Saturday 16 March 2024

A Powerful Sensation of Déjà Vu.

Been Here Before: To find the precedents for what this Coalition Government is proposing, it is necessary to return to the “glory days” of Muldoonism.

THE COALITION GOVERNMENT has celebrated its first 100 days in office by checking-off the last of its listed commitments. It remains, however, an angry government. It is angry with the poor. It is angry with the regulatory environment. It is angry with those who resist its policies. Some would say it is angry with the last 50 years of New Zealand history, and with the political forces that have driven it. Inevitably, anger breeds nostalgia. The explanation, presumably, for the powerful sensation of déjà vu in which this government is now wreathed.

The Coalition’s anger at the poor is manifested in many ways. It began with the restoration of the sanctions which Labour had removed from the MSD’s repertoire of responses to what it regarded as the delinquent behaviour of beneficiaries. As the first 100 days drew to a close, the Housing Minister, Chris Bishop, reinforced this trend by announcing the phasing-out of emergency motel accommodation for the homeless who have run out of options.

On the face of it, putting an end to accommodating homeless people and their families in motels sounds like a positive and compassionate policy. What began under Bill English’s government as a genuinely ad-hoc and temporary response to the burgeoning housing crisis, morphed under Labour into a seemingly permanent answer to the growing discrepancy between need and supply. Entirely predictably, this concentration of the most vulnerable into the “motel rows” of New Zealand’s cities and tourist towns attracted all manner of dangerous predators. What had started out as a short-term fix, turned into a long-term nightmare.

And an expensive one. By the time the government changed, the state was pouring in excess of a million dollars a day into the pockets of New Zealand’s motel owners. Just as well, given that it had not taken New Zealanders and travel organisers very long to twig that motel accommodation was not an option to be considered seriously unless one actually enjoyed the soundtrack of immiseration. Loud music played at all hours, accompanied by frighteningly imaginative offensive language and behaviour, frequently spilling-out into the motel car-park, where a situation could deteriorate from the merely disruptive to the outright criminal in the flash of an illegal blade.

Stories multiplied of kids roaming unsupervised under the predatory gaze of gang members; of drunkenness and drug-use, and of the MSD’s wards “trashing” motel units. The effective nationalisation of the nation’s motel accommodation, far from mending homelessness, had created crime-ridden no-go zones, where defenceless victims were thoughtfully gathered for the convenience of their victimisers. Included among whom, as the years passed, turned out to be the very same state that had set the whole sorry mess in motion.

It was enough to make anybody mad. But, what turned out to be much harder for the Coalition’s ministers was getting mad at the right people. Rather than ask themselves whether the clamour from moteliers and developers to kick out the homeless beneficiaries might have been prompted by the end of the Covid emergency and the steady recovery of the tourism industry, the ministers called for ever more aggressive invigilation of the homeless.

MSD was instructed to make even tougher checks of their wards’ eligibility. Were they guilty of biting the hands that fed them? Did they have a history of trashing their rooms? Was there really no one who could take them in? Never mind that in the absence of such MSD scrutiny the homeless would never have been provided with a motel room. Scrutinize them harder!

Such intensification of what is already a profoundly stressful environment only makes sense if those responsible believe poverty to be the fault of its victims. It’s what happens when it is both ideologically and politically impossible to address fundamental causes.

A society which, forty years ago, gave up on the idea that it is the state’s duty to ensure that all its citizens are adequately housed, is left with no option but to look to the market for solutions. These will not be forthcoming, for the very simple reason that there is nowhere near enough profit in poverty. (Unless, of course, the state is willing to provide that profit by paying exorbitant prices for the motel rooms in which the market economy’s victims are warehoused.)

And then there’s the state’s ever-increasing collection of rules and regulations – society’s legal acknowledgement that an unregulated marketplace is a dangerous marketplace. How can society be so sure? Because, 150 years ago, society witnessed with its own eyes the consequences of allowing public health and safety to be ignored. It was around the same time that people began to become alarmed at how rapidly their country’s natural environment was falling foul of Capitalism’s costless externalisation of its waste. The response of the politicians was to create reserves and national parks.

It wasn’t enough. Post-war New Zealand was hungry for energy, and its electrical engineers, working alongside the Ministry of Works, gave it to them. It wasn’t until the early-1970s that the costs of such breakneck development became insupportable. The campaign to “save” Lake Manapouri grew into New Zealand’s first mass environmental movement. The “Baby Boom” generation, now old enough to vote, made sure it would not be the last.

