Gordon Campbell on China, University Funding, Ukraine

87eb0e62a2ad54a570edGosh. According to a tip leaked to a journalist from the Australian newspaper by an anonymous source whose identity cannot be disclosed for secret squirrel reasons, our Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta was reportedly subjected to an “epic haranguing” by her Chinese counterpart a few months ago. Co-incidentally, this elderly revelation was published on the eve of a visit to China by PM Chris Hipkins, and got splashed over the New Zealand media just as Hipkins and his trade delegation touched down in Beijing.

Among other things, the episode is an illustration of how much New Zealand loses by (a) not having more of our own reporters based offshore, which leaves us (b) reliant on news feeds originating in political cultures that bear little or no relation to our worldviews and national interests. The Australian is a reactionary flagship of the Murdoch empire. It shares the Murdoch media’s antipathy to China. To boot, the Australian has long been hostile to New Zealand, and its independent foreign policy.

For example: only two days before our 2020 election, the Australian ranted that “No international halo is so shabby, or so fraudulent, as that worn by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.” At Anzac Cove, when then Chief of Defence Force Bruce Fergusson gave a speech that observed how our troops at Gallipoli had suffered from poor decisions made by the British, the Australian lambasted this uncontroversial view as “politically correct adolescent spouting.”

A few days ago, Will Glasgow, the reporter for the Australian who wrote the Mahuta hit piece, lamented on Twitter that China was willing to use its muscle to advantage its own battery makers, ahead of those made by foreign trade rivals. In Glasgow’s opinion:

This sort of behaviour provides good reason to question sunny predictions that “China will only become more important” as a trading partner for Australia or any other liberal democracy

Yes, pull up that drawbridge because hey, the US and Australia never, ever try to advance the trade interests of their own chip-makers or digital technology firms. According to Glasgow though, it seems as if similar efforts by the Chinese could put all liberal democracies in peril, should they dare to expand their trade with Beijing. This time at least, Glasgow did identify his source: the Economist magazine, the bastion of right wing groupthink.

In the same paranoid tone, the Australian has argued that Aussie state premiers would have been “out of their depth” in trying to negotiate Belt and Road deals with the wily Chinese. (The Morrison government stymied Victoria’s attempt to strike just such a deal.)

Alternative realities

The overblown reporting on the Mahuta incident is an example of how our media tend to take at face value anything overseas news outlets say about us. I’d just like to say that I, too, have an anonymous source close to the action whose identity cannot be disclosed for security reasons.

Only the other day, this source whispered to me from behind the arras that the “epic haranguing” directed at Nanaia Mahuta by her Chinese counterpart was a mere walk in the park compared to the harsh rhetoric aimed at Australian diplomats by the Chinese back when the Morrison government and China were butting heads over trade and defence. I look forward to seeing my tip on the front page of the NZ Herald.

Footnote: Plainly, we’re willing to tolerate an occasional harangue from the Chinese, provided they keep buying our stuff. It was demand from China that saved New Zealand (and Australia) from the worst of the GFC. Post-Covid, Hipkins is hoping for more of the same rescue mission from China, although with the Chinese economy currently faltering, those high hopes may have to be revised downwards.

Despite all the talk about diversifying away from our trade dependence on China, the fact that Hipkins is leading a 70 strong NZ trade delegation can only be read as a whooping bellyflop back into further trade dependence on Beijing, and on retaining its good will. Basically, it’s hard to wag a finger convincingly about human rights abuses against the Uighurs, when you’re begging the perpetrator to spend up large in your shop.

University of commerce

Reportedly, the government is putting a total of $128 million into bailing out a tertiary education system that’s still feeling the impact of Covid on the fee-paying international students that used to bankroll the tertiary sector. No doubt, the pandemic was an extreme event. Yet even so, the sizeable government bailout – like previous rescue missions at Air New Zealand and in buying back the rail system – puts a real question mark over whether it’s wise to pay sky high salaries to managers in a sector that plainly doesn’t live and die by market forces.

If risks are always going to be offset by how essential these organisations are to the public good – as universities, airlines and rail networks certainly are – then the government will always be standing behind the managers, with its cheque book open.

Surely, that insulation from the consequences of failure should be reflected in reduced salaries. No sign of that though, in the top university managers and their subordinates – I’m talking about the top tier of university staff who don’t do research or teaching. In February, an OIA request revealed that the annual salary of Auckland University’s vice-chancellor is $755,000.

This table indicates that the top executive at Massey University will receive $532,000 in 2022/23, while their equivalent at Otago University reportedly got paid $506,000 in 2021/22. Interestingly… At Victoria University, the vice-chancellor’s salary was reportedly $579,000 in 2021/22, but this dropped to $447,000 for the year 2022/23.

