Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A warning for the left

The Herald has obtained a copy of ACT's post-election report, and one of the solutions proposed is another right-wing thinktank. This would act both as a front for their ideas (in the way the Business Roundtable used to do), and a home for former MPs and ACT staff dismissed to the political wilderness. More importantly (for ACT), in the long-term, it would help shift the political conversation in favour of their radical market darwinist agenda of privatisation, tax cuts, and drowning government in the bathtub.

This should be a warning for the left. Last year, Harpers magazine published an article detailing the rise of America's right-wing spin machine, and its effects on the political conversation in that country. The American left was basically left behind, and the result was a marked shift to the right of America's political centre (or at least its political class). And now they're trying to do it here. The New Zealand right has already got a head-start on this front (though the current torchbearer, the Maxim Institute, has suffered a significant loss of mana recently after being exposed as a plagiarists), and if the left doesn't want to be outgunned in the long-term, we will need to respond in kind.


I'm not sure how relevant this is to New Zealand in terms of the effects of right-wing thinktanks. The Business Roundtable was so loopy and unlikeable that it did the New Zealand left no end of favours.

The Trade Liberalisation Network (now close to defunct) has been similarly helpful in providing a parade of poor excuses for trade liberalisation.

I think closer attention needs to be paid to BusinessNZ, but that's just a hunch.

In terms of institutions which have ensured the ideological victory for neo-liberals has been done more in the realm of their complete dominance of economics in the myriad of 'business schools' that have been set up and down the country. As one political economy tutor pointed out, it is very hard to point to alternatives when their students were raised on neo-liberalism with their mother's milk.

I agree though that a left-wing thinktank may be a fantastic idea, however I think (painting broadly with a very big brush) the left-wing still believes that the answers to its problems is building better political parties - not in developing its ideas.

Still sweeping with the same brush, I think anarchists have a similar difficulty except we often tend to focus on single issue campaigns or events.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/04/2006 04:11:00 PM

"Douglas Institute"? Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/04/2006 04:39:00 PM

the Bruce Jesson Foundation is kind of trying to be like a left wing think tank, and of course there is Child Povery Action Group and QPEC, but they are only dealing with small areas of policy. The core problem has to be funding - if it is going to be hard to raise $750,000 for a right wing think tank it is going to be even worse for the Left.

Posted by Span : 1/04/2006 05:20:00 PM

I think ARENA ( has also been very successful in building up a reputation on trade issues.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/04/2006 05:27:00 PM

John: and yet, those right-wing groups have maintained an ideological dominance over our political leaders for almost twenty years. Likewise, Business NZ, the Greenhouse Policy Coalition, and MEUG have managed to destroy over a decades worth of policy development on Kyoto and greenhouse policy. They do have an effect, and the left isn't really in the game.

I don't think thinktanks are necessarily even about the development of ideas (though it helps), so much as being a ready source of them through reports, talking-points, op-eds and published books. They are essentially a propaganda outlet. And currently, one enjoyed almost exclusively by the right.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/04/2006 06:03:00 PM

But the Business Roundtable, and Maxim Institute are kept at arms length by current political parties except for Act and UF respectively- at least as far as I know. Look at the trouble Don Brash got in to for associating with the Roger Kerr et al.

I can't see how they have an ideological dominance over the majority of the political parties?

The other groups you mention are single issue and have somewhat effective counterparts on the left/environmental.

I know little about BusinessNZ's influence, but it does seem to be more capable of bridging divides between political parties.

I hope the following doesn't sound too shrill, but anyway here it goes...

I think the left does need to think more about how it presents itself. Social democracy is devoid of any value in this country. You know it's lost when people like yourself defend structural unemployment. Or when Jordan Carter can not work out a social democratic position on trade.

Anarchism and Marxism have even less to be proud of in today's New Zealand.

You can write all the reports and op-eds you like, but if you're not presenting ideas that make sense to New Zealanders then we are wasting our time.

