• Big Rocket Man?

    As with any informed discussion, facts are important in the political debate.  But, all too often, the facts are submerged by the spin put on them by the politicians – and what we hear in the end is the story about the facts, rather than the facts themselves.

    A classic instance is the meeting organised to take place in Singapore next month between President Trump and President Kim Jong Un of North Korea.  To hear the way Donald Trump tells it, the meeting is a triumph for his brand of “diplomacy” – his insults and threats of nuclear attack and trade embargos have, we are told, forced a reluctant North Korean dictator to the negotiating table where he will make a number of concessions.  Trump is able to parade as both a tough leader, “putting America first”, and as a peace-maker.

    But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the narrative that Kim Jong Un has no doubt put before his own domestic audience – and an attentive international audience as well.

    My focus on developing a nuclear capability has paid off big-time, he will say.   The strategy has meant that the leader of the most powerful country in the world has asked to meet me and seek a deal. I am able to meet him as an equal – I also head a nuclear-armed state.  And he will need me to help him, so that he can tell his people at home that the meeting was a success – there will be no more patronising insults.  “Little rocket man” has become “big rocket man!”

    And Kim can go further.  Now that I have established this elevated status for my country, he can say, I have been able to show how magnanimous and far-sighted I am.  Now that we have nuclear weapons and delivery systems that mean that our rockets can reach America, I do not need further nuclear tests and rocket trials, so I will happily offer a “concession” to this effect; I already have all the capability I need to make sure that no one pushes us around.

    I am happy to give assurances not only to the Americans, but also to the Japanese and other countries who are nervous about our ability to attack them that we have no intention of doing so.  And I can demonstrate our peaceful intentions by making new overtures to our brothers in South Korea, as I have done, crossing the border and bringing an end to the state of war between us, showing Koreans in both the North and the South that we are one people and that I am the one person with the strength and vision to unite them.

    Not only do I know that this vision of the future commend itself to Koreans, but it also has the support of our backers and sponsors in China (who are much more important to us than are the Americans) and who will continue to help us to lift living standards and improve civil liberties at home.  We do not need democracy to show that my popularity at home has grown in leaps and bounds in response to the initiatives I have taken.

    It is not a bad story, is it?  It provides a persuasive alternative to the American account of what has happened and will happen.  Like the Trumpian story, it is of course designed to identify the teller as the hero, and to place him centre-stage and to show him in a good light; but, tellingly, it has the additional virtue of corresponding quite closely with the facts and that is no doubt how it will be seen around the world.  Donald Trump, eat your heart out.

    Bryan Gould

    13 May 2018


  • What Was He Doing?

    Simon Bridges’ explanation that his hitting of the “like” button on Cameron Slater’s Twitter post ridiculing the Prime Minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford, was “accidental” should no doubt be taken at face value.  It beggars belief that the National party leader would allow himself to be seen as openly supporting such a disreputable campaign, especially after he had so publicly warned his party against being associated with it in any way.

    But, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, his admission raises a number of questions which need answering.  Any association between senior members of the National party and Cameron Slater will revive memories of the allegations made before the last election that “dirty tricks” and “the black arts” were employed by the party and that Cameron Slater was their attack dog of choice.

    Slater was known to be particularly close to Judith Collins; they are on record as instructing each other on how to treat their opponents and congratulating each other on their “successes”.    Slater regarded Collins as his mentor, while she saw him as a partner in crime, prepared to use any means to inflict damage on those who could be seen as enemies.  She advocated what she called the Double Rule, meaning that if someone attacked you or was opposed to you, you hit them back twice as hard. “If you can’t be loved, then best to be feared,” she said.

    With this link fresh in the public mind, why, in other words, was Simon Bridges following Cameron Slater on Twitter in the first place?  It was surely sailing too close to the wind to run the risk of re-establishing in the public mind the impression that National’s leadership was still working closely with the notorious blogger.  Bridges has his hands full enough in trying to establish himself favourably in the public mind without making the task more difficult by rubbing shoulders with such unhelpful “allies”.

    And when Simon Bridges identified Slater’s post concerning Clarke Gayford and its import, why did he linger long enough to allow his thumb to wander to an inappropriate button?  And if he can’t control his own thumb, what chance does he have of controlling his party, Judith Collins and all?

    The whole episode is a sad commentary on the state of New Zealand politics and public life.  Politics is a tough business, and there is a tendency on the part of its practitioners (and perhaps of the public as well) to believe that “all’s fair in love and war – and politics” and that “the ends justify the means”.  But once we allow this to be accepted, we have lost one of the most valued principles of our public life and one that we have traditionally celebrated – that we have the right to expect of our political leaders that they should conduct themselves with honesty and decency.