That pay cut – to merely 1.5 times the salary of a Cabinet Minister – makes poignant reading today, given the recent proposals for wiping out entire courses (and teaching jobs ) at Victoria University. For a glimpse into the logic used to “justify” the salaries of top managers at Victoria University, it’s hard to beat this unintentionally comic interview with then-vice chancellor Grant Guildford, as re-published (in part) by Salient magazine in 2021. Among the golden quotes given by Guilford in 2018:

“It’s not so much about wanting to get paid that much [$599,000 at the time] that’s the going rate for people with my level of responsibility. The salary is paying for the accountability that we have – also, from a business sense the Chief Exec earns that salary, many times over. Generally for professionals you’re looking to earn three times your salary. All of the Vice Chancellors I know in NZ– none of them are driven by their salary, that’s just what you get paid when you are at that level.”

Would Guilford take a pay cut, Salient innocently asked, “to give the university more money?”

He replied, “I wouldn’t…because it’s a bad look–it would look like I was worth less compared to other people in similar roles.”

Come the pandemic however and alas, Guilford did have to take a 20% pay cut on his annual salary. As Salient sportingly pointed out, Victoria University is a big business, employs a lot of people and has a large property portfolio. “You need a VC who has the business acumen and experience to keep it all afloat, which comes at a high price.”

OK, but here’s the thing. The viability of certain courses at Victoria – or at any other NZ university – has been shown to hinge on external factors like (a) the numbers of fee-paying international students and (b) the backstop of a government bailout. In other words, the business expertise of the vice chancellor looks to have been rather beside the point. That being so, the high salaries look more like a Ponzi scheme – I deserve this because that’s what everyone else doing this sort of role currently gets – than a reflection of one’s actual market value.

With notable exceptions (eg. the Ruapehu ski-field) most captains of industry can’t rely on being saved by a government safety net. Now that the cavalry have arrived, university teaching and research staff will need to ensure that relatively little of that $128 million bailout gets siphoned off into the pay packets of the university managers.

Bait and switch

Talking about the week’s array of media narratives – and don’t get me started on the endless lashings of rescue porn coverage devoted to the Titan submersible disaster – the Wagner Group rebellion was almost as bad. The revolt led to much wishful thinking among a jubilant Western media about the decline and possible fall of Vladimir Putin.

Sure, Putin can hold a deadly grudge. But what exactly does the Western commentariat think is going to happen to the Wagner Group? Besides their ongoing role in Ukraine, the Wagner Group remains central to Russia’s very lucrative diplomatic/military endeavours in African countries like Mali and Libya. Reportedly, the group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and most of his troops are now relocating to Belarus, which – if you look at the map — is situated uncomfortably close to the Ukraine capital, Kyev.

By relocating, this solves the problem that sparked the rebellion: Namely, Prigozhin’s conflicts (over tactics) with the Russian military leadership. It also gives the Wagner Group a potential new mission i.e. to invade Ukraine along a new northern front from Belarus, while the bulk of Ukraine’s military is still committed to Ukraine’s slow moving counter-offensive in the south of the country.

After all, it was a phone call from the Belarussian dictator (and Putin ally) Aleksandr Lukashenko that convinced Prigozhin to halt his drive towards Moscow. By importing the Wagner Group, Lukashenko has won himself brownie points with Moscow, and given himself plausible deniability from whatever the Wagner Group might launch next, from his territory.

Kyev, in other words, will not be sharing in the West’s jubilation about the black eye that the revolt has supposedly given to Putin. Sure, the revolt has taken Russia’s best fighting force away from the battlefield in the south. Yet Russia’s southern stance happens to be entirely defensive. The Wagner Group’s departure may not make a decisive difference to the Russian soldiers waiting in their trenches, behind their extensive minefields and artillery firewalls.

But a fresh Russian offensive from the direction of Belarus? At the very least, Ukraine’s commanders now have to be looking over their shoulders, and thinking about how to counter the new threat that might be coming at them from the north.

Country, rockin’

As has been mentioned here before, US country music radio is programmed on the premise that male artists comprise the lettuce of the genre, while female musicians are the tomatoes dotted only sparingly throughout the salad. The other maxim is that modern country radio liberally borrows from indie rock, but only 20 years or more behind the curve, after the edges of innovation have been sanded off..

Over the past five years, Ashley McBryde has been one the best new writers/simgers in country music (“One Night Standards” “ The Jacket” “Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega” etc.) and she’s a hard livin’ classic rocker at heart. “ Hang in There, Girl” for instance, pays such earnest homage to 1970s-era Rolling Stones that if anything, the retro-ness is like rocking out in an old rocking chair.

For starters, here’s“One Night Standards: ”

The new single “The Devil I Know” is from McBryde’s upcoming album, and the guitars might be to bit too loud for modern country radio. The song has a clunkier lyric than usual, but it will probably work better in the context of the album: