Speaker by Various Artists


David Shearer: The one that went away

by Simon Wilson

David Shearer, he’s not your usual danger junkie. You’d get Colin Firth to play him, on a good day, or maybe Steve Carroll. Just not Bruce Willis. And yet it turns out Hollywood isn’t like life after all: Shearer has an appetite for risk that outshines us all, and it hasn’t turned him into a screwed-up hunk of fury.

He’s off to broker peace in South Sudan, a war zone Murray McCully says is the most dangerous place in the world. Okay, so he’s not literally going to ride in there on the back of a Hilux with magazine belts crossed over his chest, but there’s no getting away from it: his personal safety, for some of the time at least, will be at the mercy of men who do get around like that.

What does it say about our political system that a man the world turns to for some of its most difficult assignments doesn’t have the skills to prosper in the New Zealand Parliament? Is that on us? On our political system? On the Labour Party? Is it on him?

Actually, staying with movie stars, it’s tempting to think of Shearer not as Firth (way too buttoned up) or Willis, but as Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. Confused about the true nature of the world he finds himself in but determined to help. Determined, moreover, that his own decency will save the day. And yet, fatally, besotted with something he doesn’t understand.

Having said that, I also want to say that David Shearer is one of my favourite politicians and I think we will miss him terribly.

It was the Labour Party, inspector, wot did him in. Clubbed him to death with candlesticks in the lobby. I was at his last party conference as leader, in 2012, an extraordinary occasion at Auckland’s most ghastly venue, the Ellerslie Racecourse.

On the Saturday they changed the rules so caucus would no longer control who was leader. It was a direct attack on Shearer. Sunday was for the leader’s speech, which everyone expected he would deliver so incompetently it would precipitate his end.

As Shearer took the stage David Cunliffe, the leader-in-waiting, sat in the front row and shot laser-beam death stares at him. Cunliffe’s henchmen in the unions strutted the aisles and conspired in the corners, feverishly excited, like boys who’d stolen all the lollies at a birthday party.

Shearer confounded them all. He was small-scale personal and world-stage inspirational. He spoke clearly and with passion. He announced KiwiBuild, a plan to build 100,000 new homes, still one of the best stake-in-the-ground social-democratic policies announced by any political party in this country in this century. I wrote at the time:

“He gets lots of cheers. The first really big one comes when he talks about a living wage, and the next, even bigger, when he talks about schools… Then he’s on to Christchurch, [and] delegates are whooping and hollering again and some are on their feet.”

He was magnificent. More than that, he answered the critics in all the ways that mattered. Some thought him too self-effacing, but in that speech he showed them he could be bold and outgoing. Some thought him unable to connect, but there he was soaking up the love.

Some thought he was an interloper, a closet Tory who lacked the true heart of a Labourite. But the policy platform he announced that day was deeply focused on working-class aspirations and as true a declaration of social-democratic values as you would ever expect from a Labour leader. Shearer was the real deal.

Whatever. They couldn’t roll him then but he was gone within the year. Bludgeoned out of the job by a brutal combination of three things: relentless leftist antagonism, particularly from some in the unions; the hubris and treacherous ambition of David Cunliffe; and Shearer’s own political failings.

Because, yes, the last is inescapably true. The leader who made that speech in late 2012 sounded like a man capable of neutralising his opponents and uniting the party, taking the fight to John Key and the National-led government, positioning himself as the leader of a genuinely viable government-in-waiting. But he wasn’t that man.

In 2013 things got worse all over again. His supporters watched in steadily growing dismay while he stumbled from one debate and media interview to the next, unable to rally the crowds or reassure the public. The party’s poll ratings stayed poor – sure, not as poor as they have been in his wake, but no one then was to know that.

In particular, for the life of him, David Shearer could not do a good interview. And the reason for that cuts to the heart of his ability as leader. He did not have a political brain.

Politicians reduce the world to black and white: this is the right thing to do and that is wrong. The bad ones believe everything is simple, which makes them dogmatic. They’re the dangerous ones. The good ones see the complexity and study it carefully. But they still reduce the issue because they have to make a decision – we’ll do this and not that – and they have to make that decision communicable in its simplicity.

Shearer found all that very hard and he knew it. He told me once, “Someone says something and straight away, you know, I’ve got a hundred thoughts in my head about it.” He valued his ability to see nuance. He believed that because none of us ever truly knows we are right, it is sensible and also virtuous to value doubt.

He had – has – so many admirable traits as a human being. But when the interviewer (and the rest of us watching) wants to know what the politician thinks, without beating around the bush, those traits can get in the way. If you can’t say, “We need more police,” because combatting crime isn’t that simple, you’re going to find it hard to make people vote for you. We know, or sense, that the politician who cannot make up their mind is also dangerous.

And so they bashed him out of the job. Yes I know, he resigned of his own accord, but that’s a technicality. He was dumped.

Yet David Shearer also knew – life as an aid worker in war zones will do this to you, I imagine – that nothing is as hard to achieve as most people think, that if you stop caring and stop trying to combat suffering, you might as well stop altogether.

That complexity he saw all around him, and the hesitation it produced, also spoke of a mind determined to rise up and do the job. He got mired in the compromising details and it frustrated him enormously. You’ve snagged me again, he seemed to say, when surely the big goal in front of us is clear enough? 

Hopeless romantic? He was – I don’t know this but I do believe it – a person who was only in politics to do good. Sure, they all say that, and for most of them it’s true to a degree. But along the way most politicians get waylaid. Managing, making do, staying alive, it consumes them.

Was Shearer the guy who was not going to be consumed? Who kept his purpose clear? We don’t know. He laid out a great vision in that speech of 2012, but it’s what you do not what you say that counts. Shearer spent eight years in opposition and never got the chance to do a single thing.

One of his campaign workers said to me once that she thought it would be wonderful to live in a country where a person like David Shearer could become leader. So she worked for him. But would it be? What we lost was the chance to find out.

A prime minister with David Shearer’s intellectual and emotional complexity? With his very apparent kindness and his enormous humanitarian drive? A prime minister about whom we might be able to say, he is the best of us?

It might have been a disaster. Vaccillation in a crisis. Vaccillation not in a crisis: unable to commit to any bold new plan. Prey to forces more ruthless, cunning and malignant than he suspected. Unable ever to make the simple decision to say no, and thus surrendering the very essence of being in charge. Would he have been merely latter-stage David Lange redux?

Decisive, hard-bitten pragmatists have proven value, after all.

Or would he have been great? A humanist who knew every child had the right to live in a warm, dry home, and would brook no excuses for not making it happen. Who knew that high rates of penal incarceration, rheumatic fever and under-treated mental illness are signs of a broken society that must be fixed. Not sometime or never, but starting now. Someone determined to make a difference on things that really do matter.

Would David Shearer have been that leader, or the other one? We don’t know. I wanted to know. I thought it was worth the risk. Just imagine if it turned had out well.


A Singer Must Die - Leonard Cohen, In Tribute

by Grant McDougall

Leonard Cohen passed away yesterday at 82. One of the great singer-songwriters of the ages has gone. Yet it is the very rich, deep music that he leaves that so wisely and beautifully articulates the frailty of life and the sorrow his own passing brings. 

Such incredible music. Music and songs of such splendid insight that were presented in a sober, direct manner, in his stark, melancholic voice, backed by, especially on  his classic early albums, sparse instrumentation that simply reflected the lyrics and voice, rather than distract from them. Songs of lust, death, sex, jealousy, friendship, loneliness and, yes, as the title of his third album put it, Songs Of Love And Hate

He wasn’t everyone’s cup of absinthe, of course. I get why some see him as a depressing windbag, a moaner, a sad sack. But to those that did like him, well, so few others put into song so well the perils, mysteries and challenges of love and life. 

He was 82 and obviously had a lot of time behind him and far less in front. But his passing is so unexpected, thus making it even sadder. He hadn’t been long ill like Bowie, or punished his body like Lemmy. He was a Zen Buddhist monk, for  - no pun intended - god’s sake. 

So it came as a complete shock when I got home yesterday just before 4pm, turned on the radio to hear the RNZ news and, rather than Katrina Batten after the pips, heard the opening bars of ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’. The penny dropped and a few seconds later, she delivered the news. I’m not going to pretend otherwise: I stood there and cried, before putting New Skin For The Old Ceremony on. I then went and took off the shirt I was wearing and put on the souvenir t-shirt I bought at his Christchurch concert in December 2013. 

