Speaking For The Nation - Acting For The Right: John Key at the Pike River Memorial Service. Promises that the 29 entombed miners would not have died in vain could not survive the recklessly self-interested lobbying of National's Far-Right electoral base - farmers and small business.
JOHN KEY IS PROUD of his government’s performance. Twelve months on from the 2014 General Election his message to the people of New Zealand is characteristically upbeat:
“Families are also being helped by an economy which is continuing to grow”, the Prime Minister enthuses in his anniversary media release. “There were over 49,000 new jobs created in the nine months to June 2015 and the average wage is up $1500. The services sector – which includes tourism – has seen 35 months of straight growth.”
Fulminate as they might against his government’s deficiencies, Mr Key’s opponents have no effective answer to the argument advanced by the opinion polls. After seven years in office, the Key-led Government is still racking up percentages in the high 40s/low 50s – popularity scores without precedent in New Zealand’s political history. Small wonder, then, that conservative leaders from the other Anglophone countries (most notably the new Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull) sing his praises!
A journalistic consensus has grown up around the indisputable success of Mr Key’s ministry. The Prime Minister, it is argued, has forged a bond with “Middle New Zealand” which, to date, has proved indissoluble. Pundits talk about “John Key’s enduring love affair with Centrist New Zealand”. These are good lines – but is the Fourth Estate telling us the truth?
The proposition that the New Zealand National Party is a “centrist” political institution is hard to stand up. Certainly, it has suited some National Party prime ministers (Sir Keith Holyoake and John Key among them) to steer their political vessel into the sheltered waters of bi-partisan agreement. At its ideological core, however, National remains a party of the Right. Without the reliable support of that part of the New Zealand electorate which identifies itself as “right-wing”, National would not be able to form any sort of stable government.
The Litmus Test for just how right-wing National has always been – and remains – is its treatment of the trade unions. National’s first prime minister, Sid Holland (himself a former member of the far-right New Zealand Legion) lost little time in engineering the infamous lockout of the Waterside Workers Union in 1951. This colossal industrial confrontation, which pitted the National Government against the cream of organised labour, lasted 151 days and was only won by severely curtailing New Zealanders’ civil and political rights for the duration of the dispute.
Foundation Myth: The First National Government blooded itself in the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. Sixty-four years later, the party's hatred of trade unions remains undimmed.
Forty years later, National launched an even more extreme assault upon the trade unions. The Employment Contracts Act (1991) reduced the trade union movement to a pale shadow of its former strength. Rights enjoyed by New Zealand workers for close to a century were simply legislated away – entrenching the power of New Zealand’s employers to a degree unprecedented in this country’s history. In less than a decade union density in New Zealand fell from 45 percent to 20 percent. In today’s private sector less than one in ten workers belong to a union.
National’s hostility towards even this enfeebled labour movement remains as visceral as ever. No “centrist” government would have connived in the watering-down of the health and safety reforms arising out of the Pike River mining disaster. But National, driven by its far-right supporters in the farming and small-business sectors, was willing to endure both public ridicule and moral censure, rather than rebuff the recklessly self-interested lobbying of its electoral base.
At the heart of National’s hatred of the unions lies an even deeper fear of the working class as a whole. Like all right-wing parties, it strives to paint itself as the natural ally of “aspirational” members of both the working and middle classes. Even so, “getting ahead” will never count for as much in National Party circles as looking after those who “got ahead” long, long ago. These people are very clear about the direction in which the nation’s wealth should flow. National’s job is to make sure it keeps flowing their way – forever.
It’s why the Welfare State remains the National Party membership’s particular bugbear. Like an enormous dam, it captures wealth that would otherwise come to them. Sid Holland’s original intention was simply to repeal the Social Security Act (1938). But the New Zealand voter repeatedly refused to oblige him; only consenting to a National Government after Holland and his party had pledged to keep the welfare state in place.
One only has to listen to Mr Key’s colleagues pronounce on “welfare dependency”, however, or the need for private-sector sourced “social investment”, to understand how unrelenting this pressure from National’s core right-wing constituency remains. With affordable housing in unprecedented demand, would a “centrist” government advocate selling-off thousands of state houses?
Thirty years of state-sanctioned selfishness have swollen the ranks of right-wing New Zealand – prising thousands from Labour’s grip in the process. Mr Key rides high because the Left has fallen so low.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 September 2015.