Gordon Campbell on why Boris Johnson is threatening to shoot this puppy

pupperIt may help to think of the October 31 ‘no deal’ Brexit as a warm, rascally puppy. And British PM Boris Johnson has made it clear that he will shoot that puppy, unless someone stops him. Look, Johnson is as good as saying, here I go across the room to pull out the loaded revolver to do it, unless some-one stops me. Because I don’t care. I’m going to suspend Parliament and shoot that puppy dead – no matter what heartache a ‘no deal’ outcome causes Britain – unless someone stops me. Just watch me. Or hey, you could try to stop me.

In other words, we shouldn’t be concentrating on the threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit on October 31, so much as on the ‘unless someone stops me’ part of the message. Because hey, who could possibly stop Boris Johnson and his one vote parliamentary majority from driving Britain off a cliff into a ‘no deal’ abyss on October 31? It could only be a combination of Labour and Lib Dem Remainers, joining forces with a group of soft Brexit Tory rebels. Already, the Remainers are being virtually implored by Johnson to try (in September) to stop him (a) from suspending Parliament and (b) from risking a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

At which point, Boris The Brave, the fearless champion who was willing to risk everything – even a no deal Brexit! – in order to deliver what the public want, will then (a) ask the EU for an Article 50 extension to the October 31 deadline and (b) call a snap election and (c) return the Conservative Party to power with a thumping great majority. A majority so big that it will allow Johnson to jettison the 10 Unionist MPs on whom he currently depends, and push through Parliament a version of the ‘Irish backstop’ that will gladly leave Northern Ireland alone within the EU Customs Union, thereby avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. Brexit problem solved, majority achieved. On with the Boris show.

But first, a Parliamentary majority has to be induced into stopping Johnson from shooting that puppy. Because if they don’t, and if a ‘no deal’ did eventually transpire on October 31 (with all of its related socio-economic carnage) then it would be Boris Johnson – and not the metaphorical puppy – who would be politically dead. Trust him. He won’t allow that to happen.

Earlier this week, the US Foreign Policy magazine put it this way:

Johnson is well aware that the fallout from a no-deal Brexit would threaten his government as well as the long-term reputation of the Conservative Party. But he is unable to soften his rhetoric because it would provoke a furious backlash from absolutist Brexiteers within his own party and among the wider electorate. To keep his Cabinet on his side and to dissuade Conservative voters (some 61 percent of whom voted to leave the EU in 2016) from defecting to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, Johnson needs to be seen as a committed no-dealer. This balancing act depends upon provoking hostile members of Parliament into blocking no-deal and forcing him to seek yet another extension to the Article 50 deadline so he doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of climbing down on his own accord.

Johnson would then be able to spin the Brexit delay as an act of sabotage by a Remainer-dominated Parliament and use it as justification for a snap general election. Indeed, it has been reported that Johnson and [his top adviser] Dominic Cummings have already been laying the groundwork for a “people versus politicians” general election, long before Parliament has even made a move.

Given that scenario, quite a few hard Brexit Tories are likely to vote against Johnson in September, to ensure he gets the excuse for a snap election that he’s seeking.

Whither New Zealand?

After Brexit of course, Britain will still be in a terrible fix. Yes, it will be free to do new trade deals with all and sundry, but from a position on its knees. As former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says, Britain will like someone leaving their current job before they have a new job, and thinking that somehow this puts them in a good bargaining position for what comes next. It won’t. As Summers says, Brexit will make Britain look desperate, and weak.

The US is already licking its chops at the prospect of this newly enfeebled Britain. Trump, as we all now know, treats trade as a zero-sum game in which he has to win (USA! USA!) and the other country has to lose, big time. Stand by then for tonnes of chlorine-washed US chicken and antibiotic-laden US beef (that the EU rejected) to land in British supermarkets. Look out also for Big Pharma imposing its drug prices on the National Health Service.

Which is where New Zealand comes in, as one of the few friends a post-Brexit Britain will be able to muster. The US, Japan, Australia… all of them look like tough trading partners for Britain, once it has wobbled back onto its feet after its self-inflicted knockout. We risk being welcomed as one of the few prospective players unlikely to take Britain to the cleaners. Hey, we may be only Britain’s 49th biggest export market, but we’re better than nothing.

Ah good old Britain… the Mother Country, the imperial ties that bind, the Queen and all that. Not to mention the fact that over the past 30 years, the words “free trade agreement” have been the closest thing to a national aphrodisiac for successive New Zealand governments. Say “FTA” to New Zealand, and the next question tends to be – your place or mine?

Mind you, there are a few reasons why New Zealand should be feeling reluctant to swipe right on a new trading arrangement with Britain. Let’s hope Trade Minister David Parker keeps them in mind. After all, they did dump us once before (in 1973) to go off and join the Common Market. We got over it, and found new partners in Asia. Now they’re back. Sure, they’re currently our sixth biggest export market but… a goodly amount of that status is because Britain has not only been a valuable market in itself, but because London has been an English-speaking gateway to European markets.

Not any more. We’ll be looking in future at something that looks more like an ‘either/or’, rather than the ‘both/and’ that we currently enjoy. Because different rules, regulations and standards (not to mention packaging) will increasingly become the norm, depending on which side of the Channel our goods and services exporters are facing.

Also… one reason why the current situation has worked so well for us is that we’ve been able to shift our EU export quotas between the EU and Britain markets, to maximise pricing and demand opportunities as they arise. That era will soon be over. The EU has firmly told us that at best, New Zealand’s current quota allocations are to be formally and rigidly split, between the UK and the EU.

