Friday 3 June 2011

Feedback (A Political Ghost Story)

Dreaming Reality: This was as far as I got, Phil ... But it was more than I ever dreamed I'd have, mate. Much more.

“THIS IS WEIRD,” muttered Phil Goff, as he headed up the narrow concrete path. “I thought I knew every state-house in this cul-de-sac, but this place looks brand new.”

The Labour leader looked back for the camera crews that had been following him around for most of the morning, but they were nowhere to be seen. His chief advisor was also missing.

“Gee-Jay! Where are you mate?”

His words were curiously muffled – as if he was speaking into a room full of cotton wool.

And the light was changing.

Before his disbelieving eyes the everyday colours of the street faded into the sharp black-and-white contrasts of an old National Film Unit newsreel.

“Come on in, Phil, I’ve been waiting for you.”

The Leader of the Opposition swung round to see a tall, rangy sort of bloke framed in the state-house’s front doorway. Something about the man reminded Phil of his father – or, at least, of his father’s generation. He had the same lean physique, the same pride of bearing that Phil had seen in the old newsreels of New Zealand soldiers marching down to the troopships in 1940.

“Jack’s the name”, said the stranger, extending an enormous calloused hand, “come in and have a brew.”

Phil cast a disbelieving eye over the spacious kitchen. He’d done plenty of canvassing in his day; been in plenty of houses where time appeared to have stood still; but this was uncanny. Nothing in the room could’ve been less than 70 years old – and yet, everything looked brand new.

Jack pushed a heavy china cup full of sweet tea in his direction.

“I haven’t been given very long, Phil”, he began, taking a long draw from the hand-rolled cigarette dangling at the corner of his mouth. “So I’d ask you to just keep shtoom for a few minutes while I say me piece.”

Phil nodded silently.

“This was as far as I got, Phil.” Jack indicated with a sweeping gesture the house they were sitting in, “Before the war started and I kept my appointment with a German bullet at Galatas, in Crete.

“But it was more than I ever dreamed I’d have, mate. Much more. And you know who gave it to me, don’t you, Phil? Because they gave it to your family too. It was Labour, Phil – the party you now lead.

“They were dreamers – the men who led Labour in the 20s and 30s. And their dreams were big. Really big.

“What happened to your dreams, Phil? Do you still see ahead of you the country that Mickey Savage and Jack Lee and Peter Fraser saw? The country they’d begun to explore? Because, mate, by the end of the Thirties, blokes like me, we were dreaming reality.

“I’m not sure you’re still dreaming the right dreams, Phil. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ve forgotten how. All that stuff you did back in the 1980s. Mate, it’s muddied up the windows in your soul. You need to take a bucket and a rag and start wiping. Let some light in.

“And this prancing pony you’ve got for a Prime Minister, Phil. Just leave him be. Your job is to recall Labour’s people to themselves; to the fundamental goodness at the core of the Kiwi character. The goodness that built this house; that created my job; that gave birth to Mickey’s welfare state.

“The goodness I was happy to die for, Phil.

“And don’t be bound by those who tell you it can’t be done; unleash instead those who know it can be done – it must be done.

“Last day of my life, Phil. Battle of Galatas. We’re falling back before the Jerries – there’s panic in the ranks. You know what I heard? The voice of our commanding officer, Colonel Kippenberger. Over the din of the battle, we all heard him, calling out in a great voice: ‘Stand for New Zealand!  Stand every man who is a soldier! Stand for New Zealand!’

“That’s Labour’s job, Phil. It’s the job you’ve got to do. Before the old enemy sucks all the goodness out of it. Before its gone.

“Stand for New Zealand.”

Jack exhaled a great cloud of blinding smoke.

Phil Goff blinked.

“You okay Phil?”

The Labour Leader’s chief-of-staff peered quizzically into his boss’s ashen face.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

This short story was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 June 2011.


Unknown said...

“The goodness I was happy to die for, Phil."

Chris, that was seventy years ago, and sadly that world no longer exists. Chances are that State house is now occupied by people who believe they have nothing to live for, let alone die for. A people robbed of hope by successive generations of welfare dependency.

Michael's well intended kindness has become the 'kindness that kills'.

It's called the law of unintended consequences.

Once you separate reward from effort, and call it entitlement, you transform proud Kiwi workers into hopeless State dependent political fodder.

It's a tragedy allright, and nothing short of a return to family centric welfare with all of its inbuilt checks and balances, has any chance of producing another generation of self reliant resilient Kiwi's with 'goodness to die for'.

