Hard News by Russell Brown


Madness in Mt Albert

If 3 News was going to try prospective Labour candidate David Shearer, or his party, for hypocrisy, it might have been polite to actually give him the chance to commit such first. But these things are mere details in the spin cycle.

According to last night's story -- which ran under the frankly gobsmacking banner "Shearer's Private Armies" -- 3 News "obtained articles written by Shearer where he's arguing for private military companies -- mercenaries -- be hired by the United Nations to go to war".

It would have been more accurate to say that 3 News "obtained" the old articles from National Party bloggers David Farrar and Cameron "Whaleoil" Slater, who discovered them while digging through Shearer's academic record, rather than through any enterprise of its own.

The first of them was published in the policy journal Foreign Affairs 11 years ago and republished by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the second in 2001.

The first is here. Although Farrar cherry-picked phrases from the paper in a joyful attempt to depict Shearer as a far-right winger, the whole thing is actually an interesting read.

Shearer (drawing on his experience as a senior adviser to the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in Liberia and Rwanda in 1995 and 1996) depicted private military companies as a historical fact of life (they were a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year even in 1998), and argued for their regulation, while not shying away from the difficulties and complications that might summon.

Do his arguments conflict with the stance New Zealand took in passing the Mercenary Activities (Prohibition) Act 2004, which his friend and then Justice minister Phil Goff described at the time as a blow against "paid murder"? Well, yes. But there is no indication that, as an MP, he would seek to change the act. And it seems cloddish to hang him for having discussed policy in a policy journal.

But Duncan Garner is not the type to carefully explain an argument when there is a gotcha to be had. Thus, first comment in his story helpfully went to John Key who declared that "lo and behold the new poster boy from Mt Albert for Labour wants to privatise the army." He, er, what?

Goff, on the other hand, "even opposes private prisons here". WTF? In what sense is the regulation of private military companies in failed states the same thing as actively privatising prisons in a functioning one?

It's another score for Farrar, who was lauded for his "machiavellian" expertise in a recent Poneke blog post. Farrar himself says he was merely the first to air the "Tizard" issue, which would have arisen anyway. As he notes, any new entrants come from the grudging section of Labour's 2008 list, where MPs who have served but aren't fashionable reside. Bright young things are further down. Although that might also be said of National's list, given that a victory in Mt Albert for Melissa Lee would bring back Cam Calder on its list. No one's heart would race at that prospect.

The next bill of goods the journalists will be invited to sample is that there is something weird or wrong with the local Labour electorate organisation erecting some hoardings before it has chosen its candidate. Um, why? This meme is coursing through the right-wing blogosphere, but it seems profoundly unexceptional that a party with a strong local organisation wouldn't be getting the brand out in front of voters as soon as possible. Indeed, it would be remiss not to do so.

The Greens' decision to stand Russel Norman is understandable. The by-election will be conducted under a media spotlight, and that's hugely helpful to Norman, who most people still don't know. There's an obvious risk too: he won’t win, and if he does manage to cannibalise the vote to the extent that it helps National win Mt Albert and further extend its majority, there will be unease within his own party.

The aspect of the Mt Albert race that's gone somewhat under-reported -- perhaps because it doesn't come on a plate with garnish -- is the role of the local electorate organisation, which is both Labour's best bet for holding the seat, and a complicating factor in candidate selection.

The place to look for that is The Standard, whose manager, Lynn Prentice, is a Mt Albert stalwart, if not always a compliant party soldier. He was a little sceptical at the news of Shearer's entry to the nomination race. But as he pointed out in this report before the first candidate selection Q&A meeting:

It is likely that local issues are going to be a very strong part of this campaign. Issues like the NACT super-city botch-up, the stalled train station upgrades after NACT stopped the financing, the changes to the state highway 20 where NACT is ‘reviewing’ the existing design to something that is noisier and far more intrusive to the local community, the doubling of the size of St Lukes mall using the NACT minimal protection RMA, etc.

I suspect he's right. This isn't going to be a race that can be called from Wellington, however much that might suit the usual suspects.

There's an extra bonus for our household: our older boy, who turned 18 earlier this year, gets to vote for the first time in his life. That's more important to me than a Wellington gotcha.

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