I first discovered Leonard Cohen in the mid 80s, as did many others of my generation, through Nick Cave’s cover of ‘Avalanche’ on From Her To Eternity and Straitjacket Fits’ cover of ‘So Long, Marianne’ on Hail. In basic terms, it was like a one-man Joy Division and, at that age, that was no bad thing. 

What a vastly rewarding discovery it was. Leonard Norman Cohen was already 30 when his debut album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released in very late 1967.  

He was already an established poet and novelist in his native Canada and would have been known there at least, regardless of his subsequent musical fame. I know sod-all about poetry, but by all accounts collections like Book Of Longing and Beautiful Losers are exemplary. I know a little about literature, so will venture to say that The Beautiful Game is a solid, if not great novel. I am, however, somewhat more confident discussing his music…

The music. Music of that rather rare thing: immense quality and, especially in recent years, quantity. What exactly his best songs and albums are will undoubtedly be picked over by fans and critics over the next few weeks; here’s my call: 

Early / classic albums, 1967 - 1979: Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room, Songs Of Love And Hate, New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Death Of A Ladies’ Man, Recent Songs. What a goldmine. Even if he’d never recorded anything else his reputation would be assured. The only caveat here is that Death Of A Ladies Man, infamously produced by one Phil Spector, is the only true lemon in his catalogue, the songs are weak and stilted. 

Middle period, 1984 - 1992: Various Positions, I’m Your Man, The Future. The instrumentation is somewhat more fuller on these, but overall the songs are no less fulfilling.  

Latter period, 2004 - 2016: Dear Heather, Ten New Songs, Old Ideas, Popular Problems, You Want It Dark. A late, somewhat unexpected, creative flurry. Again, fuller instrumentation; the songs are less angst-ridden, instead he is more reflective. A good place to start if you’re don’t want to risk jumping into the dark depths of his early works. My only complaint is the completely superfluous, badly advised, programmed drum beats that hinder Popular Problems.

Since the news broke I’ve heard from a couple of friends and fellow fans. The Wellington journalist Simon Vita saw him in London in 1988 and recalls his introduction of ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’: “Janis Joplin came up to me in the Chelsea Hotel and said she was looking for Kris Kristofferson. I said to her ‘Little Lady, today is your lucky day – for I am Kris Kristofferson ...’”

Simon continues:

I guess there must've been a few of us, fans who were introduced to Leonard Cohen by Nick Cave. Cave covered Cohen's 'Avalanche' on the first Bad Seeds album. I dug it so I dug deeper into the Cohen catalogue. I knew I wasn't the only one on this quest as when I went searching for laughing Len albums in second hand record shops I got comments like, used to be you couldn't give these away now they're getting snapped up. I used to ride my bike to work with my Songs Of Love And Hate/Death Of A Ladies’ Man cassette going back and forth in my Walkman til the batteries went flat.

Cohen seemingly acknowledged us Cave converts by putting ‘Avalanche’ into the set when I saw him at the Albert Hall in 1988.

They say you never forget your first one and ‘Avalanche’ remains one of my favourites from a Cohen's catalogue of gems, it suited me fine as a far too serious 20-something and even now the melodrama excites.

Speaking of melodrama, try the Phil Spector produced Ladies’ Man through your headphones. In fact you can't really find a dud Leonard Cohen album, there's at least one classic on all of them.

I caught Cohen twice more as he came through Wellington on what seemed to be an endless world tour to replenish his embezzled retirement fund.

He never failed to deliver the goods on stage. At an age where many of us would rather be shuffling off to shuffleboard, Cohen commanded the stage with humility and humour.

Another friend, Hamilton radio station manager Phil Grey, discovered him in 1986 or so via a second-hand copy of 1973’s Live Songs. His favourite studio album is Songs Of Love And Hate and also appreciates his bawdy side, e.g ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On’. He was also at the December 2013 Auckland concert, Cohen’s last concert  – ever !

Phil and his wife, Debbie, also took Phil’s mum, Judi and "she still raves about it – loves him and through him is quite a Nick Cave fan."

