Friday 17 July 2009

The Face in the Mirror

The Face in the Mirror: The culture of the new Auckland "supercity" is being formed right now - by the people in charge of the transition process. Those on the Left who decry Laila Harre's appointment to the Auckland Transition Authority need to ask themselves: "Who would you rather have in charge?"

IN her 2007 Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture, Laila Harré quoted the former boss of the British Transport and General Workers Union, Moss Evans, who famously quipped: "When I look in the mirror when I am shaving I don’t see the face of the man who will bring down capitalism."

With her characteristic drier-than-dry humour, Harré joked that: "Of course like your typical union member today, I don’t get to first base on this one. I’m female."

At the time, Harré had only recently been elected National Secretary of the National Distribution Union (NDU). The election had been a hard-fought affair, but she’d run with the posthumous blessing of veteran union boss, Bill Andersen, who’d long admired her industrial and political skills. These were evident not only during her time as a Cabinet Minister in the Labour-Alliance coalition government of 1999-2002, but also in the "Nurses are worth more" campaign she masterminded for the Nurses’ Organisation between 2003-05.

While it’s been common knowledge for some time that Harré wouldn’t be seeking a second four-year term as National Secretary of the NDU, her latest appointment, to a senior human resources role in the new Auckland Transition Agency (ATA) has come as a major surprise.

Or, perhaps, that should be "shock". Because, if the reaction from some of the Left’s heavyweight commentators to Harré’s new job is anything to go by, she should not only forget about ever getting to Moss Evan’s first base, but consider herself disqualified from playing the trade-union/anti-capitalist game altogether.

Writing in his "Frontline" blog on Fairfax’s Business Day, the veteran leftist, John Minto, declared darkly that: "It was an inspired move to approach her and those involved will be overjoyed she accepted. Not because she will do a good job for them, which she will, but because she will provide the type of broad political cover for the agency which money can’t buy. The agency gets the added bonus that she will be the public face of the mass redundancies which will follow."

The killer-line in Minto’s posting makes very clear just how seriously he judges his former comrade’s apostasy: "Harré’s decision to join the process of corporatising and de-democratising Auckland governance will help ease Aucklander’s fears."

That statement is almost certainly true, but should we join Minto in judging Harré’s ability to allay not only Aucklanders, but Auckland local authority employees’ fears – a bad thing?

For revolutionary socialists, the pithy historical truth packed into Moss Evans "face in the mirror" quip has always been anathema. Far from seeing the trade unions as bargaining instruments, operating on their members behalf, whilst remaining firmly embedded within, and governed by the logic of, the capitalist economy, (Evan’s and Harré’s view) the revolutionary sees them as battering-rams; weapons of mass-membership destruction to be wielded against the entire capitalist system. In this all-or-nothing mindset, if you’re not part of a "fighting union", you’re not part of a union at all.

All well and good, of course, if you enjoy revolutionary rhetoric and the intoning of long-forgotten union anthems, but it butters no parsnips in the grim business of amalgamating the workforces of seven local authorities in a way that preserves the wages and conditions of those who get to stay, while ensuring adequate compensation for those who have to go.

That is a job that has to be done: a job that will be done. So the only thing to decide, really, is the sort of person you want to do it.

Are you looking for someone who has demonstrated over and over again her commitment to the rights of working people? Someone who understands and believes in the trade unions’ role of looking after employees’ interests? Someone with the education and vision to grasp the rich opportunities for creating and defining the new Super-City’s human resources "culture"?

Or, are you seeking a ruthless, union-busting, hatchet-man to set the tone for the new Auckland’s industrial relations environment? An ice-cold neo-liberal ideologue instead of a passionate social-democrat?

The Chief Executive of the ATA, Mark Ford, may see Harré as nothing more than "cover" for his dark designs to "corporatise and de-democratise Auckland governance", but I don’t think so. On the contrary, I believe the decision to appoint Harré is evidence of bold and imaginative thinking on the part of – and at the heart of - the ATA.

Certainly, the Key Government’s acquiescence in the appointment of such a prominent left-winger may simply reflect its urgent need to undo the damage done to National’s re-election chances by Rodney Hide and the shadowy right-wing forces urging him forward, but I think there is more at work here than mere party manoeuvring.

Those of us with long memories will recall that Mark Ford was one of the business experts recruited by the left-wing writer and politician, the late Bruce Jesson, during his 1992-95 term as Chair of the Auckland Regional Services Trust (ARST) – a body whose membership included Laila Harré. And I know, from many conversations with Bruce, just how much he admired Ford’s professional skills. The two became close allies in what turned out to be the ARST’s phenomenal (and unlooked-for) success in retaining Auckland’s publicly-owned assets, and in retiring its massive debt. Ford still sits on the Bruce Jesson Foundation.

Is it really beyond the comprehension of critics like Minto, that just as Jesson was able to admire the positive qualities of Ford the right-wing businessman; Ford, himself, may have found an equal amount to admire in the intellectual strength and political creativity of left-wingers like Jesson and Harré?

Inevitably, the proof of the pudding Ford and Harré have cooked-up will be in the eating. Neither protagonist is a fool, so we must assume that, fully aware of the consequences of failure, both have comprehensive exit-strategies prepared.

Harré, in particular, is well-positioned to profit from any demonstration of bad-faith on the ATA’s part. Having proved her commitment to the Super-City plan, and undertaken to give it as progressive a character as possible, who could blame her – should Minto’s dire predictions prove correct – for stepping away from the ATA, and ranging herself alongside other representatives of the intelligent and moderate Left, in the Super-City elections of 2010?

The face in Harré’s mirror my not be destined to bring down capitalism, but it could very easily play a role in bringing down John Banks.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 16 July 2009. 


Robert Winter said...

You are spot on; Mr Minto is not.

Unknown said...

Chris I hate to disagree but ...

The current review will result in the loss of 2,000 plus jobs in the Auckland Local Government sector. Laila will be at the head of these job losses. She can present a friendly left wing face to it or she can let someone else present an unfriendly right wing face. The job losses will be the same.

Her presence may make it look better but will not improve the result one iota.

People will ask how much she is getting paid, how much she was getting paid at the NDU and then make a call about her motivation.

Her accepting this vote should not cause the left to change its view on how appropriate the changes are.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Bravo Mr Trotter.

But for God's sake, who the hell wants to butter parsnips?

And as for Mickey Savage - well he just wants Auckland to blunder on without culling one surplus drone from local gummint. What's the betting he lives on the Chathams?

Unknown said...

Oops the last paragraph should say "Her accepting this job ..."