Why should we aim for anything less?

Kind regards

Olwyn said...

Brendan I often read the same or a similar message from you on this sight, but no viable suggestions for getting from where we are to where you think we should be.

Firstly, you speak of a separation of reward from effort: does that include absentee landlordism, inheritance, living off trust funds, etc, or only those upon whom dependence is forced?

I say those upon whom dependence is forced, because people are no longer subsistence farmers. Hence they must either depend on others paying them to work, or acquire capital from somewhere to start businesses of their own, or if these measures fail, default to a benefit or whatever other form of charity exists in order to get by. And when I say "depend on others paying them to work" I mean paying them enough to live on, because living is what is at stake here. If one lacks access to all of these options, what other choices are there?

And do not say "there's always work out there for those who want it" because the evidence suggests otherwise.

Timothy Samuels said...

Olwyn, there are very few people living on inheritance and trust funds. It's like when you're discussing abortion and someone says "but what about for rape victims?" Stop trying to confuse the issues with rare, obscure examples.

Secondly, ever heard of unemployment insurance? A surprising number of people in NZ don't even know it exists, because the dole is so easily accessible.

But I'm probably wasting my time bringing up reasonable points. You want to keep people dependent on the state, and would probably oppose people being allowed to purchase the state house they're living in.

Anonymous said...

Phil's got dreams, Jack! Big dreams. Dreams of collecting a nice 6 figure pay check for leading the 'acceptable' alternative to National's liberal capitalism. That alternative being.... liberal capitalism. Aaah, I see what ya mean Jack.

Face facts Chris, if Labour MPs and party flunkies wanted to come back from the grave and resurrect democratic socialism, they have had 2 years to quietly do it, but they haven't.

If Labour were united behind Goff in changing to an electable 'left' government, they would have backed him:
- talking useless list candidates like Judith Tizard off the list in the first 6 months
- talking useless electorate MPs like George Hawkins into going in the second year, giving byelection publicity about renewal, and blooding talented new MPs
- picking talented energetic candidates for byelections, rather than timeservers like Fa'afoi or identity politics boxtickers like Louisa Wall.
- reshuffled his spokespeople based on talent and effort (so David Shearer would be Education spokesman, not Sue Moroney)
- hired good policy developers and comms staff (maybe even an olive branch to Matt McCarten - imagine the reinvigoration Labour would get from that!)

Then, and only then, would Goff be able to lea a charge backed by his MPs that could paint a truly alternative vision of NZ that would resonate with voters like Jack, and get them ticking Labour at the polling booths.

Mad Marxist.
P.S. A post updating us on how you see Hone's mob going would be interesting - will he romp home in TTT, or are Maori voters peeved at his follower's antics?

Olwyn said...

@Timothy Samuels: my point was that there are rich people too for whom reward and effort are not conjoined. The run of failed finance companies suggest another example. And don't tell me that wringing your hands anxiously by the phone is work. If it is then beneficiaries do that too.

Employment insurance is contingent on decent incomes and very low unemployment, both presenting reasons why a lot of kiwis don't know about it. You would not have a viable accident insurance system if a similar percentage of people as are unemployed had serious accidents every day.

And I care about people having decent affordable housing however it is achieved. I do not have a problem with its being achieved without the state's help but given the common conjunction of contempt for the poor and opposition to the state I do not see it happening that way.

Anonymous said...

"Gotcha Jack. And believe me, you and your mates didn't die in vain. The vast majority of kiwis still believe in and hope for a decent and fair society. They're not idiots. They can see that the money-men have rooted us. They can see that the rich have got disgustingly richer while the poor are left to die off: and they can see that their selfish world is coming to an end.

Thanks heaps Jack. You gave us a world infinitely better. But still controlled by the rich.

Who still let the worst-off die in agony.

They're the ones who stayed behind, Jack: they took your life, your dreams and your hope,and they stuffed their pockets. And they're still in charge.

They own the media, Jack, and they and their slippery salesmen will remain in charge as long as they do.

But your dreams will reign forever Jack. You grow not old. At the coming down of the smiling snake, we will remember you.

Anonymous said...

The only issue that matters is the types of regulation for monies(credit or debt - only one is utilised in politics) & value there of making up a nations money supply, was the explicit platform that John A Lee's lead in spirit Labour party of the 1930's stood for in it's historically celebrated electoral victory which gave it an identity to mine for many decades.

