Gordon Campbell on Sir Roger’s lament, and the Commonwealth Games

3879c51cd3d8b3788898So Dr. Frankenstein is feeling upset about how his monster has turned out. To the dismay of Sir Roger Douglas, the ACT Party has become the libertarian party of the wealthy elite. Gasp. No-one saw that one coming. Douglas, 85, has reportedly penned a 22 page letter of complaint about how the ACT Party of David Seymour has strayed from the one true path and has quote, “lost the plot” unquote. Reportedly, this has sent Sir Roger tottering out onto the tundra as a swing voter. Maybe this could be an option.

We have been here before, of course. Fifteen years ago, Douglas was not a Jolly Roger when ACT’s then-leader Rodney Hide also fell into error, and strayed from the founder’s firm belief that a political party can survive on pure economic theory, so long as enough multi-millionaires keep on writing it cheques. As Wikipedia wrote of the Hide schism:

Roger Douglas himself has emerged as one of Hide’s more prominent critics, referring to Hide’s “stunts” as detracting from ACT’s core economic message, shifting focus to populist issues of law and order and to provocative race relations policies. At a party conference, Douglas condemned MPs “who run any fickle line capable of grabbing short-term votes and attention”, a comment allegedly directed at Hide or at his supporters. Hide defends himself on the grounds that a focus on pure economic theory will not attract interest.

Rodney Hide was right, which is not a sentence many people have ever felt compelled to write. Being associated in the public mind with the Douglas brand of economic theory (aka Thatcherism) was never going to be a sustainable way for ACT o win wide favour with the voting public. Those same toxic associations meant that David Seymour wasted the best part of a decade languishing at around the 1% mark in the polls. It was only after Seymour re-invented himself as a Peters-style populist (via the end-of-life legislation) that ACT began to claw its way to relevance.

Cranky monomaniac that he is, Douglas has never conceded – let alone atoned for – the devastation his policies have wrought upon New Zealand communities. Ironically, ACT’s tough law and order policies today are dealing with the social fallout from its founder’s economic policies of yesteryear. Unfortunately, the ACT Party has an intergenerational dependence on neo-liberal economics, so the cycle is now set to repeat itself.

Politically, the short term effect of the Douglas Era was that the voting public could hardly wait to bury the fourth Labour government at the ballot box in 1990. When the National Party not only continued the same detested policies but intensified them, voters felt betrayed and punished National, too. That’s how and why New Zealand adopted MMP. This time around, not even MMP may save us from a repeat dose of the same catastrophic policies that brought MMP into existence. Sometimes, even the people who remember the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

Many of the public that votes for ACT this year because they like that young chap Seymour’s criticisms of this country’s problems, are going to recoil in horror once they experience ACT’s policy solutions. As Mary Shelley wrote over two hundred years ago in Frankenstein: “When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” Who, indeed.

Footnote One: In calling the centre-right’s 2023 policy menu socially toxic, I’m not exaggerating. Between them, ACT and National are promising to deliver tax cuts that favour the wealthy, to freeze the minimum wage for three years, to re-introduce 90 day fire-at-will employment trials, to reduce workplace personal grievance protections against harassment, to bring back interest payments on student loans, to give landlords a multi-billion tax break by letting them write off the interest payments on their rental properties, to allow landlords to evict tenants at will, to invite people to rob their future by using their Kiwisaver savings to pay rental bonds, to spend extra billions on Defence, to impose a five year lifetime limit on welfare support for the jobless, to impose cashless welfare cards on long term beneficiaries, to create more charter schools able to expose kids to unqualified teachers, to permanently lower the tax burden on the wealthy, to scrap Fair Pay Agreements, to abolish the Maori Health Authority, to spend millions on sending young offenders to punitive boot camps known to fail, to bring back Three Strikes, to re-open the export trade in live animals, to reduce the sentencing discretion of judges, to raise the retirement age, to give farmers an extra five year holiday from changing their climate damaging practices, to remove sanctions on dairy farming’s pollution of our lakes and rivers, to reduce healthy homes protections… etc etc etc.

To borrow a phase, it makes you wonder whether the people proposing such policies are incredibly stupid, or chillingly malicious.

