zealand Project and then cast it in a clearly liberal vein and without any practical meat on its conceptual bones then the book is just another title in a long line of books which serve more as intellectual safety blankets for distressed liberals than serious attempts at fixing the issues at hand.

However, this is a book which is worth reading because while its liberal tone might jar some more conservative readers it has the strength to discuss its topics honestly and in a way that allows for discussion*** so that people can use this book as a jumping off point for any particular issue that might interest them.

Also few books out there have ever clearly cataloged the issues that do face NZ in one place (something that the more focused Kelsey and others usually avoid because of the depth of argument each topic can convey) so for that alone it’s worth reading to be able to get a feel for the scope of the issues facing Godzone.

But, in the end, the killer problem for me was that while the book clearly identifies the economic reforms of the past 30 years as a major driver for the problems New Zealand faces today, and has a wide enough scope to explore the effects of these problems (and their interrelationships) in the bigger picture it fails (as noted at the start) to come up with any real solutions and can’t even bring itself to clearly put names to faces when assigning blame so that Harris is like a detective at the scene of a crime where he has carefully cataloged the victim and the murder weapon, noted the possible motives but has no real suspects on which to pin the crime on.

I liked the New Zealand Project and I will definitely be keen to see what Max Harris will do next but there is nothing new in sounding the alarm and as such this book is just one of many dealing with issues facing NZ.

Rating: Two out of five Jane Kelseys

Other reviews of the book here and here.

*-ironically while Ozzie politics is now operating at the level of Italy, or worse, the level of political coverage and reporting is much better than NZ with regular and in depth articles in the media and a level of political consciousness in the public that NZ could only dream of. Perhaps it has something to do with the more diverse media space that the Land Down Under has when compared with NZs big two (and soon to be one if Fairfax and NZME get their way) mainstream media outlets.
**-Then again this is the woman credited with being the power behind Helen Clark and her nine years as PM, Hmmmmmmm ... I wonder?
***- supposedly the main focus of the book rather than proposing any actual solutions but I suspect that is more the panicked reaction of the books editor upon discovering that the manuscript was not delivering the goods and so sought to try and turn that weakness into a deliberate play. Nice try but not really covering up the gaps that Harris has left behind in his writing.


  1. Max Harris' main theme seems to be "the politics of love" and his main work seems to have been writing a blog and a book which promote that ideal. If anyone has a better suggestion as to how he could use his time and energy he may be prepared to listen. I certainly would.

  2. Well he seems also be on a Rhodes Scholarship and doing a PhD so he is not heading for the job market just yet. I liked his book and ideas right up until it came time for actually doing anything and the the "politics of love" fell down into meaningless bullet points, it was rather a shocking twists to what was otherwise a good book.