Current Labour could hang out to dry the most disliked party in NZ, (rather than being hung out to dry by their Green polies who themselves are individually accutely internally invested more than ever in wanting to establish buffers between themselves and reality via more political glue ) in order to exploit the two dynamics of Key's one defeating political achille's heel. This is in relation to mmp positioning for the natural gravitations that majority of current (& for most part current NZ )National support base would be typicalised by(naturally sympathetic to Peters & hostile to Green Party which is probably the stronger of two dynamics - yet one which Labour is strongly identified with by that anti-block).

Damage control leaves him with the Maori Nationalist sovereign party... & Act voting block for an mmp player or to not play mmp game at all...Either Or eroding voter block perceptions. The MMP issues, which are primarily there because of what Social Credit's Bruce Beetham & helpers made undeniable to the NZ electorate, is what can allow politics in NZ to still be based on circus delusions all round yet provide also slight bit of autonomy in outcome currently.

But it wouldn't make a difference to the only issue that matters, for that is not the issue, just only outcome that matters & that outcome stays the same as the political best of us, John A Lees, Bruce Beethams found. The only issue that matters is the game of musical chairs & no one/or society is the whole who wants to receive the same - ...but i probably lost you at first paragraph, Anyhow...:)

There are other parties of course, & i would recommend voting for them whatever one's preferences to that instead of not voting at all which is entirely understandable, (& the majority again will be wrong for any specifics) but it would probably be a 'relatively' good & practical approach to have election to election if everyone did that with populations in the millions, for an unstructured shambolic parliament ideal would consistently deliver more public common sense than a structured shambolic parliament.

Unknown said...

Good post Chris. I agree with how Labour needs to seek the current equivalent to the First Labour Government's policies. If anything the world this labour party faces is even more stark. As well as the economic deprivation of both times there is now an environmental crisis, and the forces of capitalism have even more resources and a stronger more sophisticated hold of the media. They have also spent decades persuading everyone that rampant capitalism is good for them all, not only the wealthy and despite the reality.

A couple of comments for your commentators:

Brendan there is no analysis to back up what you say. So you think that Michael Savage was the start of the country's problems? Would you prefer that NZ resembled Victorian England?

And Mad Marxist it would help if you at least got some of your facts right. The party does not have the power to "remove" MPs from the list, Kris Faafoi is not a timesaver, Louisa Wall is a talented welcome addition to Caucus, and David Shearer is a spokesperson on R&D and tertiary education which are important portfolios. I do not disagree with you about some of the comms stuff but I think this is because of the use of professionals who massage rather than lefties who say it the way it is.

Unknown said...


I think its highly probable that we want the same outcomes, more or less, but we differ on how best to achieve those goals.

First, Olwyn your concern regarding the very small minority of Kiwi's who obtain their income from inheritance, family trusts, or similar, and are not personally responsible for the generation of their wealth and income.

Personally, I have no problem with this for two reasons. First, they are not dependent upon the efforts of tax payers for their income. They are consuming family wealth, and to me that's way more preferable than having their hand buried deep in their neighbours pocket.

Second, wealth easily obtained is seldom preserved. Often within the space of a generation or two, the wealth is squandered and subsequent generations are starting over again. If wealth is preserved, then it's to the benefit of all Kiwis. Have you heard about our abysmal lack of savings and investment?

Can we agree that we need more wealthy Kiwi's and not less?

Third, I refuse to believe that 'dependence is forced' upon anyone as you suggest. We do not live in feudal England. Today, dependence is primarily an attitude, a mindset of failure. We need to be way more aspirational for all New Zealanders.

I know of Asian refugees who came to this country with nothing but are running successful businesses today. What is the difference between them and the intergenerational dependent? Attitude and application.


I think Michael truly believed that the welfare state was 'Christianity enacted' as he stated in Parliament. He was a decent bloke who saw the need and wanted to do something to help. He was a man for his times.

However, I'm sure that equally he would be saddened, possibly shocked and appalled to see how his compassion has turned into intergenerational dependence and a culture of entitlement.

Shocked and saddened.

How can it be compassionate to maintain these levels of deprivation?

There are areas in this county that are primarily funded by welfare, that have more in common with the living conditions of Victorian England that you abhor, than mainstream New Zealand.

I do not advocate a 'cold turkey' approach. That would be cruel and heartless. However, we do need to adjust our policy settings to encourage a more aspirational approach for future generations. To do less would be a failure of responsibility on our part.

To allow the continued growth of a State funded underclass in New Zealand when it is within our power to change the situation, would be nothing short of immoral.

Kind regards

Anonymous said...

