THERE’S NO DISPUTING the shock-value of the statistics assembled by Bernard Hickey in his latest Kaka podcast. What they show is that, in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the New Zealand Government transferred vastly more money to the business sector and homeowners than it did to beneficiaries and the working poor. Or, as he puts it: “The Labour Government, supported by the Greens, presided over policies that accidentally on purpose engineered the biggest transfer of wealth to asset owners from current and future renters in the history of New Zealand.”
Well … maybe. The problem with statistics is that they are generally presented without regard to context. To be honest, that’s probably a good thing. I don’t think it would be all that helpful (or ethical) for the Department of Statistics to encase its data in a carapace of tendentious ideology. In the 1950s American cop show, Dragnet, the hero’s signature line was: “Nothing but the facts.” That sounds about right to me.
So, let’s not argue about the facts. I’m sure a financial journalist of Mr Hickey’s experience has got the numbers right. What I’m much less certain of is whether his interpretation of the facts makes a great deal of sense.
In a nutshell, what Mr Hickey seems to be saying is that in an unabashedly capitalist nation, a government elected on the strength of middle-class (i.e. homeowners) votes, made sure that the massive transfers of cash required to keep the economy afloat in the midst of a global pandemic went to capitalists, and the people whose votes it really, really, really didn’t want to lose.
Well, duh! Who would have thought it?
And, with all due respect to Mr Hickey, it is nothing short of facile to evince horror and outrage that the perpetrators of this exercise in maintaining class (and, let’s be honest, racial) privilege were Labour and Green politicians. Labour gave away its historical role as the workers’ friend in 1984 – nearly 40 years ago. What’s more, since the introduction of “Rogernomics”, the Labour Party has occupied the Treasury Benches for a total of nearly 14 years. In all that time, it has made no serious attempt to dismantle the neoliberal regime it created. Expecting Jacinda Ardern to behave like Mickey Savage is just silly.
Especially when you consider the makeup of New Zealand’s House of Representatives. Labour, an unabashedly capitalist party, holds 65 seats. National, another unabashedly capitalist party, holds 35 seats. Act, a fanatically capitalist party, holds 10 seats. The Greens, supposedly not a capitalist party, but one which has, to date, done nothing to suggest that it is an anti-capitalist party, also holds 10 seats. Which leaves the Māori Party, an ethno-nationalist party which appears to be okay with capitalism – but only if it’s Māori capitalism – with just 2 seats.
The question I would put to Mr Hickey is: How would he have persuaded this House of Representatives, composed more-or-less entirely of MPs committed to the preservation of New Zealand’s capitalist system, to adopt policies which differed in any meaningful way from those actually implemented by the Labour Government of Jacinda Ardern? Not forgetting that for the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister was dependent on the support of NZ First – a party convinced that capitalism could, and should, do better.
Presumably, Mr Hickey believes that New Zealand’s parliamentarians, alerted to the sheer bloody inequity of their Covid response, should have felt obliged to come up with something much kinder and fairer.
But why would they feel obliged to do that? Just recently I learned that in the United States the friends of capitalism (about 90 percent of the country!) not only believe in the doctrine of laissez-faire – French for letting the market rip – but that they also subscribe to what they call “lazy-fair”. Apparently, because so many of the underprivileged are lazy, it’s only fair that they’re poor. I know, I know, it’s an awful thing to say – although I’m sure it raises a good guffaw among the Country Club set. But, you know what? Although they would never repeat such an awful “joke” out loud, there are plenty of Kiwi MPs (some of them in the Labour Party) who subscribe wholeheartedly to the underlying philosophy of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.
Even worse, there are hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary Kiwi voters who subscribe to exactly the same philosophy – with bells on. The awful truth about New Zealand politics is that practically all of our political parties are just too scared to suggest anything like the massive transfer of wealth to the “current and future renters” whom Mr Hickey clearly believes the Government’s Covid response should have targeted.
The only way such a transfer could possibly have eventuated is in a political context dominated by the electoral success of a party aggressively representing the interests of the working poor and beneficiaries. Assuming such a party drew the bulk of its support from the 700,000 eligible voters who declined to participate in the last election, its impact on what politicians considered both possible and acceptable would be huge.
The problem, of course, is that every party which has tried to mobilise these voters has failed miserably. The Internet-Mana Party may have had a brilliant manifesto (so brilliant that I voted for it!) but its share of the 2014 Party Vote was a demoralising 1.42 percent.
In other words, if all the “current and future renters” had voted for Internet-Mana in 2014, its ideological and political influence would have made the Covid-19 response delivered by Labour over the past 21 months unthinkable.
And that’s what I mean by statistics shorn of context not amounting to very much. For the only people who counted – the people who voted – Jacinda Ardern’s and Grant Robertson’s Covid response was good enough to see them returned to office with 50 percent of the Party Vote. That Mr Hickey should be surprised that the values of politicians tend to reflect the values of their supporters is, itself, surprising.
If he wants a revolution, Mr Hickey will need to do more than excoriate Labour and the Greens on Substack – he’ll need to organise one.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 January 2022.