Tuesday 27 December 2011

Turning A Page?

Labour Turns A Page: But which way? A parsing of David Shearer's Address-in-Reply speech suggests that the party is about to revert to the economic and social priorities of the Clark-Cullen Government of 1999-2008.

THE ADDRESS IN REPLY to the Speech from the Throne presents the Leader of the Opposition with a great opportunity. The newly elected government has placed its words in the mouth of the Governor General, and now it’s time for the alternative government to have its say. The Address-in-Reply debate is a time for grand themes and memorable lines; a time for inducing “buyer’s remorse” among the governing party’s supporters; a time – in short – for the man or woman who would be prime minister to really shine.

Did David Shearer shine? In delivering his first Address-in-Reply speech, did he rise to the occasion? And what (if any) grand and memorable lines did he deliver? Let’s find out.

Mr Shearer began with an acknowledgement that, on 26 November, the electorate rejected what Labour had to offer:

Just over three weeks ago the National Government and the Labour Opposition put our ideas in front of the people of New Zealand, and our side didn’t win.

And therefore Labour will be different in these coming three years.

We will turn a page.

To “turn the page”, in common English usage, means “to stop thinking about and dealing with something”. As in: “Your divorce came through over a year ago, it’s time to turn the page”.

So what is Mr Shearer so keen to stop thinking about? What’s he so tired of dealing with? Is it Helen Clark’s Labour Party? The Labour Party that Phil Goff inherited but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change? Turning a page on that would make a huge difference.

It would also be extremely difficult. Helen Clark dominated Labour for 15 years – longer than any other Labour Leader. There are those in Camp Shearer who insist that, even now, from a distance of 15,000 kilometres, she is still trying to call the shots. That in the just-concluded leadership contest, Ms Clark actively lobbied for Mr Shearer’s opponent, David Cunliffe.

A party leader reveals a great deal about his character and intentions through the people he chooses to sit alongside him, and those he relegates to the back-benches. If Mr Shearer really is determined to stop thinking about and dealing with Helen Clark, his ‘Shadow Cabinet’ ought to show it.

What it actually discloses, however, is that the Shearer-led Labour Party is more about continuity than change. Mr Shearer’s two big winners, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, though certainly younger than Ms Clark’s generation of politicians, have yet to demonstrate the slightest ideological deviance from her “social-democratic” prescriptions.

Some of Mr Shearer’s other picks: David Parker, Clayton Cosgrove, Shane Jones, Nanaia Mahuta, Su’a William Sio, Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff, Annette King and Damien O’Connor; suggest a greater willingness to acknowledge the ideals and aspirations of his more conservative caucus colleagues. This could presage a turning away from the social-liberalism that cost Labour so dearly in Ms Clark’s final term. But, the inclusion of David Cunliffe, Phil Twyford, Charles Chauvel, Lianne Dalziel, Chris Hipkins, Darien Fenton and Clare Curran in the Shadow Cabinet points to the more mundane conclusion that, rather than any burning desire to turn over a new leaf, Mr Shearer’s choices reflect Labour's need for “rejuvenation” and a balancing of caucus factions.

But Mr Shearer was not about to let his page-turning metaphor go. A little later in his speech he declared:

The Labour Party is turning a page.

This Labour Party will put growing the pie for all New Zealanders at the front of our agenda.

We cannot be content dividing an ever shrinking pie.

But, “growing the pie” is simply a way of expressing the deeply conservative idea that how one’s country’s national income is distributed matters less than its constant expansion. Ms Clark was fond of quoting John F. Kennedy’s observation that: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But, as JFK undoubtedly knew (because he used to sail them) and Ms Clark surely appreciates, there’s a world of difference between struggling along in a row-boat, and sailing in a luxury yacht.

In pledging to “grow the pie”, Mr Shearer is speaking in code to New Zealand’s wealthiest men and women. He is telling them that they need not fear a future Labour Government. Wages will continue to be subsidized by Working For Families, and the government will pour millions into scientific research and development. Mr Shearer will use the additional revenue flowing into the state’s coffers from innovative new business ventures to boost spending on education and health. The new jobs created by these business will reduce the government’s welfare obligations, allowing it to repay debt and rebuild surpluses.

If you’re asking yourself: “Weren’t these the economic and social policies of Ms Clark and Dr Michael Cullen?” The answer is: “Yes, they were.”

Mr Shearer and the Labour Party aren’t turning the page forward – they’re turning it back.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 December 2011.


Anonymous said...

"New Zealand's change in immigration policy dates back to the early 1990s when the gap in productivity with other nations became pronounced between the years 1970 and 1990. Higher immigration was intended to fix the problem.

In its report, the SWG claims the move backfired."

"The policy choice that increased immigration, given the number of employers increasingly unable to pay First-World wages to the existing population and all the capital requirements that increasing populations involve - looks likely to have worked almost directly against the adjustment New Zealand needed to make and it might have been better off with a lower rate of net immigration.''

Just Saying

Anonymous said...

In other words welcome Tony Blair!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Migod! And yet you promoted him. And yea it has bitten thee in thy bum!

Anonymous said...

Chris, I'm surprised at you. I would have thought you'd have bothered to find out what Shearer stood for before giving him such a wholehearted endorsement!

Anonymous said...

My informal survey of former Labour voters over the last few weeks suggests that what they want from Labour is some positive aspirational rhetoric and a roadmap to economic prosperity. Even those who are struggling are tired of hearing about social justice and being told they are hard done-by.

Shearer's clean, green, smart economy is perhaps the right kind of rhetoric, and investment in R&D could be the the central pillar of the prosperity roadmap. At least this is positive messaging rather than grievance-focused.

Whether Roberston, Ardern etc can stay away from grievance politics is another question.

I think Labour may need to play opposition differently this time. Perhaps largely ignoring the Nats and simply presenting themselves as a government in waiting.

Chris Trotter said...

No one really knows which way Shearer will go - least of all, I suspect, Shearer himself.

He strikes me as one of those polticians who operate best when they trust, and follow, their instincts.

His Address-in-Reply speech merely indicated that, unclear as to which way will open to Labour first, he simply opted for the Clark-Cullen default settings.

I doubt that he will stay with them for long. Things are changing much too fast.

With Shearer it's always going to be a matter of 'watch this space'.

wasi said...

more free market policies anyone?...more neoliberal consensus amongst the new labour leadership and the labour political elite..i notice the nzherald is calling shearers labour New Labour now...

Loz said...

"Labour will listen, we will learn" sounds remarkably like "Labour Listens" of 1990. Shearer's "Getting our books back under control" was the ever-elusive "balanced budget" of the 80's. "Growing the Pie" was also from the 80's and is still quoted by Roger Douglas on ACT pages today. "Export led recovery" through innovation is just part of the same sales pitch. This is really turning the clock back.

It looks like the new Labour strategy is to follow down the same path taken during the times of the emerging Alliance in the early 1990s.

Discussions about "Shearer's Labour" overlook that the leader has virtually no personal power-base and is completely dependent on the goodwill of the previous leadership faction. Lange discovered leadership did not equate as power when he tried to move against the New Right. Since then, successive Leaders have refused to promote a reversal of the economic policies enabled under the Douglas years.

The power behind the throne for this new Leader was Goff, King, Mallard and Robertson who represent the continuum and ideological status-quo of the past 20 years. David Shearer couldn't (if he wanted to) alter the direction of Labour while expecting to retain his leadership role.

As Labour seem to be setting the stage to repeat the early 1990's it's easier to see Shearer playing the role of Mike Moore than that of the emerging Helen Clark.

Olwyn said...

Firstly, I thought that the Clark/Cullen government was a good government, and it was well enough accepted to have retained office for three terms. At that time, it seemed possible to think that some sort of accommodation with neoliberalism was the way to go: a real fight may well have proved very costly, and the people of NZ had suffered years of disruption already. Within that framework, however, they did reduce unemployment, and they did introduce initiatives that made life better for many New Zealanders.

The problem is, I do not think that the Clark/Cullen option is still available in any meaningful sense. We have reached the point where the neoliberal view must be challenged if we are to rediscover any sort of economic stability or social justice; if we are not to be completely reduced to a nation of desperate, get-rich-quick schemers and destitutes. And I fear that a Labour opposition that talks about "turning the page" and "growing the pie" assumes an option that is no longer there for them.

And to s36e175, there is a difference between injustices that cry out to be addressed and "grievance politics" - you need to ask yourself if the endless baying for tax-cuts from some quarters is expressive of a grievance that should be dismissed, or do the cries of the poor alone count as dismissible grievances to you?

Anonymous said...

Chris, you still haven't answered about your wholehearted endorsement!

Chris Trotter said...

Haven't I, Anonymous? I thought I had - just a little further up this thread.

I endorsed the man - which is pretty much all we can do. A government's policies are almost entirely dictated by forces over which they exercise (at best) only limited control.

Had Hitler not attacked Poland, for example, Mickey Savage's government would almost certainly have been brought to heel by the British banks, and Walter Nash would have become our Philip Snowden.

As Harold Macmillan allegedly replied to an aide who asked him what could possibly throw his enormously popular ministry off-course: "Events, dear boy, events."

Anonymous said...

But, how one chooses to deal with 'events' is surely the most important thing - hence a Thatcher, a Blair, a Douglas, a Castro or a Benn! Therein, lies the conundrum, in as much, that David Shearer will ultimately make decision/responses and indirectly you linked him with a centerist/third way approach or hinted as much.

Victor said...


May I top your quotation from that redoubtable Tory Keynesian, Harold Macmillan, with one from an equally pragmatic British PM, Harold Wilson, viz: "A week is a long time in politics"!

I spend a few days away from my computer, walk calmly by the sea, gaze out at horizons worthy of the brush of Caspar David Friederich, cavort over groaning tables with genial in-laws and read 1.3 books.

And then I return to discover that all the 'isms' are in fact 'wasms', that Shearer is not the Messiah, that he's just the latest apostle of 'Business as Usual' and that all has returned to fustian mediocrity, with a predictable whiff of betrayal.

All that's missing is a cartoonist of the skill of David Low to commemorate this moment.

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Chris's last comment about the 1930s simply isn't true. The 1939 situation was an ordinary bond conversion made difficult by the situation in the London market, and the obstinance of Leslie Lefeaux and Montagu Norman. Please read some recent history, instead of Bassett et al. Come to think of it, the version of history the Labour Party still suffers under was a product of Keith Sinclair and Auckland University. So another Labour leader from Auckland is the status quo, as Chris has just argued, and a new framework is needed. At least Grant Robertson is from Dunedin.

New Year's resolution: no more blogging, at least on the Blogger site.

Victor said...


I agree that the Clark-Cullen government did a reasonably good
if modest job of resuscitating New Zealand Social Democracy after the foolhardy Neo-Liberal experiments of the previous 15 years.

Nothing, may I add, annoyed me more during Phil Goff's leadership tenure than his proclivity for apologising for those years and his failure to nail the now almost universally accepted lie concerning Labour's alleged financial incompetence.

Moreover, the Shearer camp's essentially contentless mantra of "change" during the recent leadership election, struck me as a continuation of the apologia theme.

However, I don't see a huge contradiction between the policies that Clark/Cullen pursued in government and the rather different policies required for today's infinitely more straightened circumstances.

Counter-cyclical economic management involves, amongst other things, maximising revenue and tightening expenditure during the good times, so that you're better placed to help stimulate the economy and relieve distress in the bad times.

I always understood that these were the policy objectives Michael Cullen was broadly pursuing, albeit that he had to compromise with unnecessary giveaways to the aspirational middle class, such as "Working for Families".

He kept talking about the need to provide for a "rainy day". And as the song says: "That rainy day is here"!

No-one enjoys financial rainy days and no-one should wish for them. But they do provide opportunities for creativity, as well perilous problems.

Like you, I was extremely dubious about David Shearer's candidature and I wasn't the least bit surprised by the apologetic content of his opening address in parliament.

But he did exceed my admittedly low expectations of him as a parliamentary orator.

And I also note a hint of personal gravitas on Shearer's part that is already making John Key look like something of a light weight.

We're in for an interesting year.

Victor said...

Just to clear up any misunderstandings connected with my previous post; the years I was accusing Phil Goff of apologising for were 1999-2008 and not 1984 et al, for which he had considerable reason to apologise.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

'New' Labour. Neoliberalism with some tweaking round the edges. No heart, no real vision. The words toothmarks and bum come to mind.

Anonymous said...

In pledging to “grow the pie”, Mr Shearer is speaking in code to New Zealand’s wealthiest men and women.

Absolutely correct. Which precisely indicates why Mr Shearer has some chance of delivering for our most needy. i.e., he gets it: and until the rest of the Left fully accepts the reality that our "wealthiest men and women" totaly control the sole information input to the crucial swing voter, it's doomed.

Rattle the sabres at this early stage, and Labour's down there with the Greens and Hone: why cover a flank that's already won, why bare your buttocks to omnipotent, habitual rapists?

Here's what happened, Natalie: Working for Families took from the rich and gave to the poor. Practical Christianity. Common sense. Communism by stealth to our "wealthiest etc" and one J. Key.

So the fix went in, via Orewa One racism fomented exculusively by the media. Read The Hollow Men and peruse all editorials and talkback of the time to see exactly how. National rose from the gutter (according to the polls, themselves now questionable) and Hels, knowing acutely the importance of electoral mandate, freaked out. No more Closing the Gaps, Foreshore and Seabed I, and Special Benefit abolished.

Result: Left base offended, because never accepting of reality, and the media onslaught continues. Talkback, blogs, editorials, Key hagiography and "pack rape" (Trotter) of Peters ensures NACT victory 08.

But a wee bit skinny for our "wealthiest". Still needed either ACT or the bloody maoris. Messy.

So softly, softly, says the Key monkey, and the organ-grinders spin relentlessly for an unprecedented, govern-alone, best-ever, rubber wool cup double orgasm. And so wall-to-wall Goff ineptitude, Key rectitude, and Winnie invisibility.

But on the seventh day they rested. Fatally.

Goffy uncut for a mere four weeks soars: Teapot tape cannot be buried: uncomfortably close encounter of the turd kind only narrowly averted by egregious bribery and corruption of Maori Party and ILG principals that now hovers ominously: the economy hanging by a flimsy milk-powder thread.

And then along came Dave. Sweet-talking, love-walking, reality-grasping Dave.

He'll either continue to front-foot the media whores and follow Winnie's example of obviating them in the halls and provincial committees, or Greed will win.

Pity our political foes - the anomie of the rich squeezes the veins of the heartless, and the cancer of selfishness swells in its welcoming host.

Meanwhile, relax, brothers an sisters of faith, and embrace with pure simplicity the season, your family and fellows.

And look after yourself Chris. Sole msm lefty left. This country needs you, and it usually leads the world. No pressure.


Olwyn said...


There is a piece by Tim Hazeldine in this morning's Herald called "Greedy Warriors of Privilege Threaten Our Decent Society." His thesis is that the top echelons of employees milk the nominal owners of businesses (shareholders) while holding the wages of their companies down, and that "...the hollowing out of the earned income distribution is a fundamental threat to the long-run viability of the market economy."

This sort of thing, along with the get-rich-quick schemes and property speculation that accompany it, is what the word "business" has come to mean colloquially, as opposed to the corner hardware shop, engineering workshop, print shop etc.

This state of affairs has become further entrenched since the Clark-Cullen years, and that is why I think there is no simple way back to those years, and that "appealing to the centre" has little meaning now beyond courting the temporary grace and favour of right wing pundits, while pursuing a policy of business as usual, perhaps with a few added concessions for the sake of brand distinction.

Victor said...


Thanks for directing my gaze to Tim Hazeldine's article, with which I substantially agree.

Obviously, the growth of a massively overpaid managerial class is an issue of gravity and would be so even if this class didn't suffer from systemic incompetence, as it largely does.

But how does this change the policy mix that centre-left governments should be pursuing during what looks like being an extended period of economic slowdown?

What policies would you recommend other than the classic Social Democratic ones of progressive taxation, counter-cyclical stimuli, fostering of r&d, education and industrial training, investment in infrastructure, support for exports etc.?

Put another way: if the centre won't hold, what do you suggest we do about it?

Cactus Kate said...

Hazledine has been spouting the same envy nonsense for years under his tenure. I was a student of his in his miserable heights.
His piece read like he wanted a pay rise, that was about the depth of it.

Olwyn said...


I think that the policies that you suggest, and with which I generally agree, now count as further left than they did in the Clark/Cullen period, due to the tendency of the perceived centre to drift toward the right.

Hence I do not think that Labour is able to simply step back into the Clark/Cullen shoes. Instead it needs to outline its policies clearly and defend them vigorously, rather than take the conciliatory approach that Shearer's opening speech seemed to me to suggest.

Olwyn said...

I forgot to add, Happy New Year, Chris, Victor, and all the commentators on this blog, and thank you for another year's interesting conversation.

Victor said...


We are in agreement.

I think that Labour needs to articulate clearly that it has an inherently better (tried, trusted and proven) approach to "growing the pie" than what's on offer from the right of the spectrum.

And it should also make it absolutely clear that there is no contradiction between growing the pie and divvying it up in humane and socially responsible ways. On the contrary, the two goals support each other.

For far too long, Labour has allowed itself to be seen as either National-lite or as only concerned with divvying up and not with wealth creation. It's long past time to put these conflicting follies to bed.

And a Happy New Year to you too!

rouppe said...

In Clark's version of "growing the pie", the pie was state employment, and growing it was achieved by raiding the pantry and neglecting to replenish it.

Eventually the pantry (taxes from business and individuals) runs out and the pie collapses into itself as the supply of ingredients that was previously thought to be inexhaustible dries up.