MickySavage - well, you would favour a return to 1930s Labour policies with a name like that, aye? :)

But I have got my facts right:
- I suggested Goff 'talk' bad list candidates and electorate MPs out. Which he/Andy Little did for the Mt Roskill and Manurewa changeovers. I actually feel sorry for Goff on this score, as I suspect he was trying to achieve this - to the point he pushed out one of his supporters (Hawkins) to get the ball rolling - but none of the other deadbeats will move.

- I said Fa'afoi is a timeserver, not timesaver. Actually, the latter would be quite useful ;) Kris' performance on the Mana hustings was widely reported as being gaffe prone (KFC opening anyone?) and weak. And he was part of Goff's failed comms teams...

- If Louisa was so welcome, how come last time she was a Labour MP she was treated like radioactive sludge? And what skills does she have to help Labour draft good budgets, or laws, or understand the health or education sector. Not saying everyone has to be a teacher or lawyer, but Labour does seem short of a few Cullen's now...

- R&D and tertiary ed are important, but Shearer was a south Auckland teacher, so was well suited for compulsory ed (as was Mallard when he was Ed Minister), whereas Sue was a kindie teacher, right? And what impact has Sue had on Tolley, the least talented Nat minister with the worst policy to defend (National Standards)? Nothing. Says it all really.

I'd love to see 1930s Labour back, but there is no sign of that. Time to cut our losses and build Greens and Mana into a real left-wing opposition, then government. Though I see the Greens now want to part-privatise the SOE's. Siiigh. Perhaps a revolution then? ;)

Mad Marxist.

Loz said...

Brendan, no one knows exactly how many people are receiving money from Trusts. It certainly isn't a "very small minority" as you suggest. New Zealand has more trusts per head of population than anywhere else in the world, 400,000 trusts is a very conservative estimate based on declared trusts & we know the vast majority of MP's have trust interests as well.1 The reason for the massive proliferation of trusts can only be for the taxation benefits. If that is the case, those reaping the rewards from trusts must be said to do so at the expense of tax-payers.

Just like a benefit fraudster, A successful capitalist is committed to obtaining wealth by means other than work. Advocating a consistent morality by condoning the actions of one and criticising the other is extremely difficult. Those abusing the system (at both ends) aren't dependents - they've just spotted an opportunity and are working the system for their own advantage. It’s a selfish mentality & a mean spirited outlook on the world around.


Olwyn said...

Brendan: Initially you suggested that the separation of work from effort was a moral hazard: if that is so then it cannot consistently be a moral hazard for poor people while excluding wealthy ones. You have then backed that up with a practical distinction: poor people who separate work from effort live on tax money, rich ones on money that was once earned, or gained from some source other than taxes. Do you think that the poor person has an obligation to work, whether there is work for him or not, while a rich person has no equivalent obligation to invest productively, the money involved being his own?

Let me be clear also about what I mean by "dependent." A person who lacks private means is "dependent" in the sense that he needs to have someone else employ him, or someone to back him if he is to do business himself. This applies to your resourceful Asian immigrant as well. God is said to have created the universe ex nihilo, but such a feat is beyond even the most resourceful human being. One has to find a foothold somewhere.

Finally, Savage's welfare state guaranteed the basic building blocks of a life (housing,education, health and such)but assumed general employment, and up until (I think) the late seventies or eighties, NZ had a policy of full employment. This policy did not separate work from reward, but eventually came to be ridiculed as "inefficient" - it was hence deemed more "efficient" to dump people.

What I am saying essentially is that you cannot close off all the roads out of penury and then chide the people who are stuck in it. And isolate examples offer no answer, since their success depends in part upon the fact that not everyone is able to do the same thing. Furthermore it is inconsistent to place the burden of obligation entirely on the shoulders of the poor, who have few choices, while leaving the rich, who have more choice, "free to do what they like with their own money."

Unknown said...


Regardless of how many people receive income from Trusts, that money is 'tax paid money'. That's how it ended up in the trust. It was earned, and taxes were paid at 33%.

I agree that many people may have legitimately used Trusts to reduce their top levels of tax in the past, from 39c to 33c. Even then, if they took money from the trust, and had other income over $60K they would have paid the 39c rate.

Surely it is reasonable for people who earn money either by work, or from risking capital by way of investments to retain some of it for themselves after paying tax?

Lets be clear about something else. There is no legal way for Capitalists or Socialists for that matter to generate 'wealth without work' that I know of, other than State approved gambling, and that is an uncertain proposition at best.

