A Big Gesture: Having begun the week clumsily in relation to the TPPA and Mr Goff, Andrew Little was anxious to close it with a State of the Nation speech that, for once, contained more substance than style. Taking a leaf out of US Senator Bernie Sander’s policy book, Labour now promises 3 years of free post-school education. For Phil Goff, the Rogernome who first proposed user-pays tertiary education, Mr Little’s speech could be interpreted as an ideological slap in the face.
THERE HAS BEEN PRAISE from a veteran of the “Rogernomics” Labour caucus for Andrew Little’s handling of Phil Goff. Recalling the David Lange-led caucus’s 1988 expulsion of Jim Anderton – for upholding Labour policy! – Jenny Kirk (Labour MP for Birkenhead, 1987-1990) has applauded Mr Little for “making progress on pulling [his own] caucus together – in a difficult environment.”
But Ms Kirk’s approbation, while characteristically generous, is misplaced. Not only has Phil Goff’s “dispensation” to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) not pulled Labour’s ranks together (quite the reverse!) it has also been seized upon by Labour’s opponents to discredit the party’s anti-TPPA stance.
The TPPA endorsements of former Labour leaders: from Mike Moore and Helen Clark, to Phil Goff and David Shearer; have been a Godsend for the agreement’s supporters. “What can be so wrong with the TPPA”, they demand, “when four out of the last six Labour leaders support it?”
It’s a fair question, but one which Labour – for fear of re-opening the old wounds of the 1980s and 90s – is loath to answer. At some point, however (and it may have arrived) the Labour Party is going to have to confront the ghosts of its Rogernomics past and lay them, finally, to rest.
There is simply no upside to being utterly defenceless before your history. Labour may be ready to reclaim its progressive heritage – as its position on the TPPA makes clear. But, unfortunately, as Mr Goff’s “dispensation” makes clear, it’s still not ready to repudiate 25 years of neoliberalism.
Labour members and supporters have been in the ears of Labour MPs for decades, urging them to cast adrift the barge-load of rotting ideological garbage that the party has been towing behind it since the 1980s. They also suggested the enforced retirement of every MP who refuses to acknowledge the stench. All to no avail. The Bible says: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.” Unfortunately, far too many of Labour’s dogs never left!
Had Labour’s caucus followed the lead of its own Draft Party Platform in 2013, and condemned unequivocally the toxic legacy of Rogernomics (inequality, poverty, community decay) then, today, Mr Little would have no difficulty answering his critics’ questions about former Labour leaders’ pro-TPPA views.
“Mike Moore, Phil Goff and David Shearer are all convinced Rogernomes,” he’d say, “so of course they’re unable to recognise the threat posed to New Zealand’s national sovereignty by the TPPA.” And Helen? “Well, sadly, Helen drank just enough of the neoliberal Kool-Aid over her nearly 30 years in Parliament to render her incapable of telling the difference between a genuine free trade agreement (like her own China-NZ FTA) and yet another, US-sponsored, corporate power grab.”
Jenny Kirk would likely argue that the cable which attaches Labour to its stinking barge is old and strong, and not susceptible to being severed by a single, heroic, blow from Mr Little’s reforming sword. Labour members and supporters should, therefore, exercise patience while he works his way through its many twisted strands with a much more practical hacksaw.
Certainly, it must be acknowledged that there are many in Labour’s camp who were pleasantly surprised that Mr Little and his colleagues were, at least, willing to cut the TPPA adrift. Clearly, his recent summer sojourn in the United States and the United Kingdom brought him into contact with members of the Democratic Party for whom (as US trade critic, Lori Wallach, has been telling audiences up and down the country this past week) opposition to the TPPA is a “no brainer”, and who couldn’t understand the NZ Labour Party’s reticence on the issue.
While in the US, Mr Little also witnessed the surging campaign of the “democratic-socialist” Senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Young Americans, in particular, “Feel the Bern” on account of his promise to restore free tertiary education in America’s publicly owned universities.
Labour, like many other Kiwi institutions, seems unaware of just how far its definition of the possible now lags behind the rest of the world’s. It’s as though, having embraced change with reckless fervour in the 1980s, Labour just switched off its critical faculties, smugly assuming that its policies remained at the cutting-edge – even though that “edge” had long since re-located itself.
Perhaps Mr Little’s American reality-check explains why, having begun the week clumsily in relation to the TPPA and Mr Goff, he was anxious to close it with a State of the Nation speech that, for once, contained more substance than style. Taking a leaf out of Senator Sander’s policy book, Labour now promises 3 years of free post-school education.
For Phil Goff, the Rogernome who first proposed user-pays tertiary education, Mr Little’s speech could be interpreted as an ideological slap in the face.
Keep wielding that hacksaw, Andrew. Progress is being made.
This essay was originally published by Fairfax Media on Monday, 1 February 2016.