Nicky Hager is described in Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand as ‘a freelance intellectual, a commentator, a writer, a book-reviewer, a speech-maker, [existing] outside an institution’. In his interview in this book (edited by Laurence Simmons, 2007, Auckland: AUP) it becomes apparent that Hager is one of the most important and incisive ‘organic intellectuals’ that we’ve currently got. His chapter is probably the most interesting in the book. Among many other things, Hager explains how Helen Clark spends a lot of her time ‘doing things which I despise and think stupid’; why ‘we have a government that could do good things but it’s cautious and visionless and nervous and going nowhere’; why MMP is killing the social movements; why the ‘debate on Maori sovereignty or Maori rights is now a no-go zone’, and why political protestors are an important part of public intellectualism. [Read more below]
The hollow men and women of parliamentary politics
Although many New Zealanders – and even politicos – think that Nicky Hager’s 2006 Hollow Men book was written to expose the hollowness of the National Party, Hager was only really using that particular political party as a case study. The larger point was actually about the general hollowness of modern parliamentary politics. As the author has said publicly a number of times, he probably could have written a similar expose on the Labour Party. Certainly in his interview for the Speaking Truth to Power book, Hager concentrates his intellectual firepower on Labour.
Hager is critical of the current Labour Government for being conservative, lacking in vision, and very closed to outside influence. In a lengthy – but vital – quote, he explains the poor health of the government by the fact that both civil society and the state continue to be afflicted by the negative effects of the political reforms of the 1980s and 90s:
it’s the product of the politics that we’ve been through. We’ve had this period of the dominance of money values, the free market and market reforms and all of those uncaring policies. I think one of the main continuing effects it has on society is that a period like that promotes certain kinds of people, and doesn’t promote other kinds of people. I think, in terms of the legacy of those years, apart from the privatised assets or people in poverty, one the most serious things that I think comes out is that you’ve got now a virtually twenty-year period where certain sorts of people have been favoured, have been promoted into positions, have been role models of what’s right and how other people should want to act if they want to try to advance themselves and be treated as important persons in society; and you’ve got a whole other set of people doing what they believed in, saying what they believed in, who got squashed and pushed aside. You know, people who could have been heads of companies or government departments, or university departments have been lost to society. And so even though nominally we have a government that says “yes, we have gone past the fanaticism of the free market years”, the truth is that you’ve got a society which is made for it, you’ve got a generation’s worth of promotions and demotions, of role-modelling, and that means that the public servants are resistant, the journalists are slack, self-interested – not all of them, but too many ask the wrong questions, treat things as facts rather than assumptions. You’ve got a legacy of dumb politicians from that period who are steeped in a particular way of acting and thinking (pp.279-280).
Now we have an ideologically-empty, managerial style of politics that abhors ideals, principles, and anything intellectually-orientated:
So what you get with the current government is a fearful, defensive, fanatically politically managing, rather than leading and brave, group of people, and the reason they’re like that is that they believed they couldn’t arrive in power any other way; their experience has told them that if they expressed idealistic ideas they’d have been put down (p.280).
It becomes apparent that Hager sees the current prime minister as a hollow women – in much the same light as he described how the highly-ideological Don Brash moderated his principles for calculated populist gain:
Helen Clark is a classic example of this. She is an enlightened sort of person on the issues that I work on. I regard her as the person in Parliament whose thinking is most similar to mine on defence and foreign affairs, and yet a lot of the time she’s doing things which I despise and think stupid. I’m sure the reason she’s doing these things is because she’s making calculations about what she thinks is politically viable for her…. So we have a government that could do good things but it’s cautious and visionless and nervous and going nowhere (p.280).
The highly managerial style of the Labour Government has meant that it has become rather authoritarian in some areas – particularly in terms of freedom of information. According to Hager, the current government is a lot more closed then the previous one: ‘the current crop of politicians are terrible. I think that the current government is worse than previous governments. They’re getting more secretive, and the Official Information Act is being undermined more and more’ (p.277). Hager goes on to point out the vital need for a radical reform and revitalization of the Official Information Act (but he isn’t hopeful of it occurring under Labour):
If I was looking at my top five most important things to do for strengthening the democratic structure of the country, a freedom of information act would be one, definitely. The Official Information Act is like a twenty-year-old tax law. The public servants know all the loopholes now, they’ve stretched this bit, they’ve got that precedent, they can drive trucks all through it. And what it needs is a government which is committed enough to close the exclusion clauses, stop them charging punitively, stop them using time limits to delay until information is worthless (pp.277-278).
Similarly, Hager believes that New Zealand needs to have it’s ‘democratic infrastructure’ rebuilt by the development of publicly funded independent research institutes, but believes ‘one of the reasons they wouldn’t do it [here], I’m afraid to say, is because these institutions mightn’t agree with them’ (p.281). He gives the example of Sweden, where a number of such institutes have improved the democratic infrastructure:
In Sweden there are literal infrastructures, you’ve got institutes on every subject you could wish to name. There’s an Institute for Work, for example, that’s got sixty or a hundred staff, people who are paid by the state to study the future of work, the implications of work, what works means in people’s lives, how to advance it – the same in foreign policy, the same in social policy, the same in educational policy, the same in natural history, etc. Whatever it is, the government spends what are probably very modest sums of money to have a body of people who are free from pressures to add to the ideas and the intellectual advancement and progress of their country. We’ve got virtually nothing (p.281).
Instead, Hager argues, we have a public sector that is still run in terms of the neoliberal new public management model set up by previous Labour and National governments, and the Clark Government is unwilling to roll back those reforms: ‘There are specific things which the government has been too cowardly to change in the public service which would start to reverse its essentially right-wing orientation’ (p.282).
Hager of course has a special interest and expertise in issues of NZ defence and foreign policy, and it’s also in these areas that he’s particularly damning of the current government and state bureaucracy. His interview statement on NZ-US relations is worth quoting at length:
My own view is that New Zealand may as well still be in the ANZUS alliance. It is so enmeshed, not at the public level, not at the rhetorical level, but when you study defence like I do, nearly everything that goes on is completely dominated by ANZUS – we are still a satellite within that system…. virtually every decision that’s made in New Zealand… comes pretty well directly from the United States; and in the public debate people are still back in the past with journalists repeating the total fiction that we were completely thrown out by the Americans in 1985 and ’86, which is just not true. In New Zealand foreign policy, the same as in [the Ministry of] Foreign Affairs, our government is cringingly pro-American. You know, they can work with the Swedes and the UN on something or other, but they are constantly looking over their shoulders to see where the Americans are. We’re run by a Cold War generation of diplomats in a very punitive, “don’t step out of line” environment, which is worse in Foreign Affairs than anywhere else in the bureaucracy. We have not moved on very far at all in twenty years of being nuclear-free and supposedly being thrown out of ANZUS (pp.283-284).
Hager adds that there is a particularly dishonest ruse in how the Government has been using its relationship with Australia to hide its close ties with the US military: ‘Right now in defence when they talk about the need to be interoperable with Australia and that they’re our closest strategic ally, that’s just a code language for doing what the Americans want’ (p.284).
Hager has surprisingly strong views on race relations in NZ, which do not fit with the current (liberal) ruling consensus. In particular, he is highly critical of the liberal anti-racist movement which has permeated virtually every element of state and civil society, and has effectively killed off the possibilities of meaningful debate and discussion:
My personal view is that, for rather odd reasons, debate on Maori sovereignty or Maori rights is now a no-go zone. I mean personally, I would love to be engaged in a discussion with thoughtful Maori leaders, activists, and I’m sure lots of people would too, about the constitutional future of New Zealand…. and I can say the reason that I don’t do it is that I’m recovering from the ugliness of anti-racist politics of the past. What I’m talking about is in the 1980s; pretty much from the time of the Springbok tour onward and partly before, there was a lot of vigorous talk about racism, and Maori sovereignty, etc. Lots of political people in New Zealand were trying to engage in those issues, but there was a fatal decision on the part of the anti-racist campaigners, Maori and Pakeha, that the way to pursue this was a process of really antagonistic, challenging, harassing, blaming people for their racism, guilt-tripping people; and I think we’re still living with the results of that, because I was involved with groups where people were really keen to engage on these issues but they got driven out. Lots of people were involved in this, it went through academia, it went everywhere as far as I could see, and in teachers colleges and political parties. I think that, people are too scared, they actually don’t want to go into those issues because they had such unpleasant experiences (pp.284-285).
Hager is now disinclined to comment on ethnicity issues such biculturalism, because he sees that doing so would be akin to sticking ‘my hand back into that fire’, but he states that his ‘personal view is that biculturalism as a non-unified society is a dangerous, hopeless, dead-end way for the country to go. I also think that the only positive vision for the future is one where human rights are universal’ (p.285). Elaborating on this, he appears to challenge the usefulness of ethnic categories and a concentration on them:
I think that if you have a vision of society where you are dividing people into groups, even in such a peaceful country as New Zealand, it’s a recipe for future conflict of all sorts, and the only vision that actually brings peace here or anywhere is one of international humanism, that’s the only route (p.285).
In having such strong views and an urge to uncover the way that society operates, it’s not suprising that Hager’s ‘biggest frustration… is thinking “why won’t people debate things, why won’t people talk about the issues?”’ (p.275). And when Hager himself raises significant issues in public, the response is a particularly strong version of anti-intellectualism, whereby politicians and other elites merely tell him he’s wrong or dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist, and very rarely actually engage with the issues. Hager insightfully points out that ‘the function of their response is to say “ignore, ignore, ignore”, which is the establishment protecting its odd little view of the world, and its secrets, and, its comfortableness’ (p.275). In this regard he mentions the example of his research on defence issues:
when I write about defence, which is an area just about completely untapped by serious research, when I plough through voluminous piles of stuff which I often suspect no one else reads, nearly every time there’s a predictable list of responses which get made. The first thing is there’s dial-a-status-full-expert who will put me down: analysts, commentators, experts and, academics, and the first thing they say is there’s absolutely nothing new in this (p.275).
Unsurprisingly, Hager therefore has an interesting take on anti-intellectualism in NZ in which he regards it as a feature of the elite rather than the general public:
I don’t think it’s the man in the street or the women in the street who chops down the tall poppies, which is what anti-intellectualism would be. I think it’s other people, who are actually the establishment, who are doing it… So it’s not so much an anti-intellectualism, it’s more a punishment of alternative views (p.270).
Hager has a very democratic notion of the function of political protest in a civil society. He sees protest as a necessary counterweight to the increasingly dominant part played by he elite in politics, together with the ‘clutter of politics’ and government propaganda that distorts reality:
Compared to the rather contemptuous way that the establishment sees protestors and political dissent, my view is that so-called protestors are one of the two most vital parts of a working democracy. I see protestors as the catalysts for the public in the democratic process; that means informing people and bringing issues into prominence so that they can rise above the other clutter of politics and people’s lives. And so I see protestors, or political campaigners, as being the agents of democracy; and in those ways, in informing and uncovering things, in being a voice for the public so that you don’t just hear the Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and the person from a think tank, so that when people are listening on their radios while they make the kids’ lunch in the morning they might think “yep, that’s the one I believe in”. I see political protest as a crucial part of how public change comes about in a democracy, as opposed to the elite things that go on (p.272).
The civil society element of politics has clearly been in decline in recent years, and Hager comments on just how few people in NZ are actually holding together this important part of democratic society:
the importance of public campaigners, that class of people who put out the leaflets and organize the marches, or bother to bring the visiting speaker in or who put out the press release; those people who provide these things across a whole range of society. If you know the civil liberties movement or the environmental movement, there are actually very few people who keep that all going, decent people on the whole (pp.282-283).
In this regard, it’s interesting to read that Hager thinks that MMP and the parliamentary parties have acted to worsen this shortage of human resources for the social movements in this country. Whereas most western political party specialists say that political parties have been losing their members to the smorgasbord of single issues groups and other forms of ‘new politics’, Hager suggests the situation is the opposite, with the social movements having their precious few resources sucked into parliamentary politics:
One of the bad things about MMP is that you’ve got more parties which need to fundraise and debate their policies, and work out their structures and run their monthly committee meetings etc. And I’ve seen a big drain of people from movements into party organizations, of all different sorts of parties; and it’s meant, in a small country that doesn’t have too many of these organizer, motivator, spokespeople, social campaigner, catalyst sort of people, they get wasted on political activity and there aren’t so many for the crucial movement tasks. The Green Party and the Alliance, and the Labour Party, and other smaller parties have helped take people away from the Maori sovereignty movements, the environment movements, and social justice movements of different kinds (p.283).
Media and new communications technologies
Hager argues that the media here is dumb, but hesitates to say they've got 'dumber', as he's unsure that NZ has ever had a very intellectual or quality media. Furthermore:
Quite apart from the knocking machine and the timidness of journalists to confront, for example, our current prime minister – they’re pathetic, they’re feeble, their press conferences are polite, “could you please give us your prepared statements on this issue…?” There are no experts on defence; as far as I can see there are no experts on economics. On social policy, the stories are written by people who got put onto the issue that morning and started from scratch, and rang up the usual people to ask their opinions. In fact the media is one place where public intellectuals should be found. But in the media probably the main reason people are chosen is this strange, ill-defined thing called celebrity (p.276).
As to the role of ePolitics and the ability of new communications technologies to facilitate debate and intellectualism in NZ, Hager is unsure: ‘I think about this a great deal, and I don’t know, I can’t work it out. My feeling is that intellectual debate, the testing of ideas, discussion and so on, won’t fundamentally change’ (p.277).
Academia and public intellectualism
Hager says he seriously considered a career in academia, but decided against it. He views academic discourse as being rather divorced from public culture and social reality:
The thing that took me out of the university, the thing that drove me away, was a kind of a laziness, and it didn’t mean not working hard because academics work really hard in some ways, marking and classes and stuff, but it was a lack of commitment to the public interest, I suppose, to having a role beyond the comfortable production of things which advance your own career…. It’s mainly a structural problem rather than blaming it on people. I feel there’s just a huge waste of opportunity in the university culture; in terms of being critics and consciences of society, there’s not very much that seeps out (p.274).
Hager defines public intellectualism as being about ‘looking at what is best for society, and then [trying] to rectify that’, which Hager maintains sets public intellectualism ‘apart from quite a lot of what happens in academia, or public service, or in different parts of government’ (p.272). Essentially the role is a self-less one: ‘it’s looking beyond one’s personal interest or one’s personal career, or status’, and unfortunately, ‘it’s relatively uncommon that primary motivations are like that’ (p.273). He adds also that, ‘The purpose is not to be interesting or intellectual, the purpose is to change things, help people to see things differently, to want things to be better’ (p.279). Or as Karl Marx put it: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’