Sour Fruit: Why I’m not pinning my hopes on ESRA



IS IT TOO SOON to pronounce judgement upon ESRA? Economic & Social Research Aotearoa has only just been launched. So, surely, we should give it a little time to show us what it can do? Except that we already know what ESRA will do, because we already know what ESRA is. ESRA is a Far-Left “think tank” whose contribution to the formulation and implementation of broadly acceptable progressive policies will range from negligible to nil.

Unfair? I don’t think so.

If I were to show you the first fragile leaves of a lemon sapling, and ask whether or not you wanted a lemon tree in your garden, I very much doubt that you would say: “Oh, let’s not be hasty. That might not be a lemon tree after all. Or, if it is a lemon tree, it might prove to be one of a very special kind – one that does not bear sour fruit.” More likely your answer would depend on how you feel about lemons.

If you like lemon trees, and lemons, you’d say: “Oh, by all means, let it grow.” If you don’t like lemons, you’d tell me to pull it out.

Well I don’t like lemons. At least, I don’t like lemon trees that take up space and consume resources I would much rather allocate to other plants.

The genetic make-up of ESRA reflects the personal histories of its creators. Its core inheritance comes from the Maoist Left of the 1970s. There are also genes from the unemployed workers and Maori nationalist movements of the 1980s. Still more hail from the pacifist, radical feminist and Green philosophies. Finally, there is a generous contribution from the academic Marxist gene-banks located in the political science and sociology departments of the nation’s universities.

Perhaps the founders of ESRA are hoping to harvest some hybrid vigour from these waning ideological strains. Certainly their individual evolutions offer scant cause for optimism. The latest historical research paints Mao Zedong as a monstrous figure whose “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” cost the lives of millions of Chinese workers and peasants. The unemployed workers’ movement collapsed in ideological and personal rancour even as Rogernomics and Ruthanasia were tearing the New Zealand working-class to pieces. The so-called “new social movements” (pacifism, anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism) proved easy meat for the assimilative/transformative powers of neoliberalism. Second Wave feminism was reduced to tallying-up the number of female company directors. Maori Nationalism turned into the Iwi Leaders Group. Green became the new Pink. And academic Marxism remained practically impenetrable to anyone not writing a doctoral thesis.

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It’s not a whakapapa that inspires much confidence. Simply keeping so many unruly horses pulling in the same direction will require the wisdom of a sage and the patience of a saint. There are many on the Left, however, who’ll happily attest to ESRA’s founding mother, Sue Bradford, being over-endowed with both those qualities. All I’m prepared to say is: she’ll need them!

Sue has called ESRA a “left-wing think-tank”. Indeed, she wrote her doctoral thesis on the desirability and practicality of establishing just such a beast. Unfortunately for the NZ Left, (which desperately needs a think-tank of its own to match the Right’s Maxim Institute and NZ Initiative) ESRA is nothing of the sort.

What stands out the most about the historical phenomenon of the think-tank is its unswervingly practical focus. At the end of World War II the Right stood discredited: its political leadership by their affinities with the defeated fascists and Nazis; its economic theories by the multiple lessons and legacies of the Great Depression. Social-democracy, on the other hand, armed with the economic and social insights of Keynesianism, was in the ideological ascendant. By the early-1970s, it was poised to put an end to capitalism as generally understood. Something had to be done.

The principal weapon of the Right’s ideological fightback was the think-tank. Not only did it relentlessly critique the social-democratic assumptions of the era, but it produced a never-ending stream of practical suggestions for action. The process was as simple as it was effective: commission a report on an institution, or a practice, you wish to change. Release the report to the media and make its author available for interviews and public meetings. Arrange private meetings with sympathetic politicians and/or journalists where practical advice can be given and received. Repeat as required until a parliamentary majority is assembled in favour of your “reform”.

After more than 40 years, the Right’s refinement of the think-tank “weapon” has developed to the point where a body called the American Legislative Exchange Council is able to supply right-wing state legislators with pre-drafted “model” legislation. Committed to advancing the “fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public” ALEC makes the work of the Right’s parliamentary foot-soldiers almost too easy.

