Sunday 31 December 2017
Pub Talk: Mickey, Norm and David were sitting at their usual corner table under a framed black-and-white photograph of Karl Marx. Karl, himself, was playing pool with Helen Kelly – and losing.
‘THE WORKERS’ REST’ stood in a remote corner of the Heavenly City. It was a squat public house, set slightly apart from the tile and weatherboard dwellings that confirmed the neighbourhood’s proletarian status.
From its open windows, patrons could watch as sturdy working-men emptied catcherfuls of grass-clippings onto compost heaps; housewives, in bright sun-dresses, pegged the contents of wicker washing-baskets to rotary clothes-lines; and tousled neighbourhood children played happily in the summer sunshine.
The Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise, on continuous loop.
Mickey, Norm and David were sitting at their usual corner table under a framed black-and-white photograph of Karl Marx. Karl, himself, was playing pool with Helen Kelly – and losing.
“I’ll never get used to women in public bars,” sighed Mickey, “it simply wasn’t permitted in my day.”
Norm sipped his DB Brown, nodding appreciatively as Helen sank another ball in the corner pocket. “Wasn’t all that common in mine, either. Although things improved markedly after the abolition of six o’clock closing.”
“Well, it was a brave barman who dared stare down the likes of Sue Kedgely and Sandra Coney!”, boomed David. “That the first place the women’s libbers wrenched from the male chauvinists’ grasp was the local pub always struck me as impressively practical!”
“Well, in my opinion,” said Mickey, with a nod in Helen’s direction, “it’s a definite improvement.”
“And this new Prime Minister of ours,” queried Norm, “is she an improvement – do you think?”
“Miss Ardern? Well, she’s certainly an improvement over that lugubrious Tory from Southland. But, she is very young to be prime minister. Gosh, I was 63 when the Governor General summoned me to Government House.”
“Thirty-seven’s not that old,” objected David, “Alexander the Great is said to have conquered most of the known world by the age of twenty-five! Not that Jacinda would be impressed by that sort of carry-on. I look forward to hearing her scold him for not putting his case for world domination before the UN Security Council!”
“Very droll, I’m sure, David,” said Norm, “but I’m interested in hearing how you think she’s doing. I realise we can’t call hers a Labour government, not with that strange fellow Winston Peters in tow, but surely we wouldn’t be stretching things too far to call it a ‘progressive’ government?”
Mickey frowned, and set his glass on the table.
“If you’re asking me for a serious answer, Norm, I’d say ‘Yes – but not very progressive.’ One of the first things we did after winning the 1935 election was to get together with the trade unions and draft legislation designed to restore workers’ power in the workplace. If your intention is to force the capitalists to behave like decent human-beings – and that was my government’s intention – then you must have a strong and sophisticated workers’ movement at your back.”
Norm chuckled. “Well, when they arrested Bill Andersen in 1974, it certainly didn’t take long for the unions to mobilise in his defence. Ten thousand workers marched up Queen Street to the courthouse to demand his release. I had to send Hugh Watt to Auckland to defuse the situation. The problem though, Mickey, was that in 1974 I wasn’t sure whether the workers’ movement had my back – or wanted to stab me in it!”
“By the time I received my summons to Government House,” said David, “the unions had already had 12 months of voluntary unionism. Their membership was plummeting and they were willing to swallow just about anything from us – providing we restored their precious compulsory unionism. My Labour Minister, Stan Rodger, tried to strengthen the movement, make it more sophisticated, but, when push came to shove, it just wasn’t there.”
Mickey and Norm stared at David for a long time.
“There was a reason for that”, murmured Mickey.
“Did your government have their back, David?”, Norm added, quietly.
“If the workers aren’t persuaded you’re for them,” Mickey continued, “then it’s easy for the Tories to turn them against you.”
“Cheer up, guys!” Helen Kelly stood behind them, a glass of wine in each hand. “Labour’s industry agreements are a bloody good way to begin rebuilding the workers’ movement.”
The three men looked up at her doubtfully.