Also… once Britain’s farm exports run headlong into the EU firewall post-Brexit, UK farm produce is going to be re-directed onto the domestic market – where it will be competing directly with New Zealand. Prices will tumble. During the subsequent marketing battle, UK producers will be able to say ‘buy local’ and play the climate change card against our farm exports, which have travelled half way round the world.

Add all of this (and more) to the picture and… imperial sentiment aside, that EU market of circa 450 million consumers is looking a lot more essential and a lot more enticing to us than the UK market of 66 million people. Therefore, if we want to start breathing heavily and whispering “FTA” in anyone’s ears post-Brexit, it should be those of the European Union. Luckily, we’re engaged in preliminary table-setting trade negotiations with both the EU and the UK. Let’s hope Parker continues to prioritise the EU deal. Britain is no big deal to us anymore. Weird isn’t it, that its Queen is still our head of state?

Footnote: As Foreign Policy also indicates, the FPP voting system in Britain will work in Johnson’s favour. As it did once before for Tony Blair in the 2005 election, FPP will deliver outsized gains to a consolidated (Tory/Farage) campaign at a time when, conversely, the Lib Dems and Labour are neck and neck in the polls, thereby dividing the Remainer vote in a way likely to cost both of them dearly. In a voting system that gives everything to the candidate who is first past the post, the competition among the Remainer parties stands to benefit the centre-right immensely.

The Census Fallout

On RNZ this morning National Party leader Simon Bridges claimed that Australia carried out its last census online and that all went ‘just fine’.

Bridges’ claim is completely untrue. Australia’s experience with its online census in 2016 ended in what has been variously described as ‘a debacle’ and ‘a shambles’ that was marred by ‘significant and obvious oversights’ that resulted in ‘a shitfight’ over who was to blame – all amid lamentations about a possible erosion of public trust in the Census exercise.

It all sounds very familiar. For obvious reasons, Bridges is trying to defend the prior National government’s ‘strategy’ of doing the Census online, while blaming everything wrong with it upon the execution by the incoming coalition government.

Yet the basic question needs to be convincingly answered. Namely, can you really do an effective Census online? Sure, an online process may work out fine for middle class/upper class people with ready access to computers and past experience with online form-filling – and reliable information about those groups may be the only thing that the business clients who buy the subsequent data packages from Statistics are interested in.

But if the government wants to use reliable Census data to help them measure and respond to social need, it will have to spend a lot more money on ensuring that Maori and other relatively disadvantaged groups are reached on Census night – and if that exercise isn’t done properly, it will erode most of the theoretical economic gains from doing the Census online. In addition… within Statistics, austerity measures over several years have contributed to an erosion of the internal capacity to adequately develop and execute the e-Census process. Since then, it has had to divert more of its scant resources into fixing the e-Census problems.

Are those shortfalls being addressed by fresh funding from the current government? Yes, it would seem so .

The “Vote Statistics” document from this year’s Budget apportions an extra $16 million this financial year, starting on July 1, “to ensure that Statistics New Zealand can maintain current products and services by covering a growing shortfall in operating expenditure due to cost and demand pressures and a declining nominal baseline”. That figure is estimated to rise to $35 million in 2020/21, $40 million the following year, and $46 million in 2022/23.

Will these increases be enough to do the Census properly in future? Who knows. For now, both the government and National seem united in their reluctance to abandon the e-Census strategy. Surely, National needs to own its historical contribution to the problem, and lend its support – in the national interest – to fixing shortcomings that it did so much to generate. Fat chance of that. Right now, the politicians seem interested only in scoring political points from the fallout. Maybe the best the public can do is look at how the Australians tried to fix the problems they ran into with their e-Census. According to this summary:

The Census report made 16 recommendations for future national surveys, including open tender processes for work conducted [in relation to it] greater scrutiny of technology used for the 2021 eCensus, six-monthly ministerial briefings on census preparations, and that any data breaches are reported within one week of being identified.

The Committee also recommended… a maximum fine for Australians who choose not to participate in the Census, rather than indefinite fines of $180 a day, and a privacy impact assessment of the data it collects and uses conducted by a third party to “re-establish its public credibility”.

Country Music, Back Then

Over the last few decades, country music has become so slicked up that the Nashville music of the 1970s sounds like it came from an alien planet. Much of it – like the honky tonk angst of Gary Stewart – were the last gasps of even older traditions. In this amusing 1978 country hit though, Freddy Weller did his level best to combine the Star Wars craze with that country music staple: bar-room brawling over a woman who’s turned to sin:

Bar Wars/kicking in car doors
It’s the Force of the Bible running through this fool a-looking for a fight…”

Talking of old country music stereotypes, Freddie Hart was one of eleven children born to an Alabama sharecropper family. For much of the 1970s, Hank Williams remained the musical touchstone, even for rebels like Waylon Jennings (‘Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?’) No rebel himself, Hart drew directly on that legacy for this extremely weird conversation with the guitar of Hank Williams. The pathos of the song’s ending sounds like a horror story…and I’d like to think Leonard Cohen drew on it for the lines about Hank Williams he wrote into ‘Tower of Song’…

Finally, if there’s one song that epitomises 1970s Nashville music – lyrically, stylistically – it would have to be this 1977 smash hit by the father and daughter duo, the Kendalls: