Tuesday 2 May 2017

Our Path To The Future Is Blocked By The Past.

And The Truth Shall Set You Free: Moving beyond the thirty-year-old neoliberal order in New Zealand can only be achieved by confronting and disproving its explanations and excuses for the inequality, poverty and powerlessness it perpetuates.

LET’S ASSUME, for the sake of argument, that there’s a change of government in September. Some combination of Labour, the Greens and NZ First (or, perhaps, since Winston’s on a roll, Labour and NZ First alone) cobbles together the necessary parliamentary support to form a government. What will confront them?

The simple answer is: The Past. A government elected on the strength of public misgivings about rampant homelessness and the lack of affordable housing; out-of-control immigration; and a despoiled natural environment; will be presented with thirty-year-old government machinery designed specifically to make effective state intervention as difficult as possible.

Any attempt to deploy this machinery in pursuit of social and economic objectives for which it was not designed is highly likely to end in failure – and, quite possibly, disaster. Arrayed against a government in which only a handful of ministers possess Cabinet experience will be a bristling phalanx of public servants, National Party appointees, corporate and special interest lobbyists and public relations firms – all of whom have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

Not only will these groups warn the incoming government that their election promises cannot be delivered, but they will make sure that their advice somehow falls into the hands of the news media. The new government will, accordingly, find itself squeezed in a vice. From one side will come the pressure of their officials. From the other, a relentless barrage of media questions demanding to know why they are refusing to heed official advice.

The question to be asked, then, is whether or not Andrew Little and Grant Robertson, Winston Peters and Shane Jones, James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter are sure enough of their convictions, not only about what must be done, but also about how it is to be achieved, to convincingly out-argue both their officials and the news media?

When, after staggering into their minister’s offices under the weight of multiple reports, studies and surveys, the representatives of Treasury, MFAT, MBIE and MPI advise the new progressive government that its programme will wreck the economy and/or bankrupt the nation, how will Labour, NZ First and the Greens respond? Will they be able to offer their own stack of reports, studies and surveys in rebuttal?

The short answer is: “No, they won’t.”

What’s more, there will be a number of ministers in the new government (hopefully a minority!) who wouldn’t rebut their officials even if they could. For these politicians, simply becoming a Cabinet Minister will be enough. The fat ministerial salary; the chauffer-driven limousine; the deferential chorus of “yes, Minister”, “no, Minister”, “of course, Minister!”: these are the only attributes of power that really matter. Give these careerists a rubber stamp and they can be relied upon to use it diligently and without asking awkward questions.

If New Zealand was able to boast a selection of well-funded and professionally-run left-of-centre think tanks: outfits resembling the Washington-based Brookings Institution, or Demos in the UK; then a reforming government would be able to enter office bearing policy weapons of equivalent firepower to those wielded by public and private sector play-makers. Unfortunately, New Zealand lacks a George Soros-type benefactor of progressive organisations. Such effective think-tanks as do exist in this country are wholly owned and operated by the Right.

What, then, is a progressive government to do? How are the Past’s elite regiments of defenders to be disarmed and demobilised?

One possible answer is to offer the voters a three-year inquiry – or, series of inquiries – into how we got ourselves into our current predicament, and how we should set about getting ourselves out of it. Crucially, this mega-inquiry would prioritise the evidence of ordinary New Zealanders. It would solicit especially the stories of those who found themselves at the sharp end of thirty-years-worth of economic and social “reforms”. The inquiry would also make a point of investigating and exposing the prime beneficiaries of those changes. Not only would Kiwis finally get to discover who the winners were, but also how they won, and what sort of institutional arrangements must be kept in place if they’re to go on winning.

What’s being proposed here is a variant on the Truth and Reconciliation exercise undertaken by the Nelson Mandela-led government of post-Apartheid South Africa. There was, of course, no disputing the suffering that black South Africans had endured at the hands of their white racist overlords. New Zealanders, however, lack such a clear-cut cast of villains upon whom to focus a people’s inquiry. For us, it is more a case of discovering whether thirty-years-worth of answers about the way this country should be run have been truthful; and whether the excuses for thirty-years-worth of inaction on accumulating socio-economic injustices are valid.

Having interrogated the Past, such a government would be uniquely well positioned to confront the future.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 2 May 2017.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

As you say Chris, it's not just Treasury and bureaucrats. It's the whole finance sector. Just read something about an interview with a prominent British banker, who said something like
"They'll come to the city and tell us that they're going to do this that the other, and we say'Well, you can do that but we can't be held responsible for the consequences.' And that seems to frighten them off."
They don't even have to do mention specifics obviously, as it doesn't take a great deal to scare politicians. These people regard politicians as an investment, which is probably why Obama is getting $400,000 for a speech these days. I also remember a TV interview with one of our captains of finance who explained that they donate money to both Labour and National, and when the question came "What do you expect for that." The answer was "At the very least instant access to a minister." Try getting that if you're not rich. About the only way a pleb would get that would be if they're afraid you're going to cause a scandal in the media. And even then you'd probably the fobbed off with a bureaucrat.

peteswriteplace said...

Don't underestimate the new left of centre administration to come. They want be able to change everything to keep everybody happy, but four or five areas to create change. Helen clark's first term was a good one. National will be blamed for years to come for everything, even a few of the new governments errors.Andrew will be a good chairman of the board and leader.

aberfoyle said...

Its appears that Labour is building it electrol platform on the important Maori seats,and setting up a Maori war with Willie,Marama and Honi,all scrapping among themselves.

jh said...

The Savings Working Group asked "How did we get into this predicament? Did people just vote not knowing what they were getting?". The media ignored them (perhaps because they said [Holy] immigration had had "almost exactly the opposite effect to that which was intended"?

Anonymous said...

Not a bad method to "disarm" the bastards Chris, but it has the demerits you mention plus the time factor.

I think the best approach would be to form a "Coalition Agreement" with NZF or Greens (or both) that explicitly mandates some severe goals due to "immediate emergencies". That way the coast is clear to do a reverse "Roger" revolution (remember TINA....a financial crisis is - according to some plausible experts such a Steve Keen- imminent and may be a genuine pretext).

Some immediate revolutionary moves:
*Declare that the state of the waterways requires emergency legislation and use that to purge neo liberalism out of environmental legislation and associated departments. That enables any amount of justification for "ammendments" to related legislation.
*Declare as part of the "Coalition Agreement" the new names of each department clearly indicating their core deliverable. Further give to the media and public the expected goal of each ministry and department, and announce each CEO has 4 weeks to come back to their Minister (and thus the media and public) their plans to meet that deliverable.
Later declare a restructure of the core public service based upon "affordability" targeting high salaries. The only alternative might appear (TINA) that an old fashioned state servants pay structure is reimposed with "considerable savings". Most of the neo-libs will go.
*Announce a Royal Commission into "social delivery" and the role of Treasury advice and forecasting. Then run a public demonization campaign to drive out their "demons".

True there will be resistance but speed based upon TINA and reversion to prior models that dont really threaten the Good Ship Capitalism

Wayne Mapp said...

Quite ridiculous.

If New Zealand votes for a change of government they certainly won't be expecting a such an approach. Any govt that did so would be out on their ear at the next election. There would be zero tolerance from the electorate of anything that smacked of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hauling people before it to account for their public "crimes". New Zealanders vote for governments to do sensible things, not to vindictively examine the entrails of the past.

Rather more likely the voters might want to see a forward looking summit for effective solutions. That worked well for the Lange Douglas government (though perhaps not from your perspective) and also for the Key administration with its jobs summit.

In any event the MOU between Labour and the Greens has already committed them to no new taxes, no significant increase in govt spending and sustainable surpluses. In effect the election is about how best to spend $2 billion or so, which is around than 1% of GDP.

Presumably Labour and the Greens made this commitment because their focus groups told them that persuadable voters are not looking for a revolution, that in fact things are not too bad, but that they would just like a few things fixed.

If voters go for change it will be to improve water quality, to get on top of housing supply, tone down levels of immigration and in truth not much more else beyond what is already happening. The Greens might also want more solar power and electric cars, and electrifying the main trunk line, Auckland to Wellington.

Jack Scrivano said...

There was a 20-year period – from about the mid-70s to the mid-90s – when I knew more than a few senior politicians from both sides of the house. I also knew quite a few of the people who advised them – either formally or informally.

Some of the things that the politicians did (and the way in which they did them) would not have been out of place in a 19th century Wild West drama. However, I’m pretty sure that, in their heart of hearts, pretty much every man and woman involved thought that they were ‘doing the right thing’.

I remember a couple of cabinet ministers blatantly tilting the playing field and then saying (in private, with a glass of red in hand): ‘Yes there will be winners and losers. But, in the long run, Jack, it will be good for the country.’

I’m sure that those men and women believed that their thoughts on how to run the country were, in their minds at least, 100 percent well-intentioned.

Allan Alach said...

I've already suggested to any Labour people who will listen is that the best way out of the present nightmare in education would be to hold a comprehensive inquiry, somewhat similar to the Picot Commission of 1988, although staffed by people who actually have educational expertise, unlike the motley make up of the Picot commission. Implementing the outcomes will be the most effective way to silence the media who have a vested interest in achievement data for their headline seeking articles, and to sidestep the closed minds in the Ministry of Education and Education Review Office.

Anonymous said...

The problem is found in the limitations of representative democracy. There are several fundamental ideas which we disagree on such as: globalism versus nationalism, will a larger population increase GDP per capita (is it worth it), social constructionism vs evolutionary psychology, the role of markets versus the state, redistribution vs incentives etc. We elect politicians who straddle the fence on a lot of issues or hide an agenda. We need to institutionalise rational discussion with informed opinion on all identified issues of basic importance first and elect parliamentary parties second once those issues have been thrashed out.?
For instance, it will come as a surprise to your average citizen that:
there is a wider disconnect between what he said and what the wider public think. Among the Labour Party and liberal left in NZ there are two ideologies that are really important to them and that's this ideology of identity politics and rape culture. Political threat lists or identity politics is where what you are (man or women, gay your ethnicity) is more important than what you say and do. Rape culture holds that collectively there is this misogynist attitude amongst males that enables others to rape and commit crime. Bryce Edwards on TV3

The Greens and NZ First are more like Macron and LePen when seen as Nationaist vs globalist.
[of course National is plain old National Real estate - they don't stand for anything except vested interests]

Peter Watt said...

Memories of the outgoing PM in 1984, and attempts beyond day of election and concession to block monetary decisions of the incoming Government! Comments from Wayne Mapp indicative of the kind of resistance to change that would really be the betterment of a vast majority of Kiwis beyond a single 3 year term!

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
The problem facing an aspiring 'progressive' (whatever that means) govt are common throughout western democracies in this era. And the faceless advisers will probably be right while international agreements on finance trade and investment remain in place.
In order to rearrange the economy to meaningfully deliver on an equitable distribution of wealth and living standards the state has to take back the control of the money supply and banking, foreign investment that creams off profits from NZ based commercial activities and exports them, and some direct controls on keeping a balance between the value of what we import and the value of what we export . A managed economy in fact. Managed along the lines of the original labour govt, making the opportunity for everyone who wants to work to have a decent job available , and this being the priority to which all other considerations are subject.
This will require repudiating lots of international deals we have signed up to during the neoliberal years, and the extraction from them will be far more difficult than Brexit, and will probably make trade impossible for a time except with China.
I don't see anyone with the guts to take this on in the near future. It's all going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
Cheers David J S

pat said...

It would appear you may have instilled a very real sense of dread in the good Doctor.....well done that man.

Gerrit said...

I found this most interesting. Labour/Greens will be well advised to take note and have policies that address the primary issue facing the Democrats in the USA and now National (and to a great extent Labour as well) in NZL.


By polling the Obama turned Trump voter the same questions facing New Zealanders are exposed. Political parties favouring the 1% (especially democrats), Wall Street and corporate conglomerates.

Whilst people may not want to be a brazen as Anon suggest at 15.32 above, there is a real demand for change. If Trump (and Labour here if elected) don't deliver on reforms they face a very short future.

Problem remains for the middle class Obama turned Trump voter is that the Democrats are more interested in self preservation than the betterment of the people. Lot of talk of presenting the right policies, not much on how and when they will be enacted. Something the Labour party needs to address (sure nice to have a policy to build 10K new houses but no outline where the people will come from to build the housing stock).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I’m sure that those men and women believed that their thoughts on how to run the country were, in their minds at least, 100 percent well-intentioned."

Roger Douglas & Co were IMO true believers – in the Eric Hoffer sense of the word. They were full of the enthusiasm of new converts for their newly discovered religion of neoliberalism. And in fact I suspect they still believe it, judging by the odd comment Douglas makes when he deigns to make a comment. And all this means that no matter what the evidence, they will continue to believe it. Because you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into. Interesting about Bolger's new opinions though. But then I don't think he was ever much more than a pragmatist who found it difficult to control the free-market nut-jobs in his party, just as Lange he found it difficult to control them in Labour.

Slugger said...

You will find that top-level neo-liberal bureaucrat mandarins will seek to 'own' weak ministers.

It's a kind of psychological warfare.

daydreamer said...

I recall in the early 2000's when Christine Rankin thought she was better than her Minister - Steve Maharey.

The joke around Wellington at the time he sacked her was that you could have heard at the end of The Terrace these words:

'Have a look in the mirror, you're a public servant, not at fucking Paris Fashion Week!'

BlisteringAttack said...

The danger is the bureaucrats as they know they have jobs for life.

As they wil tell you: politicians come and go, we make things happen.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"The danger is the bureaucrats as they know they have jobs for life."

Not for a long time have those at the top of the public service had a job for life. And they're the ones that set the tone.

Charles E said...

I'd go further than Wayne: Ludicrous!
Although, I think an independent (impossible of course) inquiry into the last 30 years would be exactly what you would not want, because it would show that this country is a way way better place than in 1987.

On almost every score card. It is kinder, gentler, healthier, longer living, more diverse (sorry jh that is mostly good), more interesting, less bigoted, richer (everyone), better educated, less sexist, less racist, less hetero, better houses, better architecture, better cars, planes, medical science.... Even the environment is better in significant ways: More forest & other tree cover due to reversion and 'life-style' blocks, cleaner air, way more native plants everywhere..

But the exceptions or perceived exceptions to this fine nation are well highlighted now and a new team will surely be elected on the back of those as much as just being time for change of faces. Their job will be to get those sorted without changing much else, or they will be turfed out, by our excellent democracy.

Victor said...


For my part, I recall a large platoon of not particularly well-remunerated women in Auckland in the early 2000s going to work in long earrings in "solidarity" with Ms Rankin.

As far as I could make out, they thought of Maharey as a boring, bullying, censorious male who was, in effect, trying to stop fashion week.

Never underestimate the triviality of people's minds.

David Stone said...

Couldn't this be done on line for negligible cost over that sort of period? I know it would require someone to put a lot of time into convening/chairing, and marshalling ideas into an agreed formulated plan .But the net is perfect for this application and sorry to say you would be squarely in the frame.
I would contribute a bit to the costs of such an enterprise though I don't really know what they might be save someone's time.
Cheers David J S