At the start of 2013 I saw a Canadian music legend deliver a quite stunning three-hour-long concert. But I’ll tell you about Neil Young and Crazy Horse another time. At the end of 2013 I saw a Canadian music legend deliver a quite stunning three-hour-long concert – Leonard Cohen at CSB Arena in Christchurch. I’ve since joked that I’ll need see Joni Mitchell should she come through again, then I’ll have the Canadian legends trifecta.

The evening before I’d briefly bumped into Terminals vocalist Stephen Cogle, a man who knows a fair bit about captivating singing and songs on dark insights on human nature himself, and was looking forward to seeing him a second time.

Cohen was unexpectedly touring after being defrauded of $US10m by a former manager. Given his age, and, to a lesser extent, the circumstances, I’d have let him off if he’d merely gone on stage for an hour and half-heartedly trundled through 10 – 12 greatest hits. But he didn’t. Instead, he passionately and intensely wrung himself dry physically and emotionally for three hours. He did, at a pinch, 35 songs or so, at least one song from every album bar Death Of A Ladies’ Man and close to all of New Skin For The Old Ceremony. The highlight for me was a spell-binding version of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ that put the recorded version to shame. And yes, he wore a very smart brimmed hat – as did the entire band and crew. 

In her review in The Press Vicki Anderson used phrases like: 

“Magical is a word that was used  a lot by those who saw Montreal poet and gifted member of the tower of song on Saturday night” and “He has an unwavering power to unfurl like no other, through song, tales of the human condition from love to despair and every emotion in between”.

I concur. It’s hard to say if it’s the best concert I’ve ever seen, but it was easily one of the best.

Just two days ago I was in a local record shop and noticed another customer buying You Want It Darker. It turned out she’d been at the same Christchurch show and we briefly chatted about how brilliant it was.

In mid-2014, I saw Kris Kristofferson live. He played ‘Bird On The Wire’. I’ve also seen Johnny Cash play it and Cohen himself played it at Christchurch. Two of them are now in the ground and given he’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Kristofferson may well be on shaky ground, too.

Bowie knew he was dying and used it to create Blackstar. Cohen, it appears at this juncture, was in as good health as can be expected, for a man of his age. You Want It Dark is, as far as I can tell, not a rumination on his pending demise. But doubtless it’ll be pored over for signs of such. 

A few weeks ago, in an interview with the New Yorker, he discussed his looming death. But it seemed as if he was merely being reflective and philosophical, rather than Making A Big Statement. Unlike Bowie, the public didn’t know he was ill; if he was, he managed to keep it private.

While writing this up I’ve listened to New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Old Ideas and Songs Of Leonard Cohen. It’s reiterated to me how compelling and rewarding his music is. 

Apart from the music, I also highly recommend Sylvie Simmons’ magisterial 2012 biography I’m Your Man for an excellent overview of the man and his music.

I haven’t taken the music charts seriously since I was about 14. However, You Want It Darker is currently the #1 album, which I suspect many of his fans will take some satisfaction from, for he has gone out on top.

So, thank you for so much phenomenal music then, Leonard Cohen. Over the next few days I’ll listen to more of your music and also strum ‘Suzanne’ a few times on my guitar.


No, there isn’t a popular uprising of the white working class against the status quo

by Kirk Serpes

I didn’t sleep very well the last two nights.  Cold sweats and waking up more scared than I’ve been about the future than in all my life.  Just the disbelief that this is all real.

In a more naïve time I actually thought it would be great for the Democrats if Trump won because he would lose in a landslide.  In my defence it wasn’t just me who though that, it was the entire Democrat and Republican establishment.  Nobody really thought we would end up here, well except for Michael Moore.  And I kinda redeemed myself a few months later with another blog post outlining a potential path to victory for Trump, which I really wish I was wrong about now.

So, taking into account that I have a mixed record on punditing, here a few key takeaways form this election that I’d like to get off my chest. 

