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On Kobemania, Palestine, and the infrastructure package

Quick quiz to end the week. What deserves the more attention – the death of a US basketball legend, or the end of Palestinian hopes for an independent state? Both died this week, but only one was met with almost total indifference by the global community. Yes, it was Kobe Bryant’s death that received the wall-to-wall media coverage, here and elsewhere – even though Bryant was only ever a sports pages celebrity in New Zealand, and never the cultural icon he was to Americans. Most of the saturation media coverage tended to skim over the 2003 rape allegations against Bryant, and the non-disclosure agreement, monetary settlement and public apology that followed in its wake.

Bizarrely, the senior Washington Post journalist Felicia Sonmez found herself suspended by the Post management for tweeting a link to this very disturbing 2016 article based on the court records and Police interviews with Bryant and his victim. But there I go, talking about Kobe Bryant again. Anyone’s accidental death is a tragedy. Yet as Middle East expert Juan Cole says, https://www.juancole.com/2020/01/palestinians-against-humanity.html the main casualties of this week’s news events have been the five million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation on the West Bank, and under military siege on the Gaza Strip. Not to mention the 400,000 stateless Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) living in Lebanon. or the other circa 400,000 members of the Palestinian diaspora living in Syria…The world, as the Guardian noted this week, has lost interest in them.

To the Washington Post the “deal of the century” unveiled this week at the White House was consistent with the Trump administration’s penchant for doling out concessions to one side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, while keeping its boot firmly on the other. Under the terms of the deal, Israel has been formally confirmed in its sovereignty west of the Jordan river, has been given an undivided Jerusalem as its capital, and has been awarded formal control of the Jewish enclaves and settlements scattered through the Palestinian territories. By contrast :

The Palestinians, meanwhile, get … not much. In Trump’s scheme, backed by Netanyahu, they would give up the claims of Palestinian refugees and accept a conditions-based path to statehood in a patchwork of territory carved up by Israeli roads and settlements. Trump’s plan cedes security control of the eastern border with Jordan wholly to Israel, calls for the dismantling of Palestinian militant groups and allots a Palestinian capital on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem — rather than in East Jerusalem proper, as envisioned by the international community and successive U.S. administrations.

Oh, and the Palestinians have also been offered cash incentives to accept this travesty of a deal. So typical that Trump should think the nationhood for which Palestinians have fought and died for the past 70 years would carry a price tag. Netanyahu’s government may vote on annexation of some 30 percent of the West Bank as early as this weekend. As the Post concludes, the archipelago of enclaves proposed by Trump — subordinate to Israeli security concerns and more akin to the “bantustans” of apartheid-era South Africa — is nothing like a good faith response to Palestinian aspirations. For his part, Juan Cole also brings up the apartheid-era Bantustan comparison within his discussion of the crimes against international law that the Trump Plan happily embraces:

Although the Trump Plan uses the diction of allowing a Palestinian “state,” the entity proposed does not have control over its borders or airspace or coastal waters and cannot make treaties with other states or go to the United Nations over continued Israeli violations of international law. In other words it is not a state at all. It is a Bantustan of the sort the Apartheid South African government created as a way of unloading its African population, so that they could be stripped of South African citizenship.

Too bad this burial of the two state solution – something to which the international community has been paying lip service for three decades – has received only a fraction of the coverage, anguish and commentary devoted to the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter.

Taxes and infrastructure.

Amusing to watch National trying to claim credit for the infrastructure projects announced yesterday. Those needs would be regularly communicated by officialdom to a previous National government that failed to get them off the ground. (National made a virtual art form out of announcing worthy projects, but without allocating the funds required to bring them into existence.)

By contrast, the $12 billion infrastructure package announced yesterday contains the detailed plans, and the necessary funds. Given the scale of the projects envisaged, there are fears of capacity bottlenecks and doubts whether we have enough skilled tradespeople to bring everything in on time. That aside, this spend-up has been advocated for some time. Last August, Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr was urging the government to get its fiscal policy more in sync with the RB’s monetary policy. That’s now happening. By November, Orr was mainly concerned about the time it could take for the government to get the money out the door, so that it could begin to stimulate a flagging economy :

However Orr… pointed out that New Zealand has “well identified infrastructure demands and needs”, a “healthy” government balance sheet and low interest rates.

Exactly. For months, the mainstream bank economists had also been urging the government to step up to the plate:

Infometrics economist Brad Olsen believes the Government should now step in and supplement RBNZ's efforts - and he's not alone. "The economy at the moment needs fiscal stimulus because it's pretty clear it's decelerating and not accelerating," Olsen added….[Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod] Kerr agrees. "The Government has the ability to do things that the private sector doesn't. It can step in and think across council lines and do the big projects that need to be done. We've got a significant infrastructure deficit in this country and it's in desperate need of attention and investments."