If this was the sort of tree Sue and her comrades were planting this weekend, I’d be cheering them on. Sadly, they are committed to an organisational model that seeks to bring about radical economic and social change without enlisting ESRA as a skilled participant in the day-to-day, down-and-dirty, cut-and-thrust business of political influence-peddling. But that is what a think-tank is. It’s what it does. Aspiring to be a think-tank that doesn’t get its hands dirty, is like aspiring to be a prostitute who doesn’t sell sex.

It’s a tremendous pity, but ESRA is a lemon.


  1. Just like Chris Trotter is right wing. Anyone with half a brain can see that Chris Trotter is a right wing wolf in sheep’s clothing. Chris would try to save Marie Antoinette from the guillotine, on account of his being right wing.

  2. Sorry Chris you are not a farmer are you when you say this it is patently obvious.

    “So, surely, we should give it a little time to show us what it can do?”

    I have been managing a small farm 10 acres more or less and was like you a “condominium Commando” before this as you appear to be and now know what the sowing of seeds does to develop a big pruction picture so give the old tired “wait and let’s see NatZ approach away please before our NZ is known as “Unclean-Ungreen NZ”.

  3. Gee Chris I didn’t see you there – and then to make such aggressive, insulting ignorant, uneducated statements as what I have just read.

    I was there, I challenge you to debate science, justice, law and politics WITH ME ANY DAY – in a public forum so everybody can see you spiral into personal insults and radicalised ranting of neo-liberals.

    I don’t have the support of any of those above, I challenge them also, because I am an expert in stress disorders, inequality and constitutional law, etc. Been in politics a long time as well, don’t have the extreme unbridled power you do of course but I made my voice heard in other ways.

    If you knew what I did about ACC, NZ government, mental health services, violence, addiction, suicide and injustices against disabled minority groups you wouldn’t be ranting on like you have above.

    So how about it – meet with me, publicly debate what LEFT and RIGHT even mean. I dare you, I’m no threat to you, I’m an invalid rotting on a benefit I’m sure someone as stupid as me wouldn’t be able to educate or change your mindset at all. Then there would be proof how superior, right and well informed you really are

    • @ j.r. banks..

      you could always go to the daily blog monthly drinks thing..and debate him there..

      you will usually find him in a huddle with rolinson..

      (planning their peters/nz first campaign – no doubt..)

  4. The agenda of those in power is further raiding of the commons, further sanctioning of polluting activities, further transfer of wealth and power into the hands of opportunists, bureaucrats and enforcers, further reductions in liberties, further increases in surveillance, and further dumbing-down of the general populace.

    ESRA won’t change a thing.

    Good on them for trying.

  5. Good God! Chris does it yet again…after reading his diatribe which just stinks of concealed jealousy and envy, Chris is angry not because the left is creating a ‘Think Tank’ but because they failed to include him in their plans… Chris detests the left because the left see through him, see him for what he is,”A talker not a doer”.

    Success for Chris is being read, being asked his opinion, his answers often go round in circles but they all end up back at the Status-quo, centre right, do nothing, he measures his success in platitudes and pretense. He ends his diatribe with what considers to be a smart comment.

    “Aspiring to be a think-tank that doesn’t get its hands dirty, is like aspiring to be a prostitute who doesn’t sell sex.

    This last comment clearly represents the behaviour of Chris over many years… I don’t think Chris sees himself as a prostitute, at least not a working one but his behaviour speaks for itself.

    Its sad really, but we’ve got over Douglas, Prebble so without doubt we will get over Trotter too, right-wing stooges come and go.

  6. Wow. A smear piece like this is beneath you Chris. I too am sceptical about the ESRA and many of its ideological underpinnings, but I have to ask why you are so keen to discredit it before it even gets going? In answer to this, you give us a questionable garden analogy. To tweak it slightly so that it more closely reflects the facts, you are trying to tell us whatever went into the compost heap determines what will grow in any garden where that compost is applied. One compost-related words for this; horseshit.

    Meanwhile, you want us to believe the mature Labour lemon tree in your own garden “might prove to be one of a very special kind – one that does not bear sour fruit”. Since we’re talking about the genetic histories of political entities, one could ask why you think Labour has any chance of producing any result other than the neoliberalism that has consistently been its fruit since the 1980s, when Andrew Little is still keen to tell people they are a “free trade party”. Again, I’m sceptical, but unlike you I’m willing to judge them on their record, rather than condemning any possibility of a seachange before the fact.

