Hard News by Russell Brown

Human traffic

"How did the hikoi go?" asked Fee as I watched the news. "Oh, not too bad," I said. "The traffic didn't snarl up on the bridge." Oh truly, I am an Aucklander. Our race relations hang in the balance, and I'm worried about the cars.

Oddly enough, that's also the angle of the Herald's story this morning. The march apparently shrank overnight, down to 2000 after whoever reported the breaking news yesterday saw "an estimated 5000 people gathered under looming skies on the North Shore."

I don't have a problem with the bridge being made available for protest, and I'm glad the public response has been largely good-humoured - it hasn't always been the case in the past. But I don't have a lot of time for the hikoi organisers: a lot of people seem to suddenly have always known that they owned the foreshores (which, for the umpteenth time, is not what the Court of Appeal decision said). It's like a mass attack of recovered memory syndrome.

But if I had a wish, it would be that we could reboot this whole foreshore thing and have another go, with clearer heads, better faith and centre-right parties that remember their principles about property rights. The government's solution could have been worse, but it may struggle to endure.

As I've said before, I have a bit of time for the Act Party position as enunciated by Stephen Franks - let it go to the courts, like the Treaty Tribes Coalition wants - it's just a shame it took him so bloody long to enunciate it.

Speaking of which, if I was an Act Party member, I'd certainly be looking for Franks as the Act Party leader to replace the only one they've ever had, Richard Prebble, who unexpectedly resigned yesterday. Franks occasionally wades into the populist mire, but he seems the best intellectual fit for what Act was actually meant to be. Suggestions that Muriel Newman is a contender are apparently not a joke, but probably ought to be. Prebble's announcement that his successor would be chosen by a "primary election" among its membership seems deeply political: presumably he doesn't want the caucus favourite (Hide?) to win and has moved the goalposts to avoid it. With at least four of the eight Act MPs fancying their chances it should be vastly entertaining for the rest of us.

Meanwhile - why didn't anyone think of this before? - the latest proposal to save face for Tariana Turia seems to be to have her simply not vote. Not cross the floor, not abstain, just not be there. Novel. It would be nice if she could bring herself to make a decision.

Don Brash, inevitably, was offering his example in dealing with Maori MPs who don't follow the script: sack 'em:

Unless Ms Clark takes that action, she is confirming in the most public way that under Labour there are two standards of accountability - one for Maori Ministers and another for non-Maori.

It is certainly inconceivable to suggest that Helen Clark would allow Steve Maharey to publicly campaign against the Government's welfare policy while acting as Minister.

By the same token it would be inconceivable if Helen Clark were to develop and announce a new Social Welfare policy without bothering to consult Steve Maharey - which is basically what Brash did to Georgina Te Heuheu on Maori Affairs.

There have been some interesting about-faces on coalition policy in Iraq, which haven't been very widely reported. Chiefly: the idiotic decision to ban former Ba'ath Party members from any role in the new nation (even as schoolteachers, for goodness sake) has been reversed (what next? getting the Iraqi Army back together?). Raed has a comment on that, and is onto the third part of his roadmap for saving Iraq. He's probably right, but I don't fancy his chances.

It's been a spectacularly bad week for Tony Blair, not least for the fact of a scathing open letter addressed to him by 52 former British diplomats, who slam his adoption of the White House's "doomed" Middle East policy. It appears this extraordinary letter (text here) was directly prompted by Blair's bizarre move last week in suddenly abandoning his own government's long-term policy in order to back Bush:

After all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced.

This abandonment of principle comes at a time when, rightly or wrongly, we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.

The letter also includes a broadside on Iraq policy:

However much Iraqis may yearn for a democratic society, the belief that one could now be created by the coalition is naive. This is the view of virtually all independent specialists on the region, both in Britain and in America. We are glad to note that you and the President have welcomed the proposals outlined by Lakhdar Brahimi. We must be ready to provide what support he requests, and to give authority to the United Nations to work with the Iraqis themselves, including those who are now actively resisting the occupation, to clear up the mess.

The military actions of the coalition forces must be guided by political objectives and by the requirements of the Iraq theatre itself, not by criteria remote from them. It is not good enough to say that the use of force is a matter for local commanders. Heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Fallujah, all these have built up rather than isolated the opposition. The Iraqis killed by coalition forces probably total between ten and fifteen thousand (it is a disgrace that the coalition forces themselves appear to have no estimate), and the number killed in the last month in Fallujah alone is apparently several hundred including many civilian men, women and children. Phrases such as "We mourn each loss of life. We salute them, and their families for their bravery and their sacrifice", apparently referring only to those who have died on the coalition side, are not well judged to moderate the passions these killings arouse.

Well, yes. Unfortunately, such good judgement does not appear to be the strong suit of the people presently in charge.

I've been out and about this week; first to talk to on Monday night to members of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand about the media and terrorism (their topic, not mine, but a good chance to blather on about weblogs); then up the hill to the Governors' Gallery at the old Government House on the university campus for an exhibition opening for a bunch of cartoonists: Chris Knox, Chris Slane (whose Georgina Beyer cartoon in the week's Listener is bloody funny), Malcolm Walker, Trace Hodgson and Bromhead. Originals for sale at reasonable prices: have a look.

I'm interviewing Tim Barnett on The Wire today, (about 12.45 provisionally) and I think I might go along for a look to the Civil Unions Bill meeting in the AUSA building tonight, 7.30pm. The Rationalists will be there! But should I dress up?