Armageddon Outa Here! Confronted with the brute economic power of a recalcitrant business community, Dr Michael Cullen, Minister of Finance in the Labour-Alliance Government of 1999-2002 was forced to repudiate the radical implications of his infamous "We won. You lost. Eat that!" quip to the National Party Opposition.
THE IRREPRESSIBLE Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury, displaying an entrepreneurial spirit not generally associated with the Left, has persuaded some of New Zealand’s largest trade unions to back The Union Report, a half-hour television show about unions and unionism which he hosts every Monday evening on Auckland’s Triangle TV and, via web-casts, across the country. Occasionally, Bomber invites me to participate.
This week’s show featured James Ritchie, former head of the Dairy Workers Union, who’s just taken up a prestigious post with the International Foodworkers in Geneva. The discussion ranged over many matters, but the topic that provoked the liveliest discussion was how constrained both unions and union-friendly governments have become under the present, globalised, variant of capitalism.
With an extension of Paid Parental Leave (PPL) once again on the parliamentary agenda, we recalled the infamous “Winter of [Employer] Discontent” that gripped the country in the first year of the Labour-Alliance Government of 1999-2002. The left-wing Alliance MP and Associate Minister of Labour, Laila Harré, was proposing an employer-funded PPL scheme, and New Zealand’s bosses were not happy. It seemed to them that Helen Clark had a socialist tiger by the tail and its claws were threatening their bottom lines. In debating the new Employment Relations Bill, hadn’t the new Finance Minister, Dr Michael Cullen, taunted his National foes with: “We won. You Lost. Eat That!”
The degree of employer disaffection could be read in the sudden and sustained fall in the value of the New Zealand dollar, which bottomed-out at an alarming US$0.32. As the opinion polls turned against the government, and business confidence plummeted, Dr Cullen warned that the Right’s propensity for “Armageddon economic analysis” could become self-fulfilling.
By late May 2000, with economic Armageddon getting closer – the Government caved. At a series of breakfast meetings, Dr Cullen set about reassuring business leaders that his government was not composed of sharp-clawed socialists: “We want to be a government that moves forward with business,” he told a Wanganui business audience, “not one that watches indifferently from the sidelines.” For good measure, the Prime Minister declared that employer-funded PPL would be enacted “over my dead body”.
It was a U-turn executed under duress. In early June, at the funeral of Jock Barnes, the militant leader of the watersiders in 1951, CTU President, Ross Wilson, quietly informed me that, only days before, the Prime Minister had warned him the country was facing an “investment strike”.
Shortly after Monday’s screening of The Union Report a viewer contacted me with a question. What would have happened, he asked, if Helen Clark had gone on television and told the country what the bosses were doing? If she had challenged the business community, both at home and abroad, to let New Zealand’s democratically elected government carry out its mandate, and called her supporters out into the streets. Would the Prime Minister have prevailed?
Possibly. But in doing so she would have raised the political stakes to a such a dangerous degree that 99.9 percent of politicians (even social-democratic ones) would simply have run the other way. To openly pit “the people” against “the bosses” is to place the option of full-scale revolution – or repression – on the table. Having done so, Ms Clark would very quickly have discovered that breaking an “investment strike” is in no way comparable to breaking an ordinary strike. In the latter case, only the future of a single company and its employees is on the line. With the former, you’re hazarding the future of an entire social class. Most political parties, even left-wing ones, would rather keep control of the losing side than lose control of the winning side.
Perhaps this explains why the Labour Party remains so reluctant to promise the opponents of partial privatisation that it will renationalise the assets if re-elected. Global markets take a dim view of such uncompromisingly anti-capitalist behaviour. The world would simply stop lending us money.
And even revolutions (some might say especially revolutions) need credit.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 August 2012.