  1. Trump didn’t win because a huge number of white voters (mostly male) were suffering economically and being “left out” suddenly turned up and voted.  He won 63% of the white male vote, which is pretty much on par with Romney, McCain and several other Republicans before them. The problem was that Clinton lost votes with the Democratic base.  Her share of the Hispanic vote decreased from 71% to 65% (while Trump gained 2% from 2012).  She also got 5% less African Americans than Obama, while Trump gained 2%.  Those are small percentages but they add up, overall Clinton lost 6.6million votes that Obama won while Trump was only 1.1 million voters lower than McCain and 2 million votes lower than Romney.  Turnout was down on both sides but it was much worse for Democrats. 
  1. (((Economic anxiety))) – A bit more on why this idea needs to die later. First up Trump voters overall were doing better economically than his Republican opponents' and definitely better than Clinton’s voters (another great link here).  What’s more is there’s a higher coorelation between their views on immigrants and African Americans and Trump support than on economic insecurity.  Now that’s not to say that a lot of poor whites didn’t support Trump.  They did.  But Clinton still won those earning less than $33k by 12% (53-41).  Yes, there was 16pt swing towards Trump but it’s hard to say if that’s was votes switching from Red to Blue or Blue votes simply staying at home.  Essentially the idea that the poor and downtrodden white working class man wanted to send a message about being ignored by the elites is a lot more nuanced.  More on this later. 
  2. Here’s another few numbers worth keeping in perspective.  Turnout was down to 48.62% this year from 54.9% in 2012, and 57.1% in 2008.  The toxic nature of the election turned people off.  What was also obvious was that the mood of the country overall was anti-establishment/status quo (for very different reasons).  But that’s nothing new.  In most elections the candidate with the more energised base wins because voting is a pain in the arse and you have to be really into your team to make the effort, and even more into your team to drag along your mates or actually volunteer to doorknocking/phone call to Get out the Vote.

So keeping those three points in mind I honestly have no fucking idea why all the progressive white males I know keep saying we need to listen to the angry and disenfranchised people who voted for Trump.  Their movement doesn’t fucking exist. They got fewer votes than Romney and McCain! Please stop. It’s beginning to scare me that you want to listen to what is very clearly a solid core of racism and misogyny.  I’ve never been more afraid to be surrounded by so many white people. 

Only 4.8% of Americans actually voted for Trump to be the Republican nominee.  We really don’t need to give them any more legitimacy than they already have now that they’ve won the Presidency. 

Maybe your time is better spent trying to figure out why those 6.6 million people who voted for Obama didn’t show up this time?  I’m pretty sure they’re also poor and disenfranchised by the system, so how about you start by going and talking to them first, because you know it might be easier to get African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities to vote for you again than some neo-fascist who calls you ‘a cuck’ and thinks all women and minorities are inferior. 

Okay that’s a bit harsh but what liberals are saying right now doesn’t make any sense.  A silver-spooned billionaire with a model wife who literally lives in a gold-plated house in New York is the champion of the poor working classes because they can’t relate to us?  Gimme a break.  I think you can probably relate to the working class white voter better than he does, so stop overthinking this, it’s not because you live in a “filter-bubble” and don’t see the world like the right wing does. 

This election wasn’t about him winning but about the Democrats losing.  Both sides lost support from the public, but the Democrats did worse.  The bubble you need to break is not the one with the political right, it’s the one with the apathetic left. 

The left won the culture war used that power to create culture walls around urban liberal sense of identity, while at the same time losing the courage to fight the economic ideologies that have left so many people behind.  Language policing doesn’t win elections, it just shrinks the number of people who can be in your cool little “in-group” of liberal elites and excludes all the minorities who might not have as slick a command of the English language, the money or the education.

Even though I was born in India I came from a family that spoke English for several generations and was also deeply entrenched in Western music, books and films.  Do you have any idea how hard it would be for me to navigate all the culture traps liberals put in place around their little world if I didn’t have all those advantages? It’s not that surprising that so few of us get involved in politics.  Hell I was one of the cofounders of a large liberal organisation that over time even I began to feel like a cultural outsider in.

So yes please leave your enclaves and go out there and talk to other people, but maybe start with people who share your values/interests and not those who don’t and never will.  Dropping the ‘holier than thou’ attitude (yes I know I’m very guilty of this as well) will make us more relatable to the apathetic non-voters and non-political but might also have that added bonus of making the losers of the culture war hate us less even if they don’t agree with us.  

