By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know Them: To the neoliberal political elite the victims of Pike River and the CTV Building Collapse are simply collateral damage in an unending struggle against those who attempt to restrict the free play of market forces.
TWO TRAGEDIES: a mine explosion and an engineering failure: and neither needed to happen. That they did happen is attributable, almost entirely, to the influence of neoliberalism – the most pernicious political ideology to assail the modern world since fascism.
In a sane country, Pike River and the collapse of the CTV Building would already have brought the thirty-year-long reign of neoliberalism to an end. But “sane” is no longer an adjective applicable to New Zealand society. Sane societies learn from their mistakes. Have we? Do we still know how?
I say “we”, but the collective entity I’m actually referring to is the very thin layer of politicians, business leaders, top civil servants and public relations experts who “govern” the rest of us. For these people, neoliberalism has taken on the unquestionable character of a religious faith and is, therefore, impervious to evidential refutation.
And precisely because it is a faith, neither Pike River nor the CTV Building Collapse will produce anything very much in the way of meaningful change. The neoliberal elite fervently believe that “heavy-handed” regulation is a more profound long-term threat to the public good than gassy mines or badly designed buildings.
To this political class, the 29 Pike River miners and the 115 victims of the CTV Building Collapse are simply unfortunate casualties: collateral damage in the never-ending war against those who would constrain the free operation of market forces.
New Zealanders could take heart if there was even one major political party that opposed without equivocation the neoliberal policies in which their country is enmeshed. But, think about it: when was the last time you heard a spokesperson for the Labour Party not only condemn the policies and plans of the National-led Government, but also promise that, immediately upon taking office, Labour will repeal the legislation giving effect to those plans and policies?
Consider, for example, the formation of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MoBIE). This brain-dead bureaucratic monstrosity is the brain-child of National Cabinet Minister, Steven Joyce, and is the very last organisational model a government would adopt if it was genuinely concerned about the health and safety of workers in dangerous industries like mining and forestry. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Disaster, itself, specifically recommended the establishment of a stand-alone health and safety agency. The Prime Minister demurred.
A Tragedy Waiting To Happen: The Pike River Coal Company failed comprehensively to ensure the safety of its workforce. Under neoliberalism it is always Money First - People Second.
Now it’s true that Labour opposed the formation of MoBIE and voted against the legislation setting it up, but has anyone heard them promise to instantly dismantle it upon taking office? Have they unequivocally endorsed the Royal Commission’s recommendation of a stand-alone agency or, failing that, pledged to rebuild the full regulatory capacity of the Department of Labour?
Come to think of it, has Labour ever honestly acknowledged its responsibility for unleashing the fast-talking, hands-off, corner-cutting wide-boys whose feverish appetite for quick and excessive profit-taking led directly to jerry-built tragedies-in-waiting like the CTV building?
Now, to be fair, Labour’s organisational wing has attempted to acknowledge the party’s role in unleashing the neoliberal ideology on an unsuspecting New Zealand. In the first chapter of the initial draft of the party’s new policy “platform” its authors state: “[T]he Fourth Labour Government’s programme of extensive economic reform was in breach of Labour’s traditions and values. Without any specific mandate this Labour government ….. gave up a large degree of regulatory control in favour of unrestrained market forces.”
That draft has yet to be ratified, and I must confess to being more than a little sceptical of ever hearing David Shearer or David Parker deliver so unequivocal a repudiation of Labour’s neoliberal past. Not while Mr Shearer’s predecessor, Phil Goff, continues to influence Labour’s economic and social policy-making. It was, after all, Mr Goff who told Radio New Zealand’s political editor, Brent Edwards, in July 2009: “a well-functioning market system is the most effective and efficient way of organising an economy.”
The tragedies of Pike River and Christchurch’s CTV Building are judgements written in blood against neoliberalism. Grim testimonials to the moral delinquency of a system that puts profit and convenience ahead of human-beings and safety.
It’s now up to us, while democracy endures in this country, to dig down to the roots of our national malaise. To wrench out the neoliberal ivy that is relentlessly strangling our institutions – and killing our fellow citizens.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star.