Fine, fine. But is yesterday’s array of projects really what the government should be spending its $12 billion bonanza upon? For starters, the government has chosen not to spend any of its spare cash for example, on raising benefit levels – which would have relieved hardship, given an immediate consumption lift to the economy, and fulfilled a key campaign promise from 2017. Unfortunately though, raising benefit levels seems to be the only road this government is unwilling to go down, and spend big bucks upon. Instead, it has allocated $6.8 billion for road and rail projects, and put $300 million into capital investment in Health.

Take those extra Health funds first. These will be split between $96 million for mental health and addiction capital projects and $26 million for additional and improved rural and regional health facilities. A further $75 million of the package will go towards upgrading and repairing hospital facilities and $83 million will go into the child and maternal health area. To meet further needs as they arise, a $20 million DHB contingency fund has also been created. (Education already received an extra $400 million last year to enable schools to do repairs and meet their other building needs.)

Already, the most controversial part of the package – beyond its very existence, which is naturally abhorrent on principle to the nutbar right - has been the $6.8 billion transport component. While rail gets $1.1 billion, the $5.2 billion remainder will be spent on roading projects, with Auckland and its regional surrounds getting the lion’s share - to the tune of $3.48 billion in all for a bevy of new roads, improvements and extensions. (Auckland also gets most of the rail money, too.) Guess who is happy with the emphasis on roading ? Right, these guys. Oh, and also these guys.

Beyond Auckland, the Labour, NZF and Green politicians who have midwifed this massive splurge on roading also aim to spend $692 million on Northland roads, $1.35 billion on Wellington roads, $159 million on Canterbury roads, and nearly a billion dollars on roads in Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. While this array of projects will generate jobs – 7000 to 9,000 jobs will be created via five of the main projects alone - this roading package plainly and substantially undermines any of the progress that might otherwise be being made, at the margins, on climate change. To their credit, the Auckland School Strike 4 Climate group have already expressed their horror at the roading package :

We congratulate [the government] on the $200 million for de-carbonisation. But 4 times as much is being spent on the Otaki to North Levin bypass alone. [The] Otaki to North Levin four-lane bypass will cost over 800 million dollars with a cost to benefit ratio of less than one…

And furthermore :

The Mill Rd project, for example, is a 1.4 billion project to create more car dependency by breaking up suburbs in South Auckland. These two motorway projects cost more than all the sustainable projects combined. The government frames this as transformative climate action. We appreciate and acknowledge those who fought hard for the small wins, such as the Sky Path and rail. However, it doesn’t matter what angle you look at this…This is a terrible plan.

According to PM Jacinda Ardern, this package will ‘future proof’ New Zealand’s infrastructural needs over the next few decades. Evidently though, the young people who will live under the conditions we bequeath to them seem less than overjoyed at what the coalition government has chosen to do. Greenpeace is also appalled, and for much the same reasons. To Greenpeace, the opportunity to invest in clean transport solutions (and address the climate emergency) has largely been ignored :

“If you’ve ever visited somewhere like London or New York, the vast majority of commuters get around on public transport because it’s well-connected and convenient,”[Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson] says. “If you build more roads, people will drive more. In New Zealand, we have particularly inefficient cars, and increasing their use will only contribute to more of the dirty emissions that are driving the climate emergency.”

The transport sector is New Zealand’s fastest growing source of carbon emissions. It’s responsible for around 20 percent of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year. Of the $12 billion announced today for infrastructure, 44 percent – almost half – will be spent on expanding this sector.

Politics of the package

Short term, the political gains seem pretty obvious. There will be more jobs, more stimulus at a point in the business cycle – locally and globally – when growth is slowing down. Since the roading projects will not commence though until year’s end though, the benefits will not yet be apparent on voting day in September 2020. Still…in Auckland and regionally, Labour will now be able to triangulate and cancel out any National campaign pitch based on building more roads. “They promised/we delivered” is not a bad slogan for Labour to take out onto the hustings. In both road and rail, New Zealand First also gets more ammunition ( besides the Provincial Growth Fund) to compete with National out in the provinces, and elsewhere.

The only loser – besides National - is the Green Party, which gets only a few scraps in return for signing up (through gritted teeth) to a massive array of projects that flatly contradict its core values. Once again, this role by the Greens in government is decidedly not what was envisaged by party activists during the long years the Greens spent on the political sidelines. If anything, being actively complicit inside government seems worse than being on the sidelines. Such compromises can be fatal for a values-based party.


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