“No, seriously, they are. So, if Jacinda could just get her act together on medicinal cannabis, she would put her government’s progressive credentials beyond all doubt!”
This short story was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 December 2017.
A Two-Faced Year: The “Jacindamania” phenomenon was a very different proposition from the quasi-revolutionary call-to-arms enunciated by Metiria Turei. At no point during the suddenly enlivened 2017 election campaign did Jacinda Ardern articulate an idea so saturated with both radical conviction and righteous indignation as Turei’s magnificent repudiation of poverty as a political weapon.
IT’S METIRIA’S SPEECH wot done it. Although delivered in mid-July, Metiria Turei’s keynote address to the Green Party’s AGM neatly divides 2017 into its “No Hope” and “New Hope” halves.
This was the speech containing Turei’s dangerous confession that, 26 years earlier, she had knowingly defrauded the social welfare system for the sake of her infant child. That admission, alone, made certain New Zealanders would be listening. It also meant that the most powerful declaration of the entire election campaign: “We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, was heard.
It is rare for a single political speech to make such a difference. David Lange’s March 1985 address to the Oxford Union springs to mind – along with Don Brash’s in/famous Orewa Speech of January 2004. In Turei’s case, the speech’s impact can be explained using just one word: defiance.
By defying the rules of political survival, the speech more or less guaranteed Turei wall-to-wall media coverage. By defying the unacknowledged political consensus on welfare policy, it also signalled that the Greens were no longer playing “politics as usual”. What else could Turei’s promise to make a bonfire of the MSD’s hated “sanctions” mean? The woman who’d defied the social-welfare system in 1991, was now asking her party to defy the entire neoliberal establishment in 2017.
That Turei’s speech (and many subsequent interviews) was able to instantly and dramatically divide the country bore eloquent testimony to its potency.
Most New Zealanders were outraged by the Green co-leader’s admission of fraud, declaring her unfit to hold political office. Many called for her to be prosecuted. Overwhelmingly, this was the position adopted by the news media, which began clamouring for her resignation.
For a significant minority, however, Turei’s speech was an inspiration. Up until its delivery, New Zealand’s political system had seemed both deaf and blind to the growing evidence of widespread social distress. Many voters were feeling both estranged and alienated from those institutions tasked with registering and reacting to such manifestations of public unease. Most particularly, the political parties seemed quite unable to translate voter dissatisfaction into policy. Turei’s speech made a huge impression upon these people precisely because, for the first time in a long time, a politician had not only heard their concerns, but had also attempted to address them through bold and uncompromising reforms.
The contrast between Turei’s almost evangelical fervour and the Labour Party’s general state of torpidity could hardly have been stronger. Almost immediately, the nation’s pollsters began registering a powerful double movement in voter intention. The number of people intending to vote for the Greens rose sharply, while the number indicating their intention to vote for Labour declined ominously. Speculation mounted that the Greens were about to achieve “escape velocity”, shrugging-off their larger partner’s gravitational pull altogether. If that happened, the consequences for Labour could prove catastrophic.
Turei’s speech was the single dislodged stone which sets off a landslide. It brought home, as nothing else could have done, to Labour’s Leader, Andrew Little, the true measure of his own political ineffectiveness. Not only that, but it also made clear the likely consequences for the Labour Party should that failure not be addressed.
From that moment, matters unfolded with unprecedented speed and drama. In an act of rare political selflessness and decency, Little stood aside for the politically untested, but, equally, the politically untarnished, Jacinda Ardern. It was a decision which did several important things at once.
First, it permitted Ardern to demonstrate her exceptional political talent. Second, as Turei succumbed (as she surely must have known she would) to the media’s unrelenting inquisition, it made possible a decisive transfer of the affection and, more importantly, the sudden surge of hope, which Turei’s words had inspired, from the Greens to Labour. Third, it broke up the ideological ice-floes in which New Zealand society had been imprisoned for more than 30 years. Politics had started moving again. Overnight, the situation had become excitingly fluid.
Inevitably, the “Jacindamania” phenomenon was a very different proposition from the quasi-revolutionary call-to-arms enunciated by Metiria Turei. At no point during the suddenly enlivened election campaign did Ardern articulate an idea so saturated with both radical conviction and righteous indignation as Turei’s magnificent repudiation of poverty as a political weapon.
The impression, instead, is of Labour’s new leader surfing with extraordinary skill on a political wave she played no part in making. Mesmerised by the performance of their new Prime Minister, the people whose faith in the redemptive and transformative power of politics was rekindled by Turei’s speech, are currently giving little thought to what happens when the wave she is riding finally dissolves in froth and foam.
Politically, 2018 will be about whether “Jacinda” has what it takes to make waves of her own.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 December 2017.
Saturday 23 December 2017
The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the road has gone
And I must follow if I can
- J. R. R. Tolkien
WHEN I WAS LITTLE, Christmas seemed such a big thing. It loomed in my child’s mind as the final, familiar headland, around which the Ship of the Year must pass before dropping anchor on New Year’s Eve.
And it wasn’t just the gathering pace of the festival; the choosing and decorating of the tree, the steadily mounting pile of presents, the arrival of grandparents, aunts, uncles and assorted cousins, that quickened my excitement. Underpinning it all there was an awareness of the Christmas Story itself.
We are so familiar with the biblical narrative now, that it is easy to forget its impact upon the imagination of the very young. For me, the wonder of the story of the Nativity has always been encapsulated in the lines of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie,
Within thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent hours go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
That sense of immanence, of something miraculous and terribly important taking place amidst the mundane and the ordinary; of a supernatural presence smashing through the barriers of the workaday world – as it did for those shepherds on the hillside – was incredibly powerful. It was as if a voice was whispering: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
To a little boy growing up in the Otago countryside – where at night the stars burn bright and clear - the whole Christmas story glimmered with mystery and magic.
Growing older, I encountered more mystery and magic in another book – J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Superficially, Tolkien’s epic fantasy bears little resemblance to the Christian story, and yet, at their heart, the two narratives have much in common. Like the little town of Bethlehem, Tolkien’s ‘Shire’ also turns out to contain within its bucolic borders “the hopes and fears of all the years”. Like those shepherds on the hillside, Frodo Baggins and his friends are also suddenly confronted with supernatural forces that cannot be gainsaid.
The stories are also alike in their endings. In his magisterial essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien uses the term eucatastrophe to describe that sudden, last minute lurch from ultimate disaster to ultimate victory, when, as Ruth S. Noel writes in her Mythology of Middle Earth: “imminent evil is unexpectedly averted and great good succeeds”. As Tolkien, himself, wrote of the purpose and effect of eucatastrophe: “It does not deny the existence … of sorrow and failure … it denies universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
Even in the resolutely materialistic Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels the eucatastrophe is not entirely absent. For what is the Revolution if not the sudden and unexpected triumph of good over evil? And is there not just a glimmer of immanence in Marx’s heroic proletarians, secretly growing in strength and power, even as Capitalism’s Dark Lords reach out to enslave the world?
“Don’t adventures ever have an end?” cries Bilbo, as he realises the true enormity of the burden he has bequeathed to his nephew Frodo. “I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.”
And, of course, the old Hobbit is right. For the Story, like the road, goes ever on. Be it the story of the Christ Child, or the Ring of Power, or the Revolution, it beckons all of us “beyond the walls of the world” - to Paradise.
A version of this essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of 21st December 2001.
Always The Right Words: When words fail you, Shakespeare's are always there to say what you want to say - only more eloquently. Our new Prime Minister possesses qualities the Bard knew well - and well described.
THE THING ABOUT SHAKESPEARE, is that he has already said everything you could possibly want to say – only more eloquently. Never was this more obvious to me than during the thirty-six hours between Andrew Little’s public admission that Labour’s dire polls had made him think about stepping-down; and Jacinda, reluctantly (?) stepping-up.
Before setting out to share my thoughts on the rapidly unfolding political drama with the AM Show’s Duncan Garner that fateful morning, I’d Googled “there is a tide in the affairs of men” and hurriedly printed-off the result. Half-an-hour later, in TV3’s Green Room, I attempted to commit Brutus’s famous lines from Julius Caesar to memory.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
For Jacinda Ardern and her fortunes were, indeed, afloat upon a full sea. Never had her party had greater need of a leader of courage and imagination than on that day, Monday, 31 July 2017. That she was the leader Labour needed could not be disputed. The polls confirmed it. Her colleagues knew it. The country wanted it. The question was: Would she do it? Could she, like Hotspur in Henry IV Part One, step forward boldly to declare:
“Out of this nettle – danger – we pluck this flower – safety.”
The country would have its answer within twenty-four hours.
Watching Andrew Little announce his decision to resign the Labour Party leadership and nominate Jacinda Ardern as his successor, I once again found myself indebted to the Bard. This time for his rendering of Malcolm’s report of Cawdor’s death to King Duncan in Macbeth:
“Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it. He died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed
As ’twere a careless trifle.”
But the country was granted only a few minutes to muse upon the death of Little’s ill-starred leadership. The doors to the Labour Party’s Caucus Room swung open and there she was, striding down the corridor towards the waiting cameras and the microphones of the assembled journalists.
And what a performance she delivered! In 40 years of participating in and writing about politics I have never seen the like of it. Jacinda’s first media conference confirmed the pollsters’ numbers, her colleagues’ hopes, and the public’s intuition – in spades.
So perfectly did she time this astonishing demonstration of her brilliance, that I could only think of Prince Hal’s shrewd, if somewhat calculating, speech in Henry IV Part One:
“I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.”
For if Jacinda Ardern had hardly smothered up her beauty from the world, she had, most assuredly, concealed from it the sheer magnitude of her talent and the full scope of her ambition. In this she was aided by the “foul and ugly mist” created by her predecessors. Among the “contagious clouds” of Labour’s repeated failures, it turned out, had been the perfect place to hide!
But now Mt Albert’s princess is New Zealand’s Sun Queen. And, in the grim tradition of all who assume national leadership, Jacinda must undergo the painful alchemy of power. Her base metal days of deejaying the night away among Auckland’s bohemian set are over. Her golden days as New Zealand’s prime minister begin.
In Henry IV Part Two, Shakespeare has Prince Hal – now King Henry – dismiss his former friends with brutal finality:
“Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self”.
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self”.
In the Coalition Agreement she signed with Winston Peters, Jacinda promised to lead a “transformational government”. Only slowly, I suspect, is she beginning to understand who is being transformed – and to what degree.
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, 22 December 2017.
Friday 22 December 2017
Sunny Ways: I have participated in, and written about, politics for close to 40 years, but in all that time I can honestly say I have never witnessed anything like Jacinda Ardern’s first media conference as Labour Leader.
WHEN 2017 BEGAN, I wasn’t feeling all that hopeful about how it would end. Shortly after New Year’s Day, I wrote:
“The political consensus, at the beginning of 2017 – election year – is that the National-led Government will hold on to power. Not in its own right, as might have happened had John Key led them into battle, but with sufficient parliamentary support to govern comfortably. The identity and character of National’s support will likely prove the most intriguing electoral story of the year. The most significant political event of 2017, however, could well be the collapse of the Labour Party and the emergence of the Greens as New Zealand’s leading party of the centre-left.”
And if Andrew Little, alarmed at the sudden surge in support for the Greens, had not stepped aside in favour of Jacinda Ardern, then my gloomy prediction might very well have come true. Because, as we all know, that Green surge had come at Labour’s expense, driving the party’s poll numbers down towards politically unsustainable levels.
It is, therefore, arguable that the Labour-NZF-Green Government presiding over New Zealand as 2017 draws to a close owes its existence to the moral courage and simple decency of Andrew Little. Certainly, the Labour Party owes him a huge debt of gratitude. He was willing to do – unbidden – what, left to their own devices, his indefatigably self-interested caucus colleagues would never have had the gumption to force upon him.