The electoral heft of that generation was sufficient to limit the plans of those who had been encouraged to “rip-in, rip-out and rip-off” in the name of national development. It presented the Right with a problem: how to keep National’s long-term love-affair with mining companies, forestry interests, roading contractors, and urban developers hot and steamy. The strength of the environmental movement, and the rise of “green” politics, enforced a frustrating measure of discretion – and it rankled.

But in 2024, with the political phenomenon of “wokeness” having driven strategically devastating wedges into the Left’s electoral coalition, the numbers are finally with the Parliamentary Right. All that pent-up fury with the constraints imposed upon those willing to dream and think “big” is now being released. For the first time since the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s and 90s, New Zealand has a government that understands the state’s key role in fostering and protecting national development. That, without the state riding shotgun, the market – especially in a country the size of New Zealand – is too weak to play the role of nation-builder.

The truth of this proposition has been clear since the 1870s, when Sir Julius Vogel launched New Zealand’s first “national development” plan. It was equally clear to Bill Sutch in the 1950s. And even clearer to Rob Muldoon when he launched his own “Think Big” push for economic growth in the late1970s and early-1980s.

To make it work, however, the House of Representatives will have to reassert its supremacy over all the other players in the New Zealand polity: the judiciary, the public service, te iwi Māori, the trade unions, the universities, and the mainstream news-media. All the elements, in short, whose resistance to the Coalition Government’s plans, be it actual or merely potential, is fuelling the Coalition’s leaders’ resentment and anger.

That the Coalition’s political conduct harks back to the days of Rob Muldoon is no accident. To find the precedents for what this government is proposing; and for its willingness to engage in the most ruthless kind of majoritarian politics to make it happen, it is necessary to return to the “glory days” of Muldoonism.

No wonder so many New Zealanders are gripped by the feeling that they have been here before.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 11 March 2024.


The Barron said...

A House Is Not a Motel
Arthur lee
Love - Forever Changes (1967)

The obvious thing to note is that removing people from motels will not solve the hosing crisis, it will simply be statistical slight of hand creating crisis elsewhere. Prioritization of families is positive, but the deprioritization of the disabled, mentally ill, elderly and others is not positive.

Call me naïve, but solving homelessness requires a stock of houses. National sold state housing last time up, these people were homeless and given emergency accommodation in motels, for a returning National lead government to remove this option for many. What part of emergency do they not understand or care about?

Anonymous said...

On housing. The terrible band aid solution of motels is a grotesque failure and Labour/Green couldn't think past that solution. The woke middle class caucus had no idea. But they destroyed Rotorua as a tourist destination as a legacy.

Motels, like food banks, are also are a cruel incentive to take away just a bit more independence for those that need it the most replacing it with a terrible reliance on an incompetent state.

Sadly at some point reality has to take over from the irrational. We cannot go on this way. We don't have the money and the appalling ghettos of squalor that is the motel solution cannot continue. Every minute it goes on, the more helpless written off citizens it creates.

Labour had the opportunity to create a 1950/60's style group housing scheme, pick from one of a few similar designs from a provider subsidised by the state, and with a cheap loan, start the road to independence. But it was beyond their feeble talentless activist brains to think like this, too busy funding Tesla's for their well off mates on us and spin doctoring the rising disasters they were creating and sweeping the housing disaster under the motel rug. They could have bought on board the powerful rich property dealing Maori tribes to start housing their own own but somehow the Maori caucus with their deep influential connections were far too preoccupied with te tiriti, power and control than basics like housing.

This hellish mess now falls on the new government to rectify and they can't ignore it. The question is how?

new view said...

Your journalistic license to make your point is your choice but IMO not accurate Chris. The coalition government is not angry at all the poor but some of the poor. The ones who could be working but choose to live off the rest of us. The coalition doesn't like the waste that has occurred with the meals in schools and wants to trim that waste. I'm sure those who are shifted out of motels will be housed in other ways and if they end up living in cars or under bridges we'll be the first to know from the left
leaning media. Yes the government is suffering from nostalgia, looking back at a time when our children were taught respect along with reading writing and arithmetic. When those struggling for employment were prepared to lower their expectations when it came down to being employed or not. They will be nostalgic for a time when there were three murders a year not in a week. Although some National governments of the past have to shoulder the blame for where we are now, this national coalition has the unenviable task of trying to recover from the woeful financial position we are in and not of it's own making, whilst trying to maintain some social dignity and to encourage those who are capable of contributing to it's wealth to carry on doing so. It won't be a popular job but someone has to do it. The ruthless changes this government is making are really just winding back six year of the Labour coalition where much of what they did was not publicly discussed but was their own devious agenda. National on the other hand have told us what they were going to do and are doing it. I'm not sure they are keen to go back to Muldoonism after all Rob Muldoon bankrupted the country in the end however Labours own Robertson had a good try at doing that didn't he.