The Fictional Realm: Borgen's prime-ministerial heroine Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is consoled by her Machiavellian spin-doctor Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek) in the award-winning drama series from Danish public television. Until very recently one of the world's most progressive states (its current immigration reforms are insupportable!) Denmark is able to run active labour market policies such as "flexicurity" only because the Danish working-class still enjoys effective representation in the country's political system. Would it were so in New Zealand!
IF ONLY New Zealand’s politics could be like those of Borgen – the Danish television series. Centred around the actions of a fictional Danish prime minister, Borgen’s politics are realistically riveting. More than this, however, they are rational. Denmark is portrayed as a nation with a conscience: the host of better angels to which, in extremis, Borgen’s heroine (yes, the prime minister is a woman) can successfully appeal. In the fictional realm, at least, the Danes remain the sort of people New Zealanders once believed themselves to be: decent, practical and courageous.
In population terms, Denmark and New Zealand are not that far apart: 5.6 million to 4.6 million. They are also similar in possessing large and efficient primary production sectors. Like New Zealand, Denmark’s political history has been strongly influenced by social democracy, with both countries boasting large and historically competitive Labour parties.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that left-wing intellectuals and Labour politicians from New Zealand have, from time to time, turned to Denmark for inspiration. In the late-1950s the left-wing political economist and public servant, William B. Sutch, urged Walter Nash’s Second Labour Government (1957-60) to follow the example of the small, highly-productive nations of northern and western Europe by radically increasing the range and complexity of New Zealand’s exports.
Excluding the political anomaly of the Rogernomics years (1984-1990), Sutch’s blueprint, albeit much updated and amended, has remained at the core of Labour’s economic thinking ever since.
Equally consistent has been the party’s predilection for adapting Scandinavian solutions to New Zealand’s social problems. Until the mass unemployment created by Roger Douglas’s free-market policies rendered the whole subject moot, the David Lange-led Labour Government borrowed heavily from the so-called “active labour market” regimes of the Scandinavian countries – especially Sweden and Denmark. Under the rubric of Grant Robertson’s “Future of Work Commission”, Labour is about to look northward again.
The Holy Grail? Grant Robertson's Future Of Work Commission looks set to make "flexicurity" an important part of Labour's 2017 manifesto.
Robertson’s buzzword-de-jour is “flexicurity”. As the name of this highly successful Danish policy suggests, the dual objective is to facilitate the maximum degree of labour market flexibility while providing the maximum level of employment security. Employers are offered considerable freedom to hire and fire, but, in return, employees are generously supported through periods of unemployment, and assisted with re-training and re-entering the labour market, by the state.
According to the official website of the Danish Government: “Danes are positive about globalisation and do not fear losing their jobs. Rather they seek opportunities for new and better jobs. This is partly ascribed to the flexicurity model which promotes adaptability of employees and enterprises.”
Small wonder that Labour’s Future of Work website links directly to this quintessentially Danish solution. In a New Zealand labour market increasingly composed of “independent” contractors, people holding down multiple jobs, part-timers, interns, and the plethora of similarly “precarious” employment relationships, the Danes’ flexicurity policies must have appeared to Grant Robertson in much the same way as the Holy Grail appeared to King Arthur.
Unfortunately, Robertson and his advisors failed to read the small print. New Zealand and Denmark have many similarities, but in 2016 they also feature a number of vital differences. In relation to flexicurity, the most important of these is the respective level of union density.
As the official Danish website puts it: “The development of the labour market owes much to the Danish collective bargaining model, which has ensured extensive worker protection while taking changing production and market conditions into account. The organisation rate for workers in Denmark is approx. 75%.”
The organisation rate for New Zealand workers in 2014 was approx. 19%.
It is typical of the contemporary New Zealand Labour Party that it has simply ignored the profound contextual differences between the workers of New Zealand and Denmark. With three-quarters of the workforce organised, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions is a force in the land. With fewer than one in five New Zealand workers organised, the NZ Council of Trade Unions is in no position to prevent flexicurity turning into a government-backed scheme for employers to hire and fire at will. Presumably, the lone trade unionist on Robertson’s “External Reference Group” pointed this out. Presumably, Robertson wasn’t listening.
Borgen’s politics are rational because the balance of social forces in Denmark obliges its politicians to behave reasonably. Labour’s policies of 30 years ago predetermined the future of work in New Zealand: flexibility without security.
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, 15 January 2016.