  7. Anyone else noted that anything remotely independent and left wing gets the thumbs down from Trotter.
    He represents the liberal wing branch of the
    neoliberal establishment.

  8. Chris, an other excellent post. Thanks

    You can bet that any organisation with “Aotearoa ” in the title is likely to be a cock-up.

    I think it was Blair who rightly pointed out that many on the Left today are more enamoured with the tools of left wing politics but have forgotten its original objectives.

    So if this ‘Think Tank’ really wants to make some progress I suggest it winds back the crazy Far Left rhetoric and reconsiders it’s original (good!) objectives, then consider how they may be practically supported in a 21st century economic environment.

    • You can bet that any organisation with “Aotearoa ” in the title is likely to be a cock-up.

      Jeez, Andrew, are you unable to make a comment without inserting some sort of racist reference? You make a laughing stock of yourself, and the rest of your comment is simply dismissed out of hand.

      • I notice you are not having some sort of bibliographic, wet dream, just stating your opinion. There is no need to dismiss his comment out of hand. 87.4% of New Zealanders (Aotearoans) Don’t agree with Sue Bradford. There was a referendum about that.…/New_Zealand_citizens-initiated_referendum,_…

        • Why are those on the right unable to make jokes that are funny?

          I think they must have been bullies who people laughed *with* to avoid being pumeled. And the bully mistakenly learnt from this that being mean and snide got laughs.

          • You think?

            You really think?

            I seriously doubt it. Lighten up – you might enjoy life more.

            [Andrew, you are perilously close to trolling. Kindly stick to the issues on this page or refrain from posting. Any further silliness on your part will earn you a month detention on the naughty mat. – ScarletMod]

          • ‘mean and snide’ is about the only manifestation of rightwing humour there is..

            it usually takes the form of hard/brittle sneers at those they consider are inferior to them..

            i almost feel sorry for is such a grim/unfunny life – being a rightwinger..

            ..and/but they can’t help it/themselves..!..the poor luvvies…

   is their burden to bear..

        • hey andrew..give us a list of funny rightwing comedians..

          (actually – one will do…and no dennis leary is not funny – and an unscripted ‘fraser’ crane is as funny as an ingrown toenail..)

          who ya got..?

  9. Chris you have missed on this one.

    History of China – how widely have you read outside of US diatribe.

    NZ needs a conversation about principles and if it takes a “left wing” or “socialist leaning” group to spark that then we should welcome it.

    Andrew is on form stuck in a groove that leads to greater inequity and poverty for the although he never seems to state that is what he wants.

    So much for more of the same.

  10. I’m surprised you mentioned that right wing think tanks really ‘ took off’ in the 1970,s…

    In fact it was long before this .

    In the 20th century we had the Mont Pelerin society – formed just after WW2 as a result of the rapid victory of the communists in China. Chiang Kai Shek was the right wingers choice to oppose Mao and he lost.

    Took up residence in Taiwan I believe – along with all the other right wing criminal element that supported him.

    And the Mont Pelerin society was formed from professors, philosophers economists, academics, bankers and the like…And who was their 1960’s and 1970’s golden boy ? none other than Milton Freidman himself.

    And how many think tanks did they have globally ?

    Over 200.

    A society that was constructed for , by and from … vast wealth to preserve???

    More vast wealth.

    Margaret Thatcher herself even had a Mont Pelerin society ‘adviser’ a few doors down from Number 10 Downing.

    You understand what I’m getting at. This was no small shoelace budget ran operation. This was a society formed by the rich and the powerful of the western worlds elite.

    You also understand that Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson were/ are board members of the Mont Pelerin society. You understand also that the NZ Initiative is simply an extension of its parent organisation – as is the Maxim Institute.

    I think what galls me most about your article, Mr Trotter , … is that you neglect to mention and explain in depth the real origins of the present day neo liberal ideology and then proceed to pit the external symptoms of the societal breakdown which we are all now witnessing against what is , and always will be ,… a populist and reformist movement such as the ESRA that has nowhere near the vast financial and political resources at its disposal as society’s such as Mont Pelerin.

    And one clear pitfall to your thinking in assuming this movement cannot grow and have influence locally , is that given time – time such as the Mont Pelerin society had ( try over 60 years! ) – it can actually have a lot of political influence .

    And one think about think tanks in their infancy which you also neglected to mention is that they most often start out with many disparate groups and individuals – and yet given time ( again ) and the hammering out of policy’s and objectives , – the action for change then begins.

    Another thing : no successful revolution ever happened without prior planning and long term strategy.

    All that remains is the form and shape of the tactics to be used .

    Far from being a lemon – ( particularly in light of the issue which will ultimately bring down the Key led National govt – that being the housing crisis ) – this think tank has come at a very timely moment in being able to coalesce the objectives , goals – and the necessary course of action needed to be able to oppose this current neo liberal govt.

    And it will not be particularly hard to hold up a mirror to the public to reflect back on 8 years of this govt’s deceit and shortcomings.

    You also remember the New Zealand Party , do you not , Mr Trotter?

    The New Zealand Party, formed by Bob Jones for the express purpose of the overthrow of Rob Muldoons National party. It was not even a party that seriously considered entering parliament.

    It was simply a construct by the NZ Business Roundtable ( NZ Institute ) of the time to help Roger Douglas and his Mont Pelerin society ideology to be ushered into this country.

    A small group of people , backed by big business , and guided by a think tank.

    We can see just how powerful the behind the scenes ‘ think tanks ‘ actually are when we know a little about how the right wing has manipulated affairs by using them ….

    But lest you forget … the left also can do the same . Given time.

  11. ESRA is a great addition to our movement – the movement of people who are committed to social justice. We want to grow the alternatives to neoliberal politics that we need if we are ever to achieve social change.

    Shame on you Chris! You could be an asset to the movement!

  12. ‘Mont Pelerin society – formed just after WW2 as a result of the rapid victory of the communists in China. Chiang Kai Shek was the right wingers choice to oppose Mao and he lost.

    Took up residence in Taiwan I believe – along with all the other right wing criminal element that supported him.’

    Chiang Kai Shek and his fellow fascists looted as much Chinese gold as they could get their hands on, invaded Taiwan, overthrew the Taiwanese government, killed anyone who resisted, set up a military dictatorship, and by doing so quickly achieved US favoured-nation status.

    ‘….. the left also can do the same . Given time.’

    Unfortunately that is not the case. Thinking things out logically using the best scientific and economic information is not what determines government policy; money and vested interest are what determines government policy. And ‘the right’ will always have a lot more money to throw at anything than ‘the left’. And bigger vested interests to protect.

    The other important aspect is that we have now run out of time. As you correctly point out, manipulation by the right has been going on for decades (actually centuries). Global collapse has already commenced.

    • It is standard practice for governments to completely ignore all the scientific evidence that refutes absurd the mantra of perpetual expansion [on a finite planet] of the business sector and increased consumerism.

      Right wing think tanks likewise ignore all the scientific evidence that challenges the mantra of perpetual growth, and deliver reports along the lines of ‘growth is good’ and’ greed is good’ etc.

      Anyone who wants to see an end to the destruction wreaked upon the Earth (and society) by governments, and see some attempt made at preserving life on this planet is marginalised and labelled ‘a weirdo’, ‘an extremist’ etc.

      Thus, everything that matters gets made continually worse.

      We should give ESRA a chance before we judge them. That said, the forces of destruction are so well funded (looting, polluting and exploitation are highly profitable whereas conservation isn’t) it is unlikely ESRA will be heard above the cacophony of the business-as-usual mob.

  13. I can understand your impatience Chris – it’s like the right continue to take real-world bases while we go on acting as if this state of affairs could be changed with superior research and argument, rather than greater urgency and resourcefulness. But that is no reason to dismiss something just because it doesn’t look to you to have the potential to be everything. A revival of the left as a viable political force will inevitably have many parts to it. ESRA, if it is able to establish itself, will be one of those parts. If it fails to establish itself, whatever follows it will be. We cannot win a class war by argumentation alone, but we cannot conjure a well-equipped, confident left out of thin air either.

  14. I understand where Chris is coming from. It is a feeling of despair for the left and a sense that neo-liberalism is so deeply embedded in our political and economic thinking that it is impossible to overcome.
    I think that Chris is also identifying a massive chasm between a collection of obscure activists/academics and the profoundly compromised NZ Labour Party. A party that is totally beholden to the middle class kiwi dream of low taxation and a second home. There is no desire to confront this on behalf of non middle NZ and Labour will be completely outflanked in the next election by National offering tax cuts.
    A left wing think tank no matter how weak it may be and how out of touch its founders are is nevertheless a good thing. It has to be because it is all we have at the moment in NZ.

    • What a disappointing post, Chris is discrediting a new organisation simply for the people being involved and even before they have been given any chance to present anything.

      As for ‘think tanks’ the right dominates science and policy now, almost everywhere, as behind it is lots of money that pays for the reports that he kind of mentions. “Research” is not what it used to be, when it comes to a lot of it done these days, it is often done with the intention to prove things and to justify certain policies, even where there is no justification.

      So data is treated selectively, hand picked and misrepresented, where it does not deliver as so desired by the vested interest holding “leaders”.

      Sue Bradford and the Alternative Welfare Working Group tried to present a counter balance to the government selected Welfare Working Group in 2010. Even though they presented enough findings and statistics, even research, it was simply ignored and never accepted. Instead we had such ones as Paula Rebstock present the reports and working groups Paula Bennett and John Key preferred.

      This continues to this very day. Even when a scientist reveals what dodgy stuff goes on, they simply ignore the few that dare speak out, and continue as if nothing ever happened, no matter how much so-called “evidence” has been discredited.

      Here is what was presented in 2010 or so, but they preferred Paula Rebstock and her reports.

      • No, Mike.
        I understood that Chris was criticising the new organisation because that is all it is – a new organisation with no ready-prepared outlets for propaganda, and no pre-organised campaign, no ‘doomed to succeed’ ideas with ready promotion. As he said, that is what all the right-wing think-tanks always had, and still have. The Left need to understand this disadvantage, and move to fix it. Railing against Chris telling the truth is dumb. And accusing Chris of being a secret Rightie is even dumber.

        • “I understood that Chris was criticising the new organisation because that is all it is – a new organisation with no ready-prepared outlets for propaganda, and no pre-organised campaign, no ‘doomed to succeed’ ideas with ready promotion.”

          A think tank tends to behave as not providing “propaganda”, even when it may be in a cunning manner. They like to dress up as “scientific”, you know, so to talk about outlets being needed for “propaganda” is not going to be helpful, as that would make ESRA look unscientific.

          And anything claimed to have some factual and scientific merits needs to be based on some research, some systematic, methodical kind of work. This cannot simply be tricked out of a hat.

          Those “propaganda” outlets are usually the MSM, so are you suggesting they have to come at the same time with their own “media” network?

  15. Why is this marked as spam

    [System glitch, Peter, and one that has to be regularly fixed with human intervention. Apologies. – ScarletMod]

  16. Well, Chris… I usually find your posts quite interesting, if not always agreeable. This time however, it’s little more than diatribe. You talk about lemons- it’s not lemons that are the problem here, it’s sour grapes!

  17. Why learn from history when it is so much more satisfying to vilify those who try to do so?

    To find a way to make State or communal intervention watertight, constructive, effective and sustainable is actually quite difficult. A realistic think tank blending the perspective of academics, the rigour of progressive accountants, the organizing ability of unionists and the public relations thrust of an appealing politician would maybe add something worthwhile to the nation.

    What are the chances?

    Alternatively, it is so easy to construct policy which strips the public sector away to the advantage of private interests. This is particularly simple when even to do nothing simply adds laissez faire to the natural advantage of capital and privilege.

    The path is steep when the natural Left catchment of large processing plants and industries are rarer and employ far fewer workers in an increasingly fragmented economy. In this environment it is necessary to seek alliances on both left and right if we wish to form a majority sufficient to achieve government.

    This unavoidable truth feels like treason to many who are wedded to a more historically purist political analysis. They would far prefer to form a radical grouping like ESRA and turn their backs on those who argue for incremental change citing realism.

    Which, if either, model will prevail remains to be seen, but my fear is that fantasy and ineffectual gesture followed by rancour and dissolution will replace engagement for many whose efforts we will badly miss back here in the real world.

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