There’s no disguising the fact, however, that Little’s decision to step down in favour of Ardern was a huge gamble. Neither he, nor his colleagues, nor the news media, were at all sure whether the MP for Mt Albert had what it took to reanimate Labour’s 2017 campaign.
Until, that is, she strode out of the Labour Caucus and into her first media conference – and opened her mouth.
I have participated in, and written about, politics for close to 40 years, but in all that time I can honestly say I have never witnessed anything like Jacinda Ardern’s first media conference as Labour Leader.
When words fail you, the best place to look for someone else’s is often in the works of William Shakespeare. Watching Ardern’s extraordinary political talent blaze forth so unexpectedly, I was reminded of the lines spoken by Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One, where he explains his reasons for keeping his true nature hidden until exactly the right moment:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
No one can dispute that Ardern’s sunny ways dispelled the “foul and ugly mist” in which Labour had been slowly expiring. Beneath the television lights, those “base contagious clouds” which, in the persons of Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little had been smothering Labour’s hopes, were dispelled by the glorious summer of this daughter of Morrinsville. “Jacindamania” was upon us.
And yet, for all her “relentless positivity”, Ardern’s dramatic emergence foreshadowed only negative consequences for the Green Co-Leader, Metiria Turei, and her party. While Little’s grey presence cast a pall over Labour’s campaign prospects, Turei’s reckless challenge to the status quo – “I committed welfare fraud to feed my baby!” – had set progressive hearts a-flutter. Before Jacinda’s blazing sunshine overwhelmed it entirely, Turei’s defiant policy candle had sent out rays of hope into the neoliberal gloom. So transfixed were progressives by the bells and whistles of the passing “Jacinda” juggernaut, however, that only a few took note of the number of radical Green policies left crushed and broken beneath its wheels.
And, it wasn’t only the progressive Left that found itself transfixed by the Jacinda spectacle. For most of the year NZ First had been struggling to come up with a plan to moderate the policies of its most likely coalition partner – the National Party. Suddenly, Labour was back in the game. Was it possible that Jacinda also knew “The Hallelujah Song” of political transformation and economic emancipation? Would she be willing to sing it with him? Peters didn’t know, but for the first time in a long time, it made sense to listen.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to her fairy NZ First godmother, Jacinderella did get to go to the ball. And, much to the fury of the National Party’s ugly sisters, it was onto her foot that Prince Winston slid the glass slipper of power.
So, can we say that, in spite of all those New Year forebodings, 2017 has had a happy ending? New Zealand has a progressive government, of sorts, and its young prime minister has already set about enchanting the world. What’s not to be hopeful about?
Strangely, I keep coming back to that Shakespearian quote: the one about Prince Hal imitating the sun. Because, of course, Prince Hal eventually becomes King Henry V. It is then that, as promised, he emerges from the “base contagious clouds” of his disreputable friends and hangers-on to claim his birthright – the Crown of England.
Aye, and there’s the rub. Power is transformative – it changes all who wield it. Henry V – Prince Hal as was – ruthlessly dismisses his former companions: breaking all former bonds, and forgetting all previous promises. With a kingdom to govern, his need is now for new friends, new advisors, new policies.
What that means, in terms of the true nature of the Labour-NZF-Green Government and its leader is, alas, only now becoming clear. New Zealanders may revel in the warm glow of their Sun Queen, but, having placed her on the throne, they must now content themselves with the role of mere spectators of her royal progress.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 19 December 2017.
Tuesday 19 December 2017
"Feed My Sheep": At some point in just about every Sunday service, Christian congregations recite the Lord’s Prayer. God’s will, they affirm, is to be done “on Earth, as it is in Heaven”. In short, Christianity has always been about much more than mere personal salvation. The gospel of the carpenter from Nazareth has to be applied. Accepting the universal obligation to care for our