Commonwealth, Common problems

Killed by consultants? Jacinta Allan, the ironically titled Minister for Commonwealth Games Delivery in the state of Victoria, has blamed the fatal budget blowout for the 2026 Games on the gap between the original cost estimate ($A2.6 billion) provided by one team of consultants engaged by the state government, and the new cost estimates calculated by Ernst and Young after the tenders had gone out. By last month, the new estimates had risen to circa $A4 billion, and were heading for $A7 billion before state premier Dan Andrews pulled the plug.

Some of those escalating costs have been a by-product of the nice idea of a de-centralised, small scale and grassroots Games held at venues dotted around regional Victoria. However, this still involved building the venues. Such as – for instance – a velodrome in Bendigo instead of hosting the Games solely in Melbourne, where suitable/adaptable venues already exist and where there might be some legacy value. What exactly, would Bendigo have done with its velodrome, afterwards? The planned buildings would be too small to pack in enough crowds during the Games to make ends meet, but afterwards… They’d be an expensive liability for local councils and ratepayers to maintain. A series of white elephants, right across Victoria.

Even so, there’s still a huge and unexplained gap between that $7 billion cited by Andrews and – by contrast – the $A1.4 billion it cost Birmingham to host the last Games, and the $1.6 billion it cost the Gold Coast to host the 2018 Games. Quite a mess. Victoria now owes (a) cancellation costs to the Commonwealth Games Federation (b) the $2 billion cost of compensating regional Victoria for the investment in facilities and tourism bonanzas they were promised and (c) the costs payable to any city that steps into the breach, for additional expenses that the short notice will cause them to incur.

Regardless of this train wreck, there are people in New Zealand calling for this country to “swoop in” and take it on. That would be suicidal. Significantly, and within 24 hours of Andrews pulling the plug, every other Australian state ( except Western Australia) has rushed to point out that they weren’t interested in shouldering this burden themselves, alone. In 2030 it will be 100 years since the first Commonwealth Games, initially called the British Empire Games. As yet though, no country has offered to host the centenary. Reportedly, New Zealand is considering a bid for the 2034 Games.

Again, such a bid would be foolhardy. The Commonwealth Games is a “celebration” of a colonial legacy that New Zealand – in every other respect including the new school curriculum – is consigning to the dustbin of history. No doubt though, major corporations will always rush to support any proposal that exploits sports based nationalism to deliver large numbers of consumers to advertisers.

Yet, as mentioned in Werewolf before, the Commonwealth Games are actually the $2 Shop of international sport. Beyond the nations taking part, it is a non-event on the global sporting calendar. Certainly, New Zealand wins a bigger haul of medals at the Commonwealth Games than it does at truly international sports events like the Olympics. Again, that’s not an accident. The exploits of Jamaican sprinters and Kenyan distance runners aside, the medal table is always dominated by the richer Commonwealth nations – England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand – that can afford to pour large amounts of money into elite sport.

To that extent, the medal hauls at the Commonwealth Games are something of a mirror for the impact that colonisation has had on the relative wealth of the nations taking part. The thought that travellers from some of our key tourism markets – eg China or the United States – would fly halfway around the world to visit the Commonwealth Games is delusional. In most countries, the Commonwealth Games are either totally ignored, or get treated as a quaint pageant from a bygone era.

The Future is FIFA

Ironically, the news about the 2026 Commonwealth Games broke on the eve of the FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament kicking off in Australia and in New Zealand. This is a far more genuine cause for celebration, of women’s sport stepping into the global spotlight.

True, a few athletes may mourn the Games and the loss of a chance for their whanau to watch them compete. Yet our elite athletes are not lacking for opportunities to compete on the world stage. The Olympics, the World Athletic Championships, the various World Cups for male and female athletes in various sporting codes etc etc.. Like Dan Andrews in Victoria, we have hospitals and schools that can make better use of the billions of dollars it would cost to host the Commonwealth Games:

“What’s become clear is that the cost of hosting these Games in 2026 is not the $2.6 billion which was budgeted and allocated,” Mr Andrews said.”I will not take money out of hospitals and schools to host an event that is three times the cost estimated and budgeted for last year.”

Amen to that sentiment.

One Tiny Garden

In her breakthrough album Legacy! Legacy! Jamila Woods celebrated the giants – Eartha Kitt, Zora Neale Hurston, Frida Kahlo, Miles Davis, James Baldwin etc – who had preceded her. Her new single “Tiny Garden” by contrast, is an intentionally small scale and intimate affair.

As small scale inspirations go, it is still hard to beat this haunting oldie – from ten years ago already! – that remains Sampha’s finest moment: