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Gordon Campbell on the future of conservatism

Gordon Campbell on the future of conservatism

For years, observers have noted the contrast between Prime Minister John Key’s ordinary Kiwi bloke persona, and the patrician prat more commonly seen in Parliament. This week though, the prat has been in plain sight. Nominally, Key got expelled from Parliament yesterday for disrespecting the Speaker, David Carter, by continuing to talk while Carter was on his feet. Rather conveniently, that expulsion became the news story, rather than the more embarrassing reality. All week, Key has chosen to join with the scamsters in smearing the reputation of charities such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace etc by linking them - falsely - to the Panama Papers.

Even beforehand, Key and his staff should have known that the names of such charities had been used fraudulently by the clients of Mossack Fonseca, and without their permission. Yet even after the charities in question had publicly pointed out they had been victims of the scamsters, and had nothing to do with the fake shell companies in the Panama Papers that had stolen their names… Key still refused to apologise. Instead, and under questioning on this point by Greens leader James Shaw, Key was continuing to defame the charities when he got expelled from the House.

This fiasco is bad enough. It comes in the wake of the lobbying scandal whereby Key’s personal lawyer invoked the Prime Minister to lobby the Revenue Minister and thereby shut down the IRD’s attempt to reform our rules on the lucrative – to lawyers - business of setting up foreign trusts. Ever since the Panama Papers story first broke, Key has systematically tried to minimize (a) New Zealand’s involvement in these corrupt practices and (b) the ongoing reputational risk to this country. Instead of a public inquiry, the public has been fobbed off with a one person ‘on paper’ review of the existing rules by the Establishment’s favourite tax lawyer.

Contrast this paltry official response with what is happening in Australia. Some 80 firms and individuals named in the Panama Papers are being investigated by the Australian authorities, with prosecution for possible criminal activity in mind.

Australian Tax Office Deputy Commissioner Michael Cranston has indicated that action beyond criminal prosecution was called for by other countries :

"We need more countries to sign up to country-by-country reporting and need stronger ultimate beneficiary ownership rules," he said. "Most of the rules mean you have to know your client and have a trust structure. It has to be linked to a natural person. And what they're [the OECD is] trying to make sure is that all countries have standard laws [in place]."

Labor has said there should be higher penalties for non-compliance with country-by-country reporting and that there should be an obligation to disclose the beneficial ownership for Australian legal identities. Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said Labor had called for a central registry of the beneficial ownership of companies, trusts and other corporate structures to ensure that "Australia cannot be used as a destination for money-laundering, tax evasion, terrorism financing or other criminal behaviour".

Meanwhile on this side of the Tasman, our Prime Minister is more interested in smearing the reputation of Amnesty International. Incredible. With this guy in charge, we really have no right to look down our noses at Donald Trump.

The future of conservatism.

Talking of Trump, I’d never have picked Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post as someone likely to offer a cogent summary of the calamity that has just befallen the Republican Party. Leave aside for a moment whether Donald Trump is the calamity the Republicans richly deserve, and have largely brought upon themselves. What’s more interesting is that Rubin explicitly rejects the Reaganite tax-cutting, small-government dogmas that are still treated by conservatives in New Zealand as gospel truths. The right cannot continue, Rubin says, to try to pour such old wine into new bottles. She starts off by pointing out that Trump’s conservative critics loathe him for a wide variety of reasons:

Moderates, conservatives, secular Republicans and religious conservatives have figured out that he is a dangerous character, one whose temperament precludes entrusting him with the powers of the Presidency. It is disappointing, stunning even, that some Republicans cannot or will not recognize the magnitude of his mendacity…

Other Trump opponents conclude that he’s not conservative enough — pining away for the 1980s version of conservatism that we found out was no longer salient. This latter group is right to oppose Trump’s hodgepodge of inane ideas (tariffs, roundups, authoritarian power), but it’s mistaken if it thinks the solution is to revert to 1980s Reaganism. Cruz and a dozen other candidates tried that; it failed. There are not enough states (and hence, not enough electoral votes) willing to buy that re-cycled playbook…Strident anti-government rhetoric gets you good cable ratings….but not an electoral win.

Right. So what should conservatives do - beyond trying to ensure that Trump doesn’t win in November? Rubin issues a wake-up call to those on her side of the political fence who have been intellectually asleep since the mid-1980s:

Conservatives have to end their intellectual isolation and self-delusions. They need to stop pretending that climate change is not occurring (the extent and the proposed solutions can be rationally discussed) or imagining that there is a market for pre-New-Deal-size government. Conservatives must end their infatuation with phony news, crank conspiracy theories, demonization of well-meaning leaders and mean rhetoric. It’s time to grow up, turn off Sean Hannity, get off toxic social media and start learning about the world as it is…Many people have a financial interest in keeping conservatives angry and invested in bad causes. Ignore them.

A new, 21st century conservative platform, Rubin says, has to abandon a lot of its old nostrums and fixations :

[Such a platform] should not include (for there is no political appetite for these things, and they are unattainable and/or unwise from a policy standpoint): opposition to gay rights; large tax cuts for the rich; protectionism; expelling women from combat in a volunteer army; rooting gays out of the military… keeping the status quo on entitlements; cutting out (as opposed to reforming) the safety net; never, ever raising taxes on anyone; and mass deportation.

What follows will be different from 1980s conservatism because we are more than three decades removed from Ronald Reagan. Our problems are different — stagnant wages, resurgent and varied enemies, the withering of communal organizations, crumbling infrastructure. We have recognized that the old solutions — a rising tide lifts all boats (not if you have no skills) — are insufficient. However, Republicans should not sell snake oil. Telling working-class whites that the problem is immigrants is a lie..Telling workers that millions of jobs went to China is a lie, too.

Oh, and in addition : ‘We would also include a comprehensive approach to poverty, and a focus on upward mobility.’ In sum, one of America’s leading conservative columnists seems to have just joined the New Zealand Labour Party. Which is an interesting sign of where moderate conservatism – as opposed to Trump’s right wing populism – is choosing to position itself.

Dreaming Alone

Margaret Thatcher once famously argued that there is no such thing as ‘society.’ In her radical conservative vision, we are an aggregate of atomised individuals, dreaming alone. With that in mind, here are two different readings of the old Bobby Darin song ‘Dream Lover’ …

The Paris Sisters really had only big hit, a breathy, sexy-as-hell-for-1961 rendition of ‘I Love How You Love Me’. Their version of ‘Dream Lover’ – and the way they look, they way they move – is like some David Lynchian kind of nightmare. Which feeds pretty well into this more recent version of the same song by the Dust Bunnies, who take the ‘dream’ element in the lyric and run with it. Their dream lover sounds like some eldritch thing that’s being borne in on the night wind. Incidentally, while the Paris Sisters big hit was produced by Phil Spector, this shoe-gazey Dust Bunnies version of ‘Dream Lover’ actually sounds a lot more traditionally Spectorian…

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