But Will Labour Make It? With David Cunliffe announcing the return of "Red Labour" following a rank-and-file instigated "revolution from below", the Party's 30-year adherence to the Neoliberal "free trade" ideology may be coming to an end.
LABOUR’S 30-YEAR COMMITMENT to “free trade” may be coming to an end. The test will be three weeks from now when the party gathers in Christchurch for its annual conference.
At last year’s conference, delegates were willing to offer only the most qualified support to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations – and it required repeated interventions from former Trade Minister, Phil Goff, to secure even that limited endorsement. This time Mr Goff may not be so successful at fending off the TPP’s opponents.
Labour’s “Free-Traders” face some very substantial obstacles. The greatest of these is that the party’s commitment to trade liberalisation, like its commitment to the Reserve Bank Act, is emblematic of Labour’s 1980s embrace of Neoliberalism.
Throughout the 15-year reign of Helen Clark serious public criticism of these neoliberal shibboleths was verboten. Goff struggled (with limited success) to keep the ideological disputation in-house. David Shearer could not manage to do even that.
Had the news media paid a little more attention to the revolution that was taking place on the floor of last year’s annual conference at Ellerslie, and devoted a little less effort to chasing non-existent leadership challengers, they may have noticed the explicit repudiation of “Rogernomics” included in the 2012 Draft Policy Platform.
It is a measure of the intensity of the behind-the-scenes ideological battles that have been raging in the Labour Party since Ellerslie, that last year’s passionate condemnation of Rogernomics has been dropped from this year’s Draft Policy Platform.
How much of the document’s watering-down is attributable to the intervention of Grant Robertson, the preternaturally cautious chair of Labour’s policy council, is far from clear. But even in its new – and ultimately binding – iteration, the document registers an unmistakably leftward shift:
“Labour holds that government must play an essential role in managing and developing the economy. We reject the notion that free markets on their own will deliver either long-term prosperity or just distributional outcomes.”
When spoken by the new party leader, David Cunliffe, this is the sort of anti-neoliberal rhetoric that brings Labour’s newly empowered rank-and-file and affiliates to their feet a-whooping and a-hollering.
Considerably less inspiring is the Draft Policy Platform’s statement on international trade:
“Labour will support international trade and investment agreements that promote New Zealand’s economic wellbeing and support fairness, transparency, sovereignty, and sustainability.”
But even in this rather colourless sentence there’s more than enough to cause political problems for those caucus members determined to preserve the bipartisan consensus on free trade by backing the TPP.
Mr Cunliffe sent shockwaves through the trade liberalisation lobby even before he clinched the party leadership on 15 September; by warning that the TPP posed a “quite difficult and complex issue for New Zealand”.
His concern over such “fish hooks” as the future of Pharmac and the sovereignty-threatening potential of “investor/state disputes”, coupled with his doubts about the genuineness of the promised agricultural opportunities, must have made TPP boosters worry that Mr Cunliffe had just come from a briefing with Professor Jane Kelsey!
Small wonder then that business columnist, Fran O’Sullivan, whistling loudly in the dark, wrote glowingly of Mr Goff’s undimmed enthusiasm for a TPP agreement.
“Labour’s Phil Goff is back in business, adding his strong and rational voice to New Zealand's advocacy for the completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership.”
Like so many of her journalistic colleagues, Ms O’Sullivan has yet to grasp how fundamentally the rules of the political game have changed.
Mr Cunliffe and Labour’s rank-and-file are now locked in a radical embrace. If Labour’s new leader decides to consummate their “red wedding” by promoting “fair”, rather than “free” trade (which would ease Labour’s relationship with the Greens considerably) then there’s nothing Mr Goff, or the other fading Rogernomes of the broken ABC faction, can do about it.
Mr Cunliffe’s keynote speech to the Christchurch conference will undoubtedly make Labour’s new political trajectory much clearer. Expect to hear something on free trade. Just don’t expect it to be business as usual.
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, 11 October 2013.