Jane Kelsey is at home, but by appointment only.
She’s installed in the study built above the roofline of her Mt Wellington house, with views across fields to the ribbon of the Southern Motorway. It’s as neat as a nunnery – even the half-size billiard table, stacked with piles of papers, can’t disperse the atmosphere of scholarly diligence.
Kelsey, a professor of law at the University of Auckland, who will deliver the annual Bruce Jesson Foundation Public Lecture on November 17, is the country’s most persistent and vocal watchdog of the doctrine appealingly known as “free trade”. She’s regularly available to the media as the sceptical voice in any debate, but scheduling an appointment proves something of a challenge. It comes down to a Tuesday-morning-take-it-or-leave-it proposition not because she’s unwilling to talk but because she’s so seldom in.
“The question is,” she says, pushing glasses up on the bridge of her nose and rubbing tired eyes, “whether I’m in the country these days.”
In the few weeks since the spectacular collapse of the fifth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, in Cancun on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Kelsey has come home, flown to Amsterdam for three days, bounced back for a week and then been to Croatia for another week. That exhausting itinerary has taken her to meetings exploring the implications of trade liberalisation for cultural identity; delegates worked on “developing an antidote to the free-trade agreements”, she says, where they are likely to override measures – such as broadcasting content quotas – designed to resist the juggernaut of American culture.
Less tangible than sheepmeat or bananas, cultural identity is a resource as profoundly endangered by trade liberalisation regimes as any other exportable commodity. And Kelsey, the de facto leader of the anti-globalisation movement here, spends much of her time in the front line of the debate (the NZ Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan, filing from Cancun, described her as “a one-woman NGO”). Under the banner of ARENA – the Action, Research and Education Network of Aotearoa – Kelsey is tireless in her deconstruction of the free-trade rhetoric that, she argues, advantages the rich nations while purporting to help the poor ones.
Last month, of course, the poor ones said, “No, thanks.” The Cancun talks collapsed when African nations, baulking at the price the US and Europe wanted to exact for cutting huge agricultural subsidies, swarmed for the doors, yelling “No means no!”
“Our people are dying,” one delegate cried. “The rich Europeans and Americans want our blood.” His words were an eerie echo of the suicide, a few days earlier, of 55-year-old South Korean farmer and activist Lee Kyung-Hae, who stabbed himself in the chest while waving a banner proclaiming that the “WTO Kills Farmers”.
Given the way matters turned out, Kelsey’s response was remarkably measured. There was more sorrow than triumph in her pronouncement, in a piece published in the Herald, that the collapse of the talks was “a turning point in the geopolitics of the developed and developing world and in the perception that economic globalisation is inevitable and irresistible”.
If she feels any grim satisfaction at a victory, she keeps it well hidden behind a mask of determination about how much remains to be won.
At 48, Kelsey is an unlikely poster girl for anti-globalisation. Ferociously intelligent, she’s dry enough to be a fire danger and even some of her ideological allies find her stern and intimidating. She’s regularly and reliably the most outspoken member of the university senate – the convocation of professors and the Vice-Chancellor that is not noted as a forum for robust political debate.
Her combative style has earned her plenty of enemies in the academy. Her professorial appointment was by way of a personal chair, which she was awarded in 1997 after the lobbying of several colleagues outside the law school, who were outraged at her having been repeatedly turned down for promotion on merit.
So it’s unsurprising that she shrugs off attacks from politicians – after Cancun, Prime Minister Helen Clark indirectly referred to her in Parliament as a “wrecker” – and others who plainly resent her intrusion into the discussion. She ascribes the resistance to the country’s “long history of anti-intellectualism”, but adds that the market-driven emphasis in education has made it riskier for academics to speak out. Meanwhile, the media are increasingly unwilling to lead an informed debate.
“Other voices than mine are equally partisan, but their partisanship has now been normalised. What really worries me is that we have a closure of our ability to even question the paths we are taking.”
The way the battle lines are drawn is embedded in the language used to describe the opposing forces. Kelsey’s (and others’) position is described as “anti-globalisation” and “anti-free trade” – terms that, like “anti-apartheid” and “anti-war”, subtly marginalise opposition. She prefers to see herself as part of a movement for “global social justice”, but accepts that anyone who opposes the prevailing orthodoxy will be seen as the outlaw.
She was scarcely raised as a firebrand. Her father was “a public servant in the truest sense of the word; he believed he served the public”, she recalls, a Hokianga kid who took a job with the Tourist Bureau and ended up as its director. That meant young Jane was raised and schooled on both sides of the Tasman, wherever her father was heading an office.
“It was disruptive, all the moving around,” she recalls, “but it made me independent, and Dad, although he didn’t have much formal education, was a great reader and always encouraged me to question, to think, to debate.”
Tears prick Kelsey’s eyes as she recalls her father’s death in 1986, just when the public-service reforms were creating state-owned enterprises and public servants were being derided as lazy bludgers.
“He was distraught about it,” she says. “He would have been devastated to see what happened.”
Trained in law at Victoria University, Kelsey did a master’s degree at Oxford and postgraduate work in criminology at Cambridge. The innocent abroad, she “freaked out for the first month or two” before settling down. At Oxford, she “learnt to swim rather than sink”, she says, but at Cambridge was baptised by left-thinking Marxist scholars who taught her the political theory that, a quarter of a century later, underpins her daily work.
These days, she’s thinking beyond the university, reckoning that “30 years is about all you should spend in a place.
“One of the goals that I have set before I look at leaving is to nurture a new generation of women academics within the law school and in the university as a whole. You have to create the space for others, but you also have to move yourself into different arenas.”
But unlike many distinguished academics in other disciplines, she devotes much of her on-campus time to working with junior students.
“The law school has a very healthy position about senior staff teaching compulsory [junior] courses,” she says. “I’ve always thought that the first year is the time to say to them: it’s all right to think, to critique, to challenge and to talk to them about issues around law and society. Marking 400 exam scripts is a pain – but it goes with it.”
In between her duties to her employer, Kelsey will keep plugging away at the struggle that was broadened, but not won, at Cancun. She has cut back on the seven-day, 80-hour weeks, but it’s safe to say her summer reading doesn’t include airport potboilers.
Asked if she ever tires of carrying the flame, she smiles a trifle tiredly.
“I’m always stimulated by trying to understand and analyse and articulate what I see happening. I never get bored. I’m a political animal in the sense of believing that you have to do what you can to bring about social change. But I am not alone: there are incredibly important political comrades with whom I’ve been working over many years.
“And there is a new confidence in the Left in a way that the death of the Alliance probably helped. People are thinking more about social movement politics. The [Iraq] war was really important because it brought young people out on the streets and there was a real sense of the US as an imperial power and as a bully. People are now joining the dots and we are moving into a new dimension politically.”
And she’s happy to accept that she’ll get little thanks for sticking to her guns.
“To say the emperor has no clothes is not a popular thing to do,” she says, “but it’s amazing how quickly we have put out of our heads what shocked us in the 80s and early 90s: the poverty and inequality, the collapse of our social infrastructure, the commodification of water, the reign of individualism. We have no concept of the future; we are just living through political management day to day.
“I am not saying there is going to be collapse of global capitalism in the next two years. But in this country the complacency that is currently pervasive in politics and radiates out from there is extraordinarily dangerous.”
Jane Kelsey’s Bruce Jesson Foundation Public Lecture, “Recolonisation or Decolonisation: where does our future lie?”, will be held at the Maidment Theatre, University of Auckland, Monday, November 17, 6.30pm.