Insanity We Trust: Trace Hodgson's cartoon from the 1980s captures brilliantly our ANZUS "allies" gangster-like certainty that on matters of nuclear policy the USA and Australia were in a position to make New Zealand an offer it couldn't refuse. They were in for a big surprise.
WHAT A SURPRISE New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation must have been to the Americans. For decades the folks in Washington had (rightly) assumed that the “peace and disarmament” policies of the world’s Labour parties were merely the sort of promises left-wing politicians always made in opposition – and then abandoned in government.
The British Labour Party had once voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament. The Australian Labor Party used to favour a uranium export ban. In 1984 the New Zealand Labour Party was committed to a nuclear-free New Zealand. No worries. The diplomats at the State Department and the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon remained calm and carried on. They knew that when push came to shove, such policies had a habit of changing.
The US Secretary of State, George Shultz, was introduced to New Zealand’s Prime Minister-elect, David Lange, as the rain poured down on the roof of a leaking hangar at Wellington Airport in July 1984. It was a brief (and soggy) encounter, but he came away convinced that this new Labour leader would work the same political magic as Bob Hawke across the Tasman. He would go before his party conference and make its embarrassing peace and disarmament remits disappear.
This time, however, the policy didn’t change. And the United States, lacking a “Plan B”, did what the United States always does when people and/or countries refuse to live down to its expectations and/or give in to its demands. It raged, it fumed, it retaliated and then it sulked – for more than twenty years.
And New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy endured. Initially, the National Party promised to fulfil its historical role as Uncle Sam’s little helper and restore the status quo ante. It took the wise old head of National Party leader Jim Bolger to understand that putting things back the way they were wasn’t a winning political option. That the only correct answer to Labour’s nuclear-free New Zealand was: “Me too!”
The Nuclear-free New Zealand policy is, therefore, not only a lesson in moral leadership – but in leadership per se. It demonstrates that the need to constantly reposition one’s party’s policies in conformity with the prejudices of “centrist voters” is very far from being axiomatic. Centrist opinion in the New Zealand of the mid-1980s was very firmly in favour of remaining in the ANZUS alliance. Labour’s adoption of the nuclear-free New Zealand policy forced centrists to choose between what were, in effect, mutually exclusive options.
On this issue (but, alas, on very few others) centrist voters were forced to the Left. And, when they discovered that the sun still rose every morning in the east, and water still ran downhill, they stayed there.
The future of politics in New Zealand belongs to the political party which first draws the lessons from Labour’s adoption of – and persistence with – the Nuclear-free option.
Just as, by the mid-1980s, the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD!) strategy of the Cold War had led humanity to the very brink of annihilation, so, too, are the macro and micro strategies of neoliberal economics leading the peoples of the western nations to the very edge of a social abyss.
The first political party to devise a way back from the edge: to unmask neoliberalism as the most dangerous ideology to grip the Western mind since the equally totalitarian creeds of fascism and communism; will be able to write its own political cheques for the next quarter-century.
It could be Labour or National. (Both, to a greater or lesser extent, are neoliberal parties.)
Whichever it turns out to be, the first sign that things are moving in the right direction will be when one of them finally abandons the shibboleths of free trade and takes a stand for New Zealand’s economic sovereignty.
The second sign will be a bold diplomatic out-reach to the growing number of countries looking for a global trading system undistorted by the selfish, socially and environmentally destructive economic demands of the giant American corporations.
MFAT officials were in Singapore this week for the latest Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The Prime Minister has been visiting Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile.
The TPP, as currently drafted, unfairly advantages American corporations. The countries the PM is visiting are anxious to confound the United States’ imperial expectations and demands.
We could help with that. After all, we’ve done it before.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 March 2013.