Clinton didn’t lose close to 7 million Democratic votes because her policies were really right wing or anything. She lost them because of the enthusiasm gap with the Democratic base.  Part of that isn’t her fault, with the FBI and Wikileaks doing their best and succeeding to destroy her credibility.  But a large part of it is hers and the rest of the DNC.

It’s not just that they blocked Sanders, they blocked pretty much anyone else from entering the primary and making it competitive.  As I’ve said before, winning elections is hard hard grind with people working 12-hour days for months if not years.  Without a compelling vision and an inspiring candidate all voter engagement begins to get less efficient.  The usual supporters turnout to vote but they can’t honestly drag five of their mates along as well, because they haven’t spent the last six months evangelising about how he/she is going to change the world. 

Clinton was not the best candidate for that, but she had a small opportunity to show some spine with her choice of VP and promptly blew it with a “safe” middle aged white guy choice.  Someone like Sanders, Warren or the other half dozen black, Latino and Asian Americans would have gone a long way to firing up the liberal base.  The hubris of the DNC, Clinton and Obama was thinking that they could hold on to Obamas coalition just with pure fear and hatred of the other side.  I mean thought they would to, as did you and everyone else. 

I’m reminded of my time on the ground in North Carolina in 2012. One of the guys on my team as a young anarchist.  He knew all about and was not at all happy with Obama’s drone program, his ties to Wall Street and so on.  But he still spent close to 10 hours a day knocking on doors and making phone calls to re-elect Obama.  This year he was obviously in the Bernie camp and when that ended he went full Jill Stein.  He hated Clinton and was practically campaigning against her in a swing state. 

Now as far as I’m aware there really isn’t a lot of space between Clinton and Obama policy-wise.  The only difference is that if you’re white and a lefty there’s no way that white guilt is going to let you be on the opposite side of the first Black president.  But a rich white Washington insider who’s the wife of a former President? Yeah, white liberal guilt is a force on par with white conservative fear of minorities. 

This should be a hard lesson to “median voter” crowd (as if they haven’t had enough this year) that their strategy doesn’t work in today’s insecure world.  The massive flaws in the institutions and ideology governing our lives right now is obvious and pretending like they don’t exist is what I think is seeing us lose so many “Brexits” around the world.  The voters and most importantly our supporters aren’t buying our story of what’s happening and are staying at home.  The deplorables only ever needed the whif of xenophobia and misogyny to turn out their base and win by default.   Also every time we try to meet the other side halfway, the other sides keeps moving further away, moving the centre further right with them.  (We’ve seen this in Australia with refugees and climate change). 

The diagnosis of an election where our side stayed at home more than our opponents shouldn’t be that we need to listen more the concerns of the other side. It should be that we need to be listening more careful to the concerns of ours and putting candidates and ideas forward that inspire them and reflect their sense of identity.   People want to believe in something bigger than themselves, and comprises that go against what you believe isn’t something to get very excited about. 

Going forward the challenge for American progressives will be to divide the other side.  It’s already pretty fractured but lumping them all up as uneducated bigots will only make this worse by uniting them. (remember Trump isn’t very liked by most of Republican voters).

If the left is good at one thing it’s winning culture wars, so we need to use that to our advantage to chip away at non-Trump Republicans and bring them over to our side culturally while at the same time offering disciplined non-violent resistance to all the crazy shit Trump is going to try and implement.  And most of all the left has to start talking to its base and maybe trying to understand where they’re coming from.

I see empathy and intelligence as two key progressive values.  We have to be empathic enough to listen to and understand those different to us, but not stupid enough to comprise with people that are against everything we stand for.  And you know what, voters of all stripes like courage, authenticity and integrity.  


The light train to Roskill

by Simon Wilson

Is Andrew Little’s promise of light rail to Mr Roskill a byelection bribe? Does John Key have any idea at all what his own Auckland transport plan looks like?


The barrier arms are coming down and the bells are going clang clang clang and there’s John Key, jumping out onto the railway tracks and going nah nah nah, that train’s not gonna hit me.

Maybe it won’t. But his statements yesterday about Labour’s proposal for light rail to Mt Roskill reveal a surprisingly casual disregard not just for the facts, but for his government’s own position.

Some people say, hey, it’s a by-election, they’re all going to bribe us and lie their heads off. But that’s not true. Labour is the favourite in this election but National has a decent chance. One year out from the general election, it’s a terrific opportunity for both parties to show us they are in functional order and for us to assess what the differences really are.

Opposition leader Andrew Little announced a Labour-led government would build light rail (that is, modern trams, running on tracks set into the roads) from Wynyard Quarter up Queen St and down Dominion Rd to Stoddart Rd in Mt Roskill. It would be done within 10 years, and paid for half by government from the existing long-term transport budget and half by council.

John Key straightaway dissed the plan. He even told RNZ’s Morning Report the “people best placed to decide these things” did not support it, and named the Auckland Council, Auckland Transport (an arm of council) and NZTA (a central government agency). He said these bodies had decided against fast-tracking light rail on the Auckland isthmus and were not even sure light rail is a good option at all. It might be, he said, that “rapid buses” are better.

His minister for regional development Steven Joyce called Little’s plan “pork barrel politics taken to a whole new level”.

What’s wrong with that?

Quite a lot. To start with, Key does not really believe the “best people” to decide Auckland transport policy are Auckland agencies. He believes the government is. If he thought Auckland should decide, he’d go ahead and legislate for that to happen.

Second, the government was not an uninvolved bystander in the decision on light rail he cited. The government drove the decision. Key was referring to the Auckland Transport Alignment Accord (ATAP), an agreement between the government and the council, announced just last month and involving AT, NZTA and others, over long-term transport planning in Auckland.

One of ATAP’s key decisions was to delay approval of and funding for light rail until after 2028. Key is right about that. But the government led the ATAP process. Finance Minister Bill English and Transport Minister Simon Bridges had the senior role in negotiations and it’s clear from my sources that it was they who insisted, against the wishes of council, that light rail not be advanced in the next 10 years.

Third, while Key is right that “rapid buses” are an option for rapid transit on some routes (no one now denies the spectacular success of the Northern Busway), he’s not right to imply they might be the long-term solution for the city. Buses carry far fewer people than trains, clog up the roadways and have nowhere to go when they get into town. Rapid bus transit is a transitional solution: the Northern Busway will one day become the Northern rail line.

The fourth problem with John Key’s response to Andrew Little’s announcement is what it reveals about the government’s approach to transport planning. There’s a split in their ranks.

ATAP is government policy – it’s a formal signed agreement between the central and local governments. As negotiated by English and Bridges it represents a clear commitment to a long-term plan that includes light rail and relies far more on public transport in general than used to be the case under this government.

But Key and Joyce have seemed almost unaware of all that. Their dismissive comments suggest “long-term”, to them, means “not our problem”. Joyce v English: it’s going to be like having a fascinating fight on the undercard as we head towards the main event, the general election.

As for the accusation of pork-barrel politics: promising to fast-track measures to address the city’s transport crisis is exactly what we need from our politicians. It’s not cynical, it’s not a bribe, and it’s not pie-in-the-sky nonsense like Joyce’s 10 bridges were in the Northland by-election last year. It’s an actual plan, already agreed to in principle by Joyce’s government, to address a real and very pressing problem.

And what about Andrew Little? What was wrong about what he said?

It made him look like he wasn’t onside with the new mayor, that’s what. Goff wasn’t even at the policy announcement, having run the 5km leg of the Auckland Marathon that morning and then gone home to strain fences, or whatever he does on Sunday afternoons on the Clevedon farm.

He did respond, though, by saying the council was not about to commit to a 50 per cent share in the cost of building the light rail line.

That was predictable. Goff has promised to keep rates rises under 2.5 per cent and is about to start work on the council’s next long-term plan (LTP). This is the 10-year budget that gets updated every three years. It would be absurd for him to announce a major funding commitment outside of that process.

But Goff is on record in favour of light rail on the isthmus.

Given the predictability of Goff’s response, why didn’t he and Little find a way to avoid the impression of a disagreement? Labour colleagues in Parliament for years – don’t these people talk?

That impasse raises the two biggest issues of the whole proposal. The first is that transport planning for Auckland will not progress much until new sources of funding are introduced. Central city congestion charges, motorway tolls, a regional fuel tax or other measures: none of them can happen unless the government legislates to allow it. Labour needs to renew its commitment to making that happen, or Little’s light rail proposal won’t be going anywhere.