I think its time for us all to celebrate those who do well financially, just as we would musicians and artists, and appreciate that the vast majority of them pay a good deal of tax, Trusts or no Trusts.

We all would be poorer without them, every one of us.


There is a world of difference between living off tax paid family money by mutual agreement, and living off your neighbours money which has been extracted by means of coercive taxation.

One is a voluntary transaction, the other is involuntary.

Yes, I do think that separating reward from effort can be a moral hazard for both rich and poor alike.

I agree that wealth brings with it obligations. No debate there.

Who could not be sympathetic to those who find themselves unskilled and unemployed, and seemingly without hope?

I have no problem with the short term unemployed, its those who have made the benefit a career choice, or unemployable through substance abuse that trouble me.

There are no simple answers to be had here, if there were we would be enacting them. It is important however that we encourage people to aim high and fulfill their potential. The Government does have a role in sending those signals.

Anonymous said...

The historical point, going back to the essay in allegorical form, was that the Labour vision only lasted for a generation. It was also reinforced by the sacrifices of war, and it's a fact that veterans received preference for State houses. The houses would not have existed in that form without Reserve Bank credit continuing to be issued throughout the 1940s, despite the financial authorities preferences. Until Labour decides that it does not have be beholden to overseas creditos, and to Treasury and Reserve Bank bureaucrats, it will not be able to stimulate the economy the way that it occurred in the 1930s.

There will then be no creation of anything like the forecasted 170 000 jobs, based on the Christchurch reconstruction. And people like Brendan will continue to castigate the unemployed, using cliches like 'welfare dependence', and the fallacy that the money appears without any obligation. If he had experienced being on the dole since 2000, he would know that work testing is quite strict, and there are now regular seminars and training courses to attend, and these are not voluntary. Since the likes of Brendan are only interested in policing the poor, he should be glad that the WINZ people specialise in this. There is no agency there to actually create any viable employment.

Unknown said...

@ The Sentinel

Viable employment comes from business people who risk capital and engage their expertise in order to provide a service or a product that people value.

I understand that it is a source of irritation to some on the left, to think that they, or the economy, or New Zealand's prosperity may be linked to, or dependent upon this 'category' of person, or this type of activity.

There is after all a certain 'uncleanness' about the profit motive, when mankind should simply be guided by altruism.

The thing about business people, and yes I am one, is that we get used to dealing with 'what is' and not what 'might be'.

Engaging daily with this reality does tend to sharpen the mind. I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brendan

I am actually attempting self-employment, and have had quite a good trading week, but I'm not a capitalist. WINZ used to run the PACE scheme, which allowed artists and writers to develop their craft, but the National Government have terminated this policy, so now I'm back to being unskilled labour in their categorisation.

It's nice that you contribute to the blog, but it is a left wing forum. Most readers would accept the 'reserve army of labour' idea. Namely, that unemployment is useful for holding down wages and preventing unions organising, and collective bargaining etc. There is empirical evidence to support this analysis, though it is possible to have a completely different view of capitalism. What I object to is moralising the process whereby something that is functional for capitalism is blamed on the victims of economic processes, and these processes are out of their control. You might think it is naive for someone to trade in the arts or literature without reference to the profit motive, and also expect some state income support. But it might be a better contribution than doing nothing at all, or only being in it for the money like your daily reality.

Unknown said...

@ The Sentinel

Yes, I understand it's a left wing blog, which is why I appreciate the opportunity Chris has provided to both engage and be exposed to competing ideas. Speaking personally, it's easy to think you are 'correct' in your views until you are challenged by others. My ideas get challenged here from time to time by yourself and others, and I hope to learn something as well as share my own insights.

For example, your 'reserve army of labour' thesis is an interesting idea. It would make sense if the world and our governments were always run by 'capitalists'. However we had nine years of Labour socialism, and I didn't see unemployment evaporate or reduce markedly, even though economically they were good years for NZ.

Does this cause you to re-examine your thesis, or was Helen Clark's government in bed with the capitalists also, just like every other socialist government in the Western world?

Wouldn't believing that boarder on believing an extreme conspiracy theory?

Like yourself, I have not been motivated that much by money either. I love engaging with people, serving them, helping their businesses be successful, and profit was simply a by product of doing what I love. I don't actually view myself as a capitalist. Not in the sense I feel is communicated by many in this blog.

I'm delighted that you are engaging in self-employment, and I wish you every success. It is a joy to be doing something we are 'wired for' and not simply having to slave at a job. I know because like you I'm sure, I have done both.

All the best.