If You Want To Get Even - Get Mad! The Government's response to the Labour-Green Opposition's energy plan may not have been very rational, but it certainly conveyed the message to it's followers that their opponents had crossed a line and "there will be blood". What is it that prevents the Left from deploying the same kind of political rage?
“ECONOMIC SABOTAGE!” “North Korean Economics!” “Half-Baked Soviet Union-Style Nationalisation!” The right-wing rhetorical explosions that greeted the Opposition’s new energy policy were as entertaining as they were ludicrous.
But, they were also highly revealing.
When the Right’s economic and social achievements are threatened, its response is both immediate and dramatic. No accusation – no matter how absurd – is ruled out as a response. Its enemies are left in absolutely no doubt that they have crossed a line and that, rhetorically, at least, “there will be blood”.
The Left’s response to attacks on its own achievements, by contrast, is rather bloodless.
Had Labour and the Greens felt as strongly about defending workers’ rights as National and ACT clearly feel about the sanctity of markets, their response to the Government’s proposed changes to New Zealand’s employment laws would have been very different.
The amendments announced by Labour Minister, Simon Bridges, last Friday, rip the guts out of the Clark-Anderton Government’s mild-mannered Employment Relations Act (2000). If passed, the brutal regime set up by the Fourth National Government’s Employment Contracts Act will be restored. New Zealand’s formal commitment to international conventions guaranteeing the right of workers to bargain collectively – already tenuous – will be further diminished.
All in all, a pretty reasonable days’ work for Mr Bridges, who has clearly set out to impress his senior Cabinet colleagues as the ‘go-to-guy’ for all those unpleasant and unpopular jobs that have to be done quickly, efficiently and without flinching.
National’s big-business backers are always on the lookout for someone prepared to present their ideological butcher’s-bill to the voters. If the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, and Mr Bridges’ earlier, draconian, response to deep sea drilling protests are any indication, they may have found their man.
Indeed, this latest legislative flurry from Mr Bridges signals the arrival of an unusually bold and ruthless political operator. As someone once said of that other ‘Young Turk’ in a hurry, Sir Robert Muldoon: “This little man, he will bigger get.”
So, you might think that political and legislative threats on such a scale would see the Left unlimbering its heaviest rhetorical guns. In the spirit of National’s splenetic response to the release of the Opposition’s energy plans, you could forgive Labour and the Greens for going all-out with headline-grabbers like:
“National’s Anti-Union Bill Channels General Pinochet!” “Fascist-Style Legislation Will Hurt Kiwi Workers!” “Far-Right Thinking Inspires National’s Attack On Union Movement!”
Nothing of the sort appeared.
The Council of Trade Unions’ President, Helen Kelly, and Labour’s Employment Relations spokesperson, Darien Fenton, both defaulted immediately to Cassandra mode. All manner of dire consequences for working people were predicted should Mr Bridges’ legislation be passed. But, neither woman was prepared to engage in the kind of no-holds-barred, red-in-tooth-and-claw ideological warfare immediately reverted to by their right-wing opponents.
Far from declaring all-out war on Mr Bridges and his right-wing business supporters, Ms Kelly asked, instead, for employer assistance:
“I don’t expect the national business organisations to do anything but support this. I hope some major employers will speak out against it as some did the youth rates. It is time for a better approach to work in this country – today is a giant step backwards.”
Ms Fenton’s media release didn’t go that far but it was deafeningly silent on what Labour’s response to Mr Bridges’ assault would be – apart, of course, from voting against it in Parliament:
“Labour will oppose this legislation. The New Zealand labour market needs hands-on policies that help create decent work and fairness, not this return to failed policies of the past.”
But a return to the policies of the past is, arguably, exactly what Labour should do! The prime targets of the Employment Contracts Act were: universal union membership; the system of national “awards” (collective contracts covering whole occupational groups); and the right to strike.
At the very least, trade unionists might expect “their” political party to give back what National and its employer allies went to such extreme lengths to take away!
How to explain this left-wing passivity? Why is even the trade union movement’s peak organisation, the CTU, so loath to defend its members with the commitment and aggression now so evident on the right?
Its behaviour points clearly to the existence, at the very heart of the New Zealand Left, of deep-seated ideological doubt: a profound degree of uncertainty which is influencing not only the level of confidence which the CTU and the Labour Party have in themselves, but also the confidence they are willing to place in their members and voters. Unlike their right-wing opponents, they no longer appear to be very sure what is the right thing to do, or which is the right way to go.
While this lack of conviction on the Left persists, the passionate intensity of the Right will go on winning.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 30 April 2013.