Takes One To Know One, Simon: Simon Wilson's denigration of "old lefties" struck some as odd - coming as it did from a former member of the Workers Communist League! His present political orientation, however, is relatively clear. As he wrote for The Spinoff: “[O]ne way or another, everything benefits the agents of capitalism. If you’re a progressive, or a social democrat, or a socialist, you have to suck that up.”
“LABOUR – WTF?” The question said it all. And the packed-out restaurant confirmed its aptness. Laila Harré has good instincts for the mood of the Auckland Left, and “WTF?” sums up its assessment of the current state of the Labour Party with earthy directness.
Less adroit, perhaps, was her decision to allow The Spinoff to co-sponsor the event. It’s hard to reconcile the Ika Seafood Bar and Grill’s skilful courting of Auckland’s progressives with The Spinoff’s vicious attack on one of the Left’s most respected representatives – Mike Lee. That the attack on Lee could so easily have resulted in (and was quite probably intended to secure) Bill Ralston’s election to the Auckland Council merely confirmed The Spinoff’s political incorrectness.
That the choice of Simon Wilson as host of the evening’s panel discussion’s proved equally unsuitable was not something for which the Ika team could be blamed. Wilson made himself so by persuading The Spinoff to post his “Look, there goes the Labour Party – sliding towards oblivion” on the same day as the Table-Talk event.
It is a very curious piece of writing. Provocative title aside, Wilson’s posting is mostly an attempt to isolate and ridicule left-wing critics of his beloved Unitary Plan. Though no names are mentioned, it is clear that the sort of people Wilson has in mind when he castigates these “old lefties”, are people like Mike Lee.
“Their dispute wasn’t really defined by age,” writes Wilson, “but it was about modernising the progressive cause. The old argument is that when you relax the rules around building and allow more density, you create conditions for ugly apartment blocks and slums that ruin the quality of life for everyone who has to live in or near them. There might be more homes but the big winners are the developers who make a killing.
“That sounds grand, principled, insightful and historically sound. It’s been true in the past, even the quite recent past. In fact, in relation to the UP, it’s sentimental nonsense.”
But is it? Auckland’s history offers very little justification for believing that market-led intensification will produce anything other than “ugly apartment blocks” and “developers who make a killing.” More importantly, Wilson offers nothing in the way of evidence that the Unitary Plan, as approved, will ensure that Auckland’s future does not resemble its past.
What he does do, however, is set up a straw man. He implies that Mike Lee and his allies do not understand that “a compact city, with good quality affordable homes clustered densely around a comprehensive and efficient public transport system, is essential for any fast-growing city that wants to offer a decent quality of life to all its citizens.”
This is laughable. One of the reasons the tight little clique of lawyers, land-bankers, property developers, and roading contractors that has run Auckland for the past 150 years was so keen to get rid of Mike Lee was because, as Chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, he refused to extend Greater Auckland’s boundaries. Lee was arguing for a more compact city when Wilson was still collecting recipes for Cuisine magazine. His constant and highly successful advocacy for “a comprehensive and efficient public transportation system” – especially rail – also put Lee offside with Auckland’s powerful roading lobby.
Not so laughable is the fact that Wilson knows full well that Lee is but the latest in a long-line of left-wing politicians and planners who have fought for an Auckland capable of offering “a decent quality of life to all its citizens”.
In between his stints at Cuisine and Metro, Wilson was a jobbing editor for the Random House publishing group. One of the books he edited was my own No Left Turn, which included a chapter entitled “The Auckland That Never Was”. All of the elements making up what Wilson rather grandly calls “New Urbanism” feature in the plans for Auckland’s future development that were prepared for the First Labour Government by the Housing Division of the Ministry of Works back in the 1940s! That those extraordinarily progressive plans remained unfulfilled may be sheeted home to the same private sector interests who made their fortunes by turning Auckland into a cheap copy of Los Angeles, and who now propose to make themselves even richer by turning Auckland into a cheap copy of Singapore.
How someone in possession of this knowledge could, nevertheless, attempt to paint Mike Lee as someone guilty of failing “a bedrock test” for progressive urban planning, is utterly beyond me. But, then, I found it no less puzzling that the same man who could write: “one way or another, everything benefits the agents of capitalism. If you’re a progressive, or a social democrat, or a socialist, you have to suck that up”, was, somehow, able to begin last Wednesday’s (19/10/16) Table Talk discussion by quoting the late Helen Kelly’s emphatically anti-capitalist vision of the Labour Party.
Obviously, Wilson’s definition of “progressive”, “social democrat” and “socialist” is somewhat different from my own.
The rest of the evening was full of depressingly similar contradictions.
Only a very few minutes had expired before the Labour Party President, Nigel Haworth, took on the expression of a man who wished he'd stayed at home. Keeping out of the public eye has been something of a fetish for Haworth, whose principal motivation in taking on Labour’s presidency appears to have been quieting down the party’s frequently restive rank-and-file. Having to admit that, had he been in Britain, he would not have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, was almost certainly something he would have preferred to keep under his hat.
Deborah Russell, Labour’s candidate for the Rangitikei electorate in 2014, told us she would have voted for Corbyn. That becoming a Corbynista would have put her offside with a fair swag of her putative caucus colleagues did not appear to have occurred to her. Which says a lot about her understanding of the party she defended with such enthusiasm throughout the night.
Chloe Swarbrick’s reputation for straight-talking was in no way diminished by her participation in the Table Talk panel. When asked what it would take to make her join the Labour Party, her quick-fire response, “an invitation”, raised eyebrows and hopes in almost equal measure.
Head-and-shoulders the most acute political thinker on the stage last Wednesday night was, however, Andrew Campbell. Formerly the Green Party leaders’ chief-of-staff, and now – impressively – communications director for the NZ Rugby Union, Campbell’s insights into the workings of contemporary New Zealand politics were refreshingly candid. That, in his estimation, “politics is a PR game” might be a bit depressing for “old lefties” like me, but only a fool would argue that, in New Zealand, in 2016, our politics is very much of anything else.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 October 2016.