Gordon Campbell on living in Seymour World

b47afa6896f4394622b9So far, the horse race journalism surrounding the polling rise of the Act Party has not included much consideration of the policies an Act -influenced government would pursue. During this honeymoon phase – giddily, David Seymour is being asked whether he is now the real leader of the Opposition – Act is being given free rein to present itself as all things to all people. For now, Act is the hitching post for almost everyone with a grievance. According to its leader, Act is the party that listens, and responds with can-do solutions.

There’s a truth in packaging problem here. Can this be the same party that went into Election 2020 on a harsh austerity platform that promised to balance the books by 2024, cut “wasteful spending” on public services by $7.6 billion and deliver $3.1 billion in tax cuts – including a permanent reduction to tax rates that would ensure those public services could never readily be restored. Barely a year ago, Act was offering a high-risk package of radical change likely to sharply increase social inequality.

Some of those savings would be achieved by Act’s promise to fire 50% of the staff of the Education Ministry. Education funding under Act would be turned over to a voucher system whereby every child would receive $250,000 that parents could then use “at any registered educational institution that will accept their child’s enrolment, public or private.” Good luck with getting your child – and especially your special needs child – “accepted” by a “registered educational institution” near you. In the subsequent scramble, the highest bidders would win the best slots for their children. Another Act experiment in Social Darwinism.

On housing, Act would scrap the RMA and gift developers with a limitless ability to build “without restrictive zoning.” As well as developers having virtually unrestricted access to land without council interference, Act would also reward developers by removing councils entirely from the building consent and inspection process. In this Wild West – Act seems to have learned nothing from the leaky homes crisis – new home-owners would have to rely on the fine print in the private insurance policies that Act would make mandatory for new housing. The post-earthquake experience of Christchurch with insurance companies would be written large across the entire country.

On welfare, insurance would also play a prominent role. Act would replace much of the current support system for the unemployed with a new “ employment insurance” fund created by a 1% levy on taxation. Paradoxically, those previously on higher incomes would receive more in welfare support since, under the promised formula, successful claimants would receive 50 percent of their average weekly earnings over the previous 52 weeks (or fewer). But if you were on or near the minimum wage… Tough luck. Under Act, you would be subsisting (briefly) on half of it. And even this support would only be claimable for one week of each five weeks the person has worked, up to a maximum of 13 weeks per claim.

Beyond that point, anyone seeking or needing further assistance – or who has been on job-seeking support for more than four weeks – would be put under strict electronic management that would dictate what they would be allowed to buy. (For all its complaints about the Nanny State, Act has no problem at all with subjecting the poor to the full forces of the Daddy State.) This intrusive monitoring system would also apply to those who seek hardship assistance repeatedly; those who have received an imprisonable criminal conviction; those who have committed benefit fraud; those who have had another child while on welfare; or those who have a primary incapacity of substance or alcohol abuse.

My point is that this isn’t a benign, moderate vision at all. The jovial leader of the Act Party is peddling an old potion – small government, light-handed regulation, harsh budgetary restraint, social service cutbacks and tough law and order and welfare policy – derived from the glory days of Margaret Thatcher. That recipe has been discredited throughout the developed world over the past 40 years, and especially since the GFC crisis of 2008. It proved to be particularly harmful to those nations in Europe that went down the austerity path. It was the countries that did the exact opposite and poured in billions of state funding (the US, China) that got the global economy back on track after the GFC, and have done so again during the Covid pandemic.

The issue here is not simply that Act is being given a free hand to portray the policies of austerity in a benevolent light. Act‘s support is increasing. So much so that the current (and next) leader of the National Party should be being asked about just how much of Act’s agenda – which if enacted, would take National right back to the Ruth Richardson era – are they willing to swallow? Fair question. Labour, when in Opposition, used to be plagued with similar questions about how much of the Greens agenda it planned on taking into government. On current polling, National would have to move much, much further to the right (and backwards in time) to accommodate Act within its next governing coalition.

It is never too soon be asking whether New Zealand should even be considering going down this socially disastrous path again. If National aims to be seen as a government in waiting, we need to know well beforehand what a National- Act coalition government would entail. For now, it should be buyer beware. Because there’s such a yawning gap between Act’s extremist agenda and the benign face it is presenting to the electorate. On the policy evidence, Seymour World would not be a place that many New Zealanders would want to call home.

Nuclear proliferation, Oz Style

Resisting nuclear proliferation is usually our thing. ( David Lange at Oxford, the anti-nuke legislation etc) Yet under the new AUKUS deal, our Australian neighbours will soon be joining the small club of nations that have nuclear submarines. Those subs may not have nuclear weapons, but they will be nuclear propelled. That means they will need nuclear fuel. The enrichment of uranium to create that fuel is carried out in centrifuges.