It's been years of being on the defensive, it's time to be truly offensive and start imagining anew. I'd suggest anarchism as a starting point, but YMMV. :P

Posted by Anonymous : 1/04/2006 06:55:00 PM


I think you vastly under-rate the influence of these institutes. Certainly amongst the more left-leaning parts of the population the BRT is a joke.

But when they fly in and pay a highly-paid speaker whose job is going around the international right-wing-think-tank circuut saying "Global Warming is Bunk", they get him onto the front page.

"New Right New Zealand" is an excellent book about the 80s and early 90s which tracks how the various speakers that came through proselytizing conservative views then were, in fact, on the circuit. The US foundations employed them to speak all over the place, and then in Brit, Oz, NZ, etc, the local think tanks ponied up some money to fly them out.

DPF on Kiwiblog jokes about attending meetings of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy - but he is. There's an interconnected net of right-wing institutes with a few billion in dosh working hard to sell their message.

As for Brash's connections doing him harm: um, no. Alan Gibbs et al moving from funding Act to funding National very nearly gave us a National govt (and very nearly extinguished Act as a political force - which shows how grass-roots they aren't).

Posted by Icehawk : 1/05/2006 08:50:00 AM

i can also testify to the effectiveness of a right wing lobby group you've probably never heard of - the Early Childhood Council has been very influential on Labour MPs, despite being tiny.

Unions have filled something of a role in terms of lobbying in other directions, but many MPs and journos seem to write them off automatically as "biased" whereas these right wing groups are some how "independent". so frustrating.

Posted by Span : 1/05/2006 09:13:00 AM

"This would act both as a front for their ideas (in the way the Business Roundtable used to do), and a home for former MPs and ACT staff dismissed to the political wilderness"

Not exactly. The report stated that the think-tank would most likely have two staff, a President, and an able Secretary. This secretary is unlikely to come from within the party.

"we will need to respond in kind"

No need. Right-Wing think-tanks exist largely to counter the influence of the Govt funded and left-leaning universities.

"Alan Gibbs et al moving from funding Act to funding National"

Bollocks. Alan Gibbs remains one of Act's largest financiers.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/05/2006 10:00:00 AM

Given "Logangate," I suspect the Maxim Institute is treading water. And then there's the Institute for Liberal Values, whose co-ordinator
ran afoul of his past.

Craig Y

Posted by Anonymous : 1/05/2006 11:09:00 AM

I don't want to seem defeatist but what would a Left Wing thinktank focus on? Anti-neoliberalism? Treaty issues? undermining capitalism? Feminism? (And if so what type of feminism?)

I suspect the left might be irredeemably fragmented-not just in New Zealand and not just in terms of organisation but intellectually too. It's the post modern condition. We've lost the certainty of grand narratives which provide an overarching vision. It's not necessarily a bad thing. In the end those grand narratives collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions and because the world is a complex and constantly evolving place.

Admittedly a theoretically and morally complex and fragmented political view point does notlend itself well to propagandising.But maybe addressing things on an issue by issue basis is ultimately the most intellectually honest and effective way to go. I certainly tend towards the view that an individual has more chance of effecting change if they focus on a few issues at a micro-level rather than trying to fix everything in the world that is wrong.

Posted by Amanda : 1/05/2006 01:28:00 PM

MTNW: I think issue-by-issue stuff is vitally important; nothing beats big-picture top-down ideological solutions (such as those the right prefers) better than the actual facts of the area they're trying to apply them to. But big-picture stuff is important to. it's not enough simply to counteract neo-liberal propaganda; we need to offer a clear vision of our own in its place.

There's some discussion of an alternative vision for the left (and one I think you'd like, given your work on UBI) here (original article here).

(And OTOH, what's wrong with letting a thousand flowers bloom? Money, obviously - but that aside, multiple left-wing think-tanks offering different alternatives would still be better than the current situation where the only vision being offered is that of the right)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/05/2006 01:45:00 PM

it seems to me that some of this think tank stuff is about the old captial vs labour (note small L) division - the capital can afford expensive right wing think tanks, the labour have to rely on unions and universities to get the left arguments up.

Unions are only now recovering from the gutting they experienced in the 1990s, and are still a long way from the capacity for this kind of research that they might have had in the '80s if they had been interested in this kind of thing. While many unions are now employing a researcher (and of course the CTU does) what they are yet to start doing is agressively pushing the research they produce externally - in a similar way to the right wing groups. NZUSA (although not a union) and the CTU are about the only groups outside of the single issue think tanks such as CPAG that seem to do much public work promoting their arguments.

And as universities become more and more reliant on private funding the conscience stuff is being eroded...

Posted by Span : 1/05/2006 07:41:00 PM

Interesting article I/S.

Span- I've talked to a few left wing academics about the experience of Rogernomics and it sounds like trying to speak out against it was quite horrendous at the time. It all happened really fast and quite overwhelmingly- the right had their arguments all marshalled- and if you tried to speak against the program or even question aspects of it you got hammered for doing so- both in the media and sometimes in terms of your career. People like Jane Kelsey (and Brian Easton?) have since gone on to do alright but my impression is that it came at a high personal cost at the time.

You are right that nowadays attracting external funding is a pressure that universities increasingly face making it harder to fulfill that conscience and critic role. A number of academics are doing what they can within this structure and are getting funding for projects which do have a social conscience flavour to them-some within business schools incidentally- but, the fact is that in New Zealand there is only ever going to be small pool of potential money to draw on with lots of people competing for it.

It's hard on unions too as they have a variety of functions they are meant to fulfill with lobbying and doing research only being one part of it all.

Networking is important. Overseas there is a bit of a movement towards collaborative research between unions and academics which I'd be quite keen to see more of happen here. See for eg

Posted by Amanda : 1/05/2006 09:18:00 PM

Death Knell,

I see you are tolling for ACT.

Compare ACT's shoe-string campaign in 2005 with their luxurious romp in 2002, and try to honestly say that they're still as well funded as they used to be.

You are correct that that Alan Gibbs and the other elements of the NZ rich-list are still donating to ACT: but they're floating a lot more money in National's direction. This is a significant change.

National was offered so much money that they couldn't legally take it all: which is part of where the Exclusive Brethren stunt comes in as a half-million that didn't legally count as campaign funds for National.

Posted by Icehawk : 1/06/2006 10:15:00 AM


I think the 'Global Warming is Cobblers' speaker they brought out would have received media if he came under his own steam as well.

It's a pet convenient theory of the rich, and their cronies and I don't think has any (for want of a better word) mainstream traction.

I think there are plenty of well-funded organisations that counteract this theory.

Previously the Alliance appeared to spend a lot of time arranging speaking tours, the Greens do that now. I think that the quality of speakers these people brought out and/or been associated with have had far better media coverage.

"As for Brash's connections doing him harm: um, no."

I meant in the public eye and in terms of votes. I am unaware of the actual funding although you had have to be in severe denial to not see that overall National's gain was ACT's loss.

I think Catherine Judd's report supports my view that public association with the BRT is a political albatross. The key problem is not getting money, it is that BRT research is associated with the economic pain of the 1980s and 90s - and can not popularise an issue.


"But maybe addressing things on an issue by issue basis is ultimately the most intellectually honest and effective way to go."

I think it is easier, and at times necessary, but I think it is really really important to explore the basis for resistance and alternatives to neo-liberalism (which I regard, and I assume others do here as the overall current threat). Although if we follow Saul's argument in the 'Collapse of Globalisation' neo-liberalism may be collapsing or in my interpretation changing.

"I certainly tend towards the view that an individual has more chance of effecting change if they focus on a few issues at a micro-level rather than trying to fix everything in the world that is wrong."

I think there is a need to do both, while taking in to account your own limits. Without for example placing water-privatisation in Auckland within the context of a global push to privatise a fundamental right - you are going to have to keep going back again and again to fix the problem.

I guess my main point is covered in this article ( here:

"Besides you don't have a vision of a better world anyway. You are well aware that "another world is possible." You've heard the slogans just like every other anti-beast activist. But there are almost no venues for exploring what this other world might look like, and it's hard to imagine spending the time on it anyway. The claws are still slashing, the tail is swishing, and the heart of the beast keeps pulsing relentlessly on."

A left-wing think tank could promote this, I think the Social Forum's are valuable and NZ is overdue one (or something similar), but we need continuity on the left and non-sectarian face to face discussions across the spectrum.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/06/2006 11:21:00 AM

By continuity I meant a venue or vehicle for ongoing discussion.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/06/2006 11:25:00 AM

Make Tea, etc

I think you overrate both the fragmentation of the left, and the unity of the right.

It's easy in ones own mind to see great differences of position among the political views of groups that are close to you, and at the same time see few differences between the groups that are distant from you (coz they're all nutters, ay).

Eg, a trotskyite may see various trotskyite factions feuding over differences of opinion, when all a right-winger sees is a bunch of identical lefties.

But that's a mistake.

In 'the right' in NZ you will see a large difference between ACT and Destiny and National. Meanwhile we've seen constant fracturing of the Christian Right political parties.

That's very important for our recent history:

Reagan and the US Right combined christian moralism with anti-social-welfare moralism and with claims to support free markets.

NZ saw the Lange/Douglas govt both embark on free market reforms, and bring in homosexual law reform. The 'Economic' Right and 'Christian' Right didn't match up here.

Largely that relates to our churches: the NZ mainstream religious leaders are almost all supporters of social welfare and a social safety net. Good on'em too.

So when Shipley tried to combine moralising with the free market, Kiwis rebelled.

There are currently some movements against that trend. The Maxim Insitute, for example. Brash has attempted a Reaganesque coalition with the religious right. But it remains to be seen if that will succeed or not. I think the backlash over his relationship with the Exclusive Brethren suggests that it will not.

Posted by Icehawk : 1/06/2006 11:52:00 AM


Yes, if he'd come under his own steam and had arranged press releases himself and arranged places to speak himself, then I think he'd have made the front page without BRT funding.

But that's the point isn't it: the BRT fly him here, facilitate the press releases, facilitate the speaking arrangements. That's a key way how the influence public debate: by picking speakers off the international conservative circuit and flying them in.

Posted by Icehawk : 1/06/2006 11:55:00 AM


You don't seem to notice what else I say. I don't think he had any appreciable difference on debate in NZ, and that there are (relatively) well-funded environmental groups which have already set the scene, and own the territory.

I don't think this is a good example at all, possibly your examples of previous speakers brought out during the eighties and nineties may be relevant to NZ, but as far as I knew the reason ideologues behind the Rogergnome 'revolution' had their arguments in place in the 70s and early 80s long before I believe these people toured.

The rest of my argument on this topic I think still stands that the majority of neo-liberal thought comes from state-funded universities and institutions. The broad brush institutes like the Maxim Institute, TLN, and in particular the BRC are ineffective and the neo-liberals know this.

Ultimately though my point is that while outside speakers are inspiring (a good example recently was Avi Lewis director of 'The Take'), a new left-wing thinktank that has a broad view should work on encouraging the left from liberal to radical to talk and develop ideas.

It's all very well writing reports and touring people, but if there is no underlying analysis of the structure of society it is fighting fires - which is important but not the whole picture.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/06/2006 01:00:00 PM

idiot: thanks for the link to that essay. I just read it, food for thought.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/06/2006 03:34:00 PM


What debate?

There is (as far as I can tell) no serious debate about Global Warming now, any more than there is debate about the world being round or smoking tobacco being bad for your health. The experts are in agreement - well, actually, they're arguing ferociously about detail: but they agree that there is anthropic warming and it is a problem.

Yet just look around the blogosphere and see how many global-warming-deniers you find. They're bloody everywhere.

That's the risk: not that the Roundtable will add to serious intellectual debate, but that they'll provide so-called 'experts' that get their views onto the front page and reinforce the view of the unthinking Right.

You seem to be basing your arguments on a view that these "conservative think-tanks" exist to do research. They don't. They exist to generate propaganda, to proselytise a view that they already hold. Whether it's another educationalist telling us about the wonders of vouchers and privatised schools, or another global-warming-denier, or yet another right-wing economist asserting that less taxes will grow the economy... you think any of these views invovle thought and research by the BRT?

When you assert that environmental groups "own the territory" on global warming, or that the BRT is so loopy and unlikable that it does the NZ left "no end of favours", I think you're dead wrong. We just axed the carbon tax - hardly a sign of the environmentalist "owning the territory" regard global warming. The BRT is still there, Roger Kerr still gets more media coverage for his views than any left-wing group I can think of.

I think you're confusing the views of your left-wing friends with the views of the NZ mainstream - a group that's extremely diverse, parts of which believe all sorts of nutty things, and large parts of which are susceptible to believing what they read on the front page of the newspaper.

Posted by Icehawk : 1/07/2006 02:11:00 PM

"What debate?"

The debate I'm talking about is in our media, cafes, workplaces, homes and what not around the country.

"I think you're confusing the views of your left-wing friends with the views of the NZ mainstream - a group that's extremely diverse, parts of which believe all sorts of nutty things"

I think you'll find the blogosphere is more rarified than the company I keep which is relatively diverse. I'm particularly talking about NZ, not anywhere but NZ. I agree you can get a distorted view sitting here in Wellington, but I would say most people think that global warming is happening.

I admit they might think it's because there were more tsunamis last year than they remember previously - but I believe this idea has got through to the mainstream. What to do about it is another question entirely.

As far as I understood the carbon tax was a crap idea rooted in neo-liberal thought. Once again we need to talk to develop our ideas, and lets not steal ideas from the opposition to solve our problems.

I still believe that the BRT is known to most as loopy - and this is because people remember what they championed. Roger Kerr is over. BusinessNZ on the otherhand is a different kettle of fish.

I would argue CPAG and Unite! are two left wing institutions that recently have got better media than the BRT.

"You seem to be basing your arguments on a view that these "conservative think-tanks" exist to do research. They don't. They exist to generate propaganda, to proselytise a view that they already hold."

The basis of my view is this is what _we_ need to do, collectively research, debate and come up with new tactics, ideas, and strategies.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/07/2006 10:33:00 PM

"Largely that relates to our churches: the NZ mainstream religious leaders are almost all supporters of social welfare and a social safety net. Good on'em too."

Beware, NZ is seeing a growth of the religious right evangelicals at the moment. Certainly the liberal chaplain at Canterbury Uni has noticed the Biblical fundamentalists on the rise there. This of course has implications as these 20 somethings move out in the wider world.

Sadly left leaning more traditional churchs are losing out compared to the very rigid "Destiny-type" baby mega churches in terms of new growth. These churches have business models and CEO's and mission statements.

I think their influence will increase at the expense of churches working in social services atm, eg. City Mission, Presbyterian Support, Catholic Workers/Charities. Salvation Army will just keep on keeping on I think. Look at how much air time "Bishop" Brian got as the "Christian" voice in the media, compared with say the Anglican Archbishop and City Mission.

Posted by Muerk : 1/08/2006 12:35:00 PM

Er, Muerk? Not what the last census said, sport. Actually, the largest demographic faith category is those with no religious beliefs at all, and traditionally evangelical denominations like the Baptists, Salvation Army and Brethren are shrinking faster than mainline Protestantism.

Catholicism is an exception, as is Orthodoxy, probably due to Balkan immigration to New Zealand during the travails of Yugoslavia in the nineties. Pentecostal fundamentalism is growing, but not as fast as the other great faiths, or nonreligious viewpoints- or Wicca/neopaganism, for that matter.

Craig Y.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/10/2006 03:00:00 PM

Hmmm... ok my bad.

Posted by Muerk : 1/10/2006 05:29:00 PM