Just A Little War: Bulgarian troops assault successfully the Ottoman lines at Kirklareli (European Turkey) during the First Balkan War 1912-1913. The manoeuvring of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires in response to the changing balance of power in South Eastern Europe brought Europe to the brink of war. A century later, the manoeuvring of New Zealand business leaders against a shift in the Left's economic thinking similarly risks the outbreak of a much wider conflict.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, in the Balkans, there was a war. Just a little war, involving four little countries, and one large, rather elderly and far from healthy Empire. Surprisingly, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece won the war, and the Ottoman Empire, referred to by the Great Powers as “the sick old man of Europe” got sicker.
Two of those great powers, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, both had a vital strategic interest in who controlled the Balkans. So vital, that while the Balkan War was raging, the Russian government thought it advisable to mass its troops on the Austrian border.
Now, massing troops on anybody’s borders is always a pretty provocative thing to do – and the Austrians, not unreasonably, began preparing for the full-scale mobilisation of their army. Unfortunately, when countries begin mobilising armies, all bets should be regarded as off.
In 1913, however, there was still sufficient common-sense at the highest political levels of the Russian Empire to prevent any further escalation from taking place. Soldiers on both sides of the border were ordered back to their barracks. Orders calling up reservists were never issued. As a consequence, the outbreak of a general European war was delayed for another year.
But, in August 1914, the Russian stock of common sense ran out. And, just nine months after the Russian Tsar’s decision to mobilise his army had ignited World War I, thousands of New Zealand and Australian boys were fighting and dying for the Dardanelles – gateway to the Ottoman Empire.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how things work out?
LESS THAN A MONTH AGO, the Labour Party and the Greens jointly announced their decision to reform the New Zealand energy market. Using the drug-buying monopsony, Pharmac, as their model, the two opposition parties came up with NZ Power – a single, state-run buyer of all New Zealand’s electrical power. Energy generators would be paid a “fair price” for their product, based on the historic, rather than the marginal, cost of its production. The resulting savings, around $300 per household per year, would be passed onto consumers.
Well, the Labour-Green Opposition policy on energy has galvanised the New Zealand business community in much the same way as the Balkan League’s attack on the Ottoman Empire galvanised South-Eastern Europe back in 1913.
Senior business leaders, rightly characterising the Labour-Green policy as a decisive shift away from the neoliberal, “free-market” consensus which has underpinned the platforms of both the Labour and National parties since the mid-1980s, last week served notice that they would regard its implementation as a direct threat to their vital strategic interests.
In an open letter to Labour Leader, David Shearer, and the Greens’ Co-Leader, Russel Norman, and signed on behalf of some of New Zealand’s largest and most influential business organisations, including Business New Zealand, the NZ Chambers of Commerce, the Employers and Manufacturers Association, the Road Transport Forum and the Major Electricity Users Group, 10 chief executives called upon Labour and the Greens to: “withdraw these damaging policies”.
Massing His Troops: Business New Zealand's Phil O'Reilly reiterates the business community's opposition to the energy policies of Labour and the Greens on TVNZ's Q+A programme of 5 May 2013.
In military terms, this extraordinary démarche from the business community is the equivalent of their massing troops along the border.
What the nation’s business leaders have delivered to Labour and the Greens is a threat. The fact that it is, for the moment, an unspoken threat does not in any way diminish its potency. They may begin their letter by saying: “We respect your right to announce new policy at any time.” But, its political content strongly suggests that the opposite is true.
Labour and the Greens are being told that unless they withdraw their policy the considerable resources of the New Zealand business community will be devoted to making sure that they are unsuccessful at the next election. And even if they do manage to win in 2014, they should expect neither the assistance nor the co-operation of New Zealand’s business leadership in managing the policy’s implementation.
Labour and the Greens thus find themselves in the same position as the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913. Russian troops are massing on the borders. Orders calling up reservists are being drafted. Doing nothing means abandoning all strategic interest in the Balkans. But mobilising its own forces could start a war.
Somebody has to blink.
In 2013, it must not be Labour and the Greens who blink. Because, if they capitulate to this crude political intimidation, and withdraw their policy, then the rest of us might just as well hang a “CLOSED” sign on the doors of New Zealand democracy.
Hopefully, as happened in 1913, cooler and wiser heads will prevail. To preserve the democratic peace, New Zealand’s business leaders need to back down and back off.
If they refuse, then Labour and the Greens, for democracy’s sake, need to warn them that, when the Left next comes to power, all bets are off.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 May 2013.