    If that is once lost, then “anything goes”, no one can be trusted, and the whole point and purpose of democratic government is cast aside and destroyed.  The episode tells us that it is not just Simon Bridges’ reputation that is at stake but that important standards are at risk – and that we are at least entitled to say to him, when assessing (and accepting) his explanation, “not good enough – must try harder”.

    Bryan Gould

    10 May 2018



  • Dirty Politics? Yes!

    The social media have assumed a hugely important significance in modern society.  For young people, in particular, they offer by far the most important means of communication and source of information.   Whether it be bullying at school or concerns about privacy or interference in elections, their influence is felt everywhere – and not always for the good.

    Political parties, in particular, realised some time ago that social media offered a cheap and effective means of influencing opinion; it is even argued that information gleaned from Facebook and then organised and utilised by Cambridge Analytica helped to determine the outcome of the 2016 United States presidential election that elected Donald Trump.

    This kind of intervention in the democratic process may cause concern but – apart from the unauthorised misuse of what was assumed to be private information – the pitching to voters on the basis of what is known about their views and preferences is not necessarily any different in principle from the usual attempt, using more conventional means, to secure their support and to persuade them to vote one way rather than another.

    It is less easy, however, to be relaxed about another recent instance of the political impact that the social media can have.  They can all too easily become the vehicle of a campaign that uses innuendo and scuttlebutt to discredit a politician or his or her associates.

    The damage that can be done by such a campaign is magnified by the sheer volume of misinformation that can be generated over a brief period – and the absence of any substance in that misinformation can be camouflaged by constant repetition.

    The recent campaign of which the Prime Minister’s partner was a victim was just such an instance.  As she and he have discovered, there is virtually no defence against such an unprincipled attack.  While there can be no doubt that the campaign is politically motivated, and is an example of “dirty politics”,  the absence of any identifiable central direction makes it difficult if not impossible to stop it or disprove it at source.  It is truly a hydra-headed monster.

    A social media campaign of this type, in other words, is an ideal instrument for those who wish to inflict maximum damage with the least risk of being uncovered.  A social media campaign, after all, builds its own momentum, as those who had no part in launching it nevertheless see the chance to add to it and to increase the damage it does.  The planners and originators can simply disappear back into the woodwork.

    That problem is magnified by the fact that modern political parties, almost without exception, engage teams of sympathisers to patrol the social media, ready to respond as apparently uncommitted private citizens to postings they do not like, or to add support to those they do.  There would be nothing easier, in other words, than for a couple of enthusiasts to launch a campaign on behalf of a political organisation and then allow their fellow-enthusiasts to jump on the bandwagon and push it along, all without any apparent central direction or encouragement.

    The calumny thereby circulated is not, of course, the end of the damage that can be achieved.  The distress suffered and time wasted by the victims are all part of the price that is paid – and when they complain, quite legitimately, about “dirty politics” they are advised to harden up, or criticised for giving the story more legs, or are accused of bad-mouthing their opponents by suggesting that they are the obvious beneficiaries.   And there will be much sage shaking of the head and muttering about “no smoke without fire”.

    But, if the campaign is “dirty” (as it certainly is) and if it has an obviously political purpose (as it has), why can it not be characterised as “dirty politics”?  The phenomenon is not exactly unknown in our politics; there are, indeed, some political practitioners who glory in and boast of their prowess in such undertakings.  The victims – and the wider public – are surely entitled to draw their own conclusions.

    Bryan Gould

    3 May 2018



  • Another Commonwealth Gold Medal

    The Prime Minister’s first trip overseas in her new capacity has undoubtedly been a great success – for her personally, for New Zealand and even – perhaps – for the Commonwealth itself.

    The charm, freshness and intelligence which produced a largely unexpected election victory at home have all now been recognised on the international stage and have drawn forth a range of favourable responses from international leaders who have clearly been intrigued not only by a fresh face but by someone they had not expected to see – a young woman leader – not only attractive, but having the temerity to be pregnant into the bargain – and with surprising self-confidence and sure-footedness on her first foray abroad.

    The image she presented is entirely one that New Zealand wishes to present – the image of a country that dares to be different and to break new ground and that is keen to find new and better ways of doing things.

    The response and the special attention she received,  from the Queen herself and from other senior Commonwealth and European leaders – Prince Charles, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Theresa May – were not just a feather in her cap, but a plus for New Zealand as well.  And that plus could turn out to be of considerable value.

    She has helped to breathe new life into the Commonwealth – so that an international association of amazing scope and variety, whose potential has never been properly recognised, can start to play a full and valuable role – and, if that should lead to a new trade agreement extending across so many countries at different stages of development, that could bring huge benefits not only to us but to a significant proportion of the world’s population.

    Not everyone, of course, will welcome the Prime Minister’s success.  While most Kiwis will be quick to acknowledge the favourable impression she has made, her political opponents at home are clearly a good deal less enthusiastic.  As the good news stories and images filled our screens, their angst is almost visible and audible.

    There, before their very eyes, they could see the next election slipping away from them and, with Simon Bridges struggling to make an impression, not least with his own supporters, we are constantly offered evidence of how desperate they are to prick the bubble of this latest version of Jacindamania – one that has now reached international proportions.

    So, stepping up to the plate are those who are being pressed into service to say something – anything – that might take away some of the gloss.  The problem for such nay-sayers is that they are obviously struggling to find something sensible, let alone anything of substance, to say.

    So, the headlines tell us that Jacinda is “just like Trump” and that Jacinda’s partner, Clarke Gayford, is open to criticism because he travelled with her (so much for gender equality) and commits the crime of spelling his first name with an “e”.  Anyone who bothers to read beyond the headlines in an effort to find any substance to support them is doomed to disappointment; one suspects that the headline is all there is and that it is in any case the real point of the exercise, intended simply to plant the impression in the reader’s mind that those not ready to join the Jacinda fan club at least have some company.

    It may be that the Prime Minister’s return to home territory will alleviate the panic that has beset her opponents and that we will then return to politics as usual and a greater preparedness to give credit where it is due.  In the meantime, as we celebrate another win for the Black Ferns to follow up on their Commonwealth Games Gold Medal, let us also enjoy the success achieved by another of our most promising and well-performing young women, as she carried our flag into the international arena and came home with a gold medal.

    Bryan Gould

    24 April 2018



  • The Dogs of War

    In 1954, Sir Winston Churchill famously advised an American audience that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.

    Churchill was of course someone who knew about “war-war”.  His political career had encompassed both world wars and he had been a great leader of Britain in the Second World War; no one knew better than he did the price that is paid when countries go to war.

    He also knew how major conflicts could start unexpectedly.  He would have remembered that it was the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia – and that in turn caused the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) and Serbia’s allies to declare war on each other, thereby launching World War One.

    If he had been alive today, Churchill would no doubt have been alarmed at the similarities between that episode and the stand-off that recently occurred between Russia and the West over Syria.  In this latter case, there was the same build-up of tension between great powers, and a precipitating event – this time, the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime against civilians in Douma – prompting a warlike response from the US, the UK and France; all the ingredients were there to set in train yet another major conflict.

    There was of course no shortage of hotheads who were keen to see military force used by the Western allies and who were quick to dismiss any thought that diplomacy might have had a role to play.  It is understandable that the West felt that they could not allow such a criminal act by Assad against his own people to go unchallenged; but it is still regrettable that their first recourse was to arms, rather than an attempt to persuade the United Nations to authorise a sanction that was appropriately condemnatory but less risky.

    Sadly, of course, the United Nations had revealed itself to be impotent in such a circumstance, by virtue of Russia’s willingness to use its veto in the Security Council to preclude any sanction that would harm the interests of its Syrian ally.  It might nevertheless have been useful to force Russia to own up to its willingness to support an ally that had made itself an international outcast through its use of chemical weapons against a civilian population.

    In all of this, our own Prime Minister – new as she is to the international scene and to issues of war and peace – showed amazing maturity and good judgment in recognising both the need to take a stand against chemical warfare but also the desirability of turning first to diplomacy as a solution.  “Shoot first, talk later” is a good policy for small boys in the playground, but it is a dangerous course in the real (and nuclear) world.

    It is also the favoured option of those simple-minded commentators who see themselves as hard-headed realists, “telling it like it is” and debunking the illusions of the “idealists” (those, that is, who would prefer not to go to war).   Warmongers like these should be asked about Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and whether those wars validate the view that military force always guarantees the best outcomes.

    War invariably creates more problems than it solves, and that is to say nothing of the suffering and loss endured by those who actually have to wage it on the ground.  Churchill himself, the architect of the ill-fated Gallipoli adventure, would be the first to acknowledge that it is easy to launch military attacks from the behind a desk, when the main brunt is borne by others, and the outcomes are far from certain.


    The gravest risk facing mankind is that there is never any shortage of those ready to “let slip the dogs of war.”   Diplomacy and working through international agencies may be less thrilling to armchair warriors but that is where we should be putting our efforts.

    The United Nations was created by the victors in the Second World War as a means of reducing the chances of a further world war.  It is far from perfect, but we have avoided the worst for nearly three-quarters of a century.  We would do better to address its frailties rather than give up on it.

    Bryan Gould

    22 April 2018