Hmm. Stop me if you’ve heard this before but…uranium enriched to 20% ( or more) via centrifuges for the avowed purposes of fuel and/or electricity, but (theoretically) capable of being upgraded to make nuclear weapons. That is exactly what Iran has been vilified for over the past decade with respect to its civilian nuclear enrichment programme. Iran has been punished with severe sanctions by the US and threatened with bombing by the Israelis, who have been assassinating a number of Iran’s nuclear scientists in recent years. And for what sins? For doing less than what the US plans to enable Australia to do. Iran’s enrichment programme has been a civilian one, to enrich uranium to 20%, avowedly to help meet the country’s energy needs.

By contrast, Australia’s foray into nuclear enrichment has an explicit military purpose, as a key part of a China containment force. Moreover, as the South China Morning Post pointed out a few days ago :

The fuel that will power the reactors of Australia’s nuclear submarines will be highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to a background press call held on September 20 with a senior administration official from the White House. Anything above 20 per cent enrichment is considered HEU, and US and British submarine reactors use fuel that is enriched at 93 to 97 per cent – above the 90 per cent threshold considered standard for “weapons-grade” uranium.

So… Australia’s military-purpose nuclear needs won’t be beginning at the level that Iran has been demonised over. Australia, if one can judge by the nuclear subs deployed by its AUKUS colleagues, would be starting out at a nuclear weapons grade level of enrichment. The US might – for a while – make a p.r. offer to remove the irradiated fuel waste afterwards, as part of its agreement with Canberra. Yet once that promise has served the purpose of getting the nuclear submarine deal bedded in with the Australian public, can Washington and Canberra really be trusted to continue with it?

It’s the Green solution

Already, powerful lobbyists in Australia are working to ensure that this initial step down the nuclear path will be merely the first of many. Consider this hair-raising press release issued last week by the CEO of the powerful Australian Minerals Council:

Reforming the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is the first step in developing the skills and infrastructure to support the critical technology needed to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as announced today by the Australian, British and United States governments. This is an incredible opportunity for Australia’s economy – not only will we develop the skills and infrastructure to support this naval technology, but it connects us to the growing global nuclear power industry and its supply chains.

Such an opportunity, and with only a few pesky government regulations standing in the way of progress!

While Australia has one third of the world’s uranium supplies, it has limited its nuclear capacity to a single world class medical research reactor at Lucas Heights in Sydney. Outdated regulations at the Federal and State levels that prohibit nuclear power – and in some cases exploration and mining of uranium – contribute to Australia being unable to properly even consider let alone develop this important industry.

Plus, going nuclear is so environmentally friendly!

The next generation of nuclear technologies – small modular reactors (SMRs) – will provide some of the cheapest zero emission 24/7 power available. As Australia looks to decarbonise, these technologies should be allowed. Not only do they produce electricity, they can be configured to produce hydrogen and synthetic fuels and industrial heat that will play key roles in delivering a net zero emission future. Now that Australia is acquiring nuclear submarines which use small reactors, there is no reason why Australia should not be considering SMRs for civilian use.

Yikes. Yet to date, New Zealand has kept its head down. We have a few double standards of our own. Australia’s nuclear-propelled submarines are being planned to project AUKUS military force into and around the Indo-Pacific. In doing so, this will raise the risk of an unintended military conflict with an increasingly paranoid China. Longer term, the nuclear fuel needed to drive the Aussie submarines is likely to create problems of nuclear reactor waste disposal right next door to New Zealand. In the event of a Fukushima style meltdown triggered by human error or by extreme weather associated with climate change, we know which way the prevailing winds and waters would carry Australia’s nuclear fallout.

Meaning : there are any number of reasons for New Zealand to be expressing its dismay and disquiet about the nuclear proliferation that’s being put in train right on our doorstep. We should be (a) protesting how the AUKUS pact is escalating military tensions with China (b) asking for enlightenment from Canberra about its plans for nuclear waste disposal and (c) seeking assurances from Canberra that Australia will not be expanding its nuclear industry in future for any purpose. Or do our concerns about nuclear proliferation cease to apply when it is our traditional friends who are doing the proliferating?

Lilacs drink the water

If there was ever a Grammy for the best song with the worst video, Waxahatchee’s “Lilacs” single would have to be a strong contender, (The official video uses the music as a backdrop for an excruciating bit of modern dance.) Luckily, Katie Crutchfield aka Waxahatchee also performed “Lilacs” at a recent Pitchfork music festival. For all its surface prettiness, this is a song about the internal struggles between dissatisfaction, vulnerability and commitment – all of it conveyed via a startling metaphor about how the lilacs soak up the daily tending that we give them, while fated to die in the end, anyway. Knowing that makes no difference though, to the commitment. It is the crop of kismet, Crutchfield says. So write it in the dust, babe.