The second big issue has been hinted at by both Little and Goff but not spelled out. Little said the government’s share of the cost could come from the strategic transport budget, which is currently reserved for roads. Goff said urban light rail could be regarded as a road of national significance, which would qualify it for 100 per cent government funding.

Both statements point to the fact that central government planning for roads and rail currently happens under separate processes and separate budgets. It’s a major weakness. Transport planning should be fully integrated. We need the transport agencies to stop asking, what roads do we need, and start asking, what are the best ways to get people (and freight) from here to there?

We’d make a lot more progress if proposals like light rail to Mt Roskill could be considered in that context. Little hasn’t announced this as Labour policy, but the indications are that he could do so.

As for Parmjeet Parmar, National’s list MP who wants that Mt Roskill seat, she weighed in on the light rail proposal by saying it wasn’t important and they should all be talking about far more immediate needs – like extra bus stops.

Improving existing services in Mt Roskill is certainly a good thing to do. But that’s what we have a council for. It’s their job. Parliament’s job is oversight of strategic planning for this fast-growing city. It would be nice to think MPs like Dr Parmar understood that.


Istanbul 2016

by Clinton Logan

A man squeezes a thick line of translucent yellow adhesive into a plastic bag, places it over his face, and inhales into the deep recesses of his lungs. As he lurches about in a glue-fueled frenzy, a woman in a niqab shuffles past, eyes fixed ahead. 

The kebab chef looks on unimpressed.

It's Friday night and Eren is maintaining his usual post outside the Peyote club — a tiny venue for Turkish experimental rock. Encased in a city of 14 million people, his "I need more space" tee shirt sums up the situation nicely.

South of the spice market, Omer frantically bags coffee for their perpetual line of customers. The coffee is amazing and everyone knows it. Although he's too shy to look at my camera, I still manage to crack a smile out of him.

Two blocks away in the service alley that spills into Tomruk Sokak street, Moscava sits to ponder his life as a "viagra" salesman. His diamond shaped blue pills sell for 4% of US retail. Pfizer will tell you they're full of rat poison, and he'll swear they're genuine.

Istanbul is built on an absolutely fascinating collision of cultures. The seventh most populous city in the world, it's intoxicatingly vast, cool, and unpredictable. 

Earlier in the day, Engin Akdoğan, a well spoken carpet salesman, invited me in for a cup of Turkish tea. The cynical would chalk it up to a common sales ploy, however it runs deeper than that.

"Watch out we're dangerous carpet salesmen— Worst than terrorists!"

Engin clearly had a sixth sense for my love of dark, twisted humour. I was hooked with his opening line.

From the outset I confessed my mode of transport was not conducive to buying a rug, however he still wanted to chat. For two hours we had the most remarkable conversation over successive cups of tea.

In a city that's practically void of western tourists these days, the subject of fear surfaced pretty quickly. I discussed my theory of people's trepidation of the South. Every trip I've had it expressed to me. Canadians think the US is dangerous, Americans think Mexico is dangerous, Mexicans are convinced you'll die in Colombia, Auckland fears the Canterbury rugby team (with good reason.) Even on this journey I had a six foot tall, 230 Lb, armed Ukrainan border guard plead with me. 

"Don't go to Turkey!... Don't go to Turkey!" 

He repeated it for emphasis.

Engin asked about my travels and I discussed my plans to eventually store my motorcycle in Bulgaria for the winter.

It's clear the east adopts a much more holistic approach to life, and welcoming guests is a significant part of Islamic etiquette. It's incredibly uplifting to experience this genuine compassion for strangers, which makes the current climate in Turkey especially heartbreaking.

Engin's store is situated just 800 meters from where a suicide bomber recently detonated themselves. The eleven attacks this year coupled with the failed military coup two months ago have decimated the tourist industry here. Engin hasn't sold a rug in a very long time. 

Yet he remains upbeat. His relationship with life is inspiring.

I was conscious of not absorbing anymore of this man's time so I shook his hand and we parted ways. As I stepped onto the cobblestone street, Engin looked at me with a wry grin.

"Clinton, Be careful in Bulgaria... it's dangerous!"