Missionary Zeal: Labour's finance spokesperson, David Parker, seems to be on a mission to reassure the New Zealand business community that a Labour Government will not deviate in any alarming way from the prevailing economic orthodoxy.
“I’M BECOMING INCREASINGLY CONCERNED at the Labour Caucus (and Leader) moving Labour to the Right,” observed a former Labour MP recently in an e-mail to a Labour friend and trade union stalwart of many decades standing. “As a long-time Labour Party member/activist, I find it disturbing to think the Labour Caucus is heading backwards to the Rogernomics era that was so damaging to NZ communities. Comments made by various MPs at the latest Labour Caucus Dinner at Waitangi last week did not reassure me.”
Alas, I have yet to learn what those “various MPs’” were talking about. What I do know, however, is that those who share this former MP’s concern at their party’s political direction don’t need to eavesdrop on the dinner conversations of Labour’s caucus to discover where it’s going. Labour leader, David Shearer, and his finance spokesperson, David Parker, have been telling New Zealand loud and clear, and in public, for weeks.
Speaking to a group of corporate head-hunters on 11 July, Mr Parker spelled out the details of Labour’s policy on foreign investment. Concerned to prevent “infrastructure assets with monopoly characteristics” from being sold to offshore buyers, Labour, in the run-up to last year’s election, drew up a “closed list” – to keep a “bright line” between “what is to be sold and what is not.” Among the infrastructure that was not to be sold was any: electricity line, water storage or irrigation networks; no seaports or airports; and no public hospitals, schools, railway lines or roads.
Not included in Labour’s “closed list” were telecommunications networks and – amazingly – “electricity generators”.
According to Labour’s policy: “While the electricity market is on the cusp of becoming uncompetitive and exhibits monopoly-like characteristics, generation assets are diverse in nature, location and ownership.”
What this means is that although Labour went into the last general election on a policy of “No Asset Sales”; and in spite of the fact that its campaign advertising showed a vast banner, displaying that very message, being draped over a hydro-electricity generating dam; the party was unwilling to include electricity generators on the list of state-owned infrastructure that “ought to be run in the New Zealand interest” – and never be sold to foreigners.
Am I alone in thinking that Labour’s foreign investment policy fatally compromises its current campaign against asset sales? If the generation of electricity is an activity which properly belongs to the market, and if New Zealand’s electricity generation assets are “diverse in nature, location and ownership” and, therefore, able to be purchased by foreign interests, then I’m at a loss to know why the Labour Party is opposed to their partial privatisation.
Perhaps opposing the sale of state assets is just (if I may quote the former Labour cabinet minister, Steve Maharey) “One of those things you say in Opposition, but forget about in Government”. Certainly, the decision to keep state-owned energy generators off Labour’s “closed list” would explain why Mr Shearer keeps telling New Zealanders that: “Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.”
I like David Shearer, he’s a good, down-to-earth Kiwi bloke. But, I also fear him. Why? Because he’s been so easily persuaded that what’s wrong with New Zealand can only be fixed by inflicting radical and wrenching change on ordinary working people. (As if ordinary working people have spent the last twenty-five years living with anything else!) He scares me because he and the people he listens to lack the courage to devise a manifesto that imposes the radical and wrenching change where it belongs – on the rich and powerful. And, like the former Labour MP quoted at the top of this column, I’m concerned that those voters too young to remember the devastation wrought by the ideas of Roger Douglas are about to let Labour’s present leader give them another go.
Mr Shearer’s convinced we’ve a “good chance” of becoming “a twenty-first century peasant economy” if he doesn’t. I’m concerned that’s exactly what we’ll become if he does.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 July 2012.