Friday 31 July 2009

Ancestral Voices

Rogernomics Rogues Gallery: From top to bottom: Roger Douglas, David Lange, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, David Richwhite, Alan Gibbs. Targets: The New Zealand working class.

THERE is nothing very secretive about this Government’s social and economic agenda. Indeed, it’s intended direction is now perfectly plain. We can even see how John Key and his colleagues propose to make it happen – and, once again, it’s hardly rocket science.

In order to persuade voters to accept something they’re unsure of – in this case a new round of neo-liberal "reforms" – the trick is to make them believe there’s no rational alternative. Once you’ve convinced them that yours is the only sensible choice to be made, they will, however reluctantly, allow you to make it.

For example, the original package of neo-liberal economic policies, the programme known as "Rogernomics", was introduced following the collapse of "Muldoonism" – that idiosyncratic mix of regulatory and political "fixes" imposed on an increasingly restive New Zealand by National Party Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, between 1975 and 1984.

The case for a decisive change of direction was made (rhetorically, at least) when the then Leader of the Labour Opposition, David Lange, famously declared: "You can’t run a country like a Polish shipyard."

That single, inspired sentence: conjuring up all the dreary imagery of a drab, inefficient, dictatorial, East European, socialist command economy, spoke directly to the electorate’s longing to break free from Muldoon’s authoritarian grip. When the newly-elected Labour Government’s Finance Minister, Roger Douglas, warned New Zealanders that no other viable alternative to his free-market policies existed – they were ready to believe him.

The political challenge confronting the present National Government is to convince New Zealand voters that the economic and social models guiding government policy for the past nine years have become similarly exhausted, and that the case for striking out in a bold new direction is unassailable.

It’s a big ask, because unlike the national experience of Muldoonism, New Zealanders’ recollection of the past nine years is mostly positive. Real wages and salaries rose; the value of people’s homes skyrocketed; credit was easy; and unemployment fell. It was only in the final year of Helen Clark’s third term that the economy headed south. Economically speaking, therefore, the Clark years are remembered as a buoyant and generally successful period.

On the social front, however, the Clark years generated considerable dissatisfaction. Her government’s social reforms, and her commitment to "closing the gaps" between Maori and Pakeha, unnerved and angered a great many conservative New Zealanders. By the end of her government’s third term, Clark’s policies had become inextricably linked with terms like "political correctness", "Helengrad" and "nanny state". Here, at least, the National Party was able to tap into a powerful mood for change.

Caught up in the coils of a global recession, however, National’s mandate to roll back Helengrad’s politically-correct Nanny State is of little use. What Key and his colleagues need is an effective strategy for restoring the country to economic health. Here is where their problems are multiplying.

The Government’s advice-stream, coming as it does from many of the same people who ushered in the first round of Rogernomics, is as narrow as it is familiar: increase the flexibility of the labour market; slash government spending; further deregulate the economy; and extend privatisation into health, education, welfare and housing. Unfortunately, such policies – essentially Rogernomics, Round II – are wildly unpopular with the voters, whose memories of Rogernomics, Round I, are mostly extremely unhappy ones.

It may have been an exceptionally silly expectation, but a majority of New Zealanders really do seem to have believed that, in voting for the Key-led National Party, they were voting for a government committed to pursuing all the usual economic objectives: full employment; rising living standards; enhanced social security; in a new way.

But, the Government’s so-far-unassailable popularity will not endure if the electorate looks at all the recent signs: the Business Roundtable’s promotion of a privatised welfare system; the Treasury’s advice to civil servants to slay themselves, or be slain; the appointment of Don Brash to lead a study into productivity; and concludes that the supposedly rehabilitated National Party is actually hell-bent on achieving economic recovery the old way.

Not even with the practically unanimous support of the mainstream news media, with its steady drum-beat of reportage and commentary in favour of striking out in "bold new directions", can this government hope to repeat the performance of the Lange-Douglas partnership. The ideological leadership provided by the news media in the years leading-up to the 1984 Snap Election was persuasive principally because it was working with the grain of history – not against it.

Muldoonism had been a failure. Wages and prices had been frozen for months. Regulation had run amok. Unemployment had risen to record post-war levels. The Government had allowed the Springbok Tour to proceed. New Zealand had been driven into a material and ethical cul-de-sac. It was time for change.

The other important factor that distinguishes 2009 from 1984 is that people did not know what the new free-market ideology would bring. They hoped the shift to more-market, less-government, solutions would bring prosperity and liberation from Muldoon’s heavy-handed economic and cultural tutelage – but they didn’t know. What encouraged them to put their trust, their faith, in the politicians urging them to take the risk was the fact that they were Labour politicians. No National government could have done what Lange and Douglas did.

That the electorate’s trust and faith was so poorly repaid by Labour turned out to be politically devastating. Indeed, the history of New Zealand politics, from the late-80s til the present day, has been about little else. Disentangling our political system from the consequences of Rogernomics took a whole quarter-century: without it there would have been no Alliance, no NZ First, no MMP, no ACT, no Greens, no John Key.

And yet, the Prime Minister, guided by the ancestral voices of the Rogernomics revolution, seems determined to repeat history – with the important difference that this time it will be National’s reputation that is shredded.

What’s more, because the voters (or, at least, the voters over 40) know what neo-liberalism means – for jobs, for public services, for national morale – almost any alternative will be considered preferable.

That’s the paradox. The only way Key’s government will convince New Zealanders that "there is no alternative" to Rogernomics, Round II, is if Phil Goff and the Labour Party are unable to offer one.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 30 July 2009.


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

And they are incapable. Hell they can't even find one, just one in the whooooooole of New Zealand, bloody beneficiary who is is 'clean' to tout as a victim of Key'snian economics.

It is very difficult to find in the whole of political history,such a bunch of dumb bastards as today's Labour Party.

Even Caligula had more brains.

james said...

I'm doing a series of videos endorsing a yes vote in the upcoming referendum here are links to some I've already edited.

I was wondering if you would be interested in displaying some of these videos on your web page.


James Barber

millsy said...

And of course, its good to see the New Zealand progressive movement doing what they do best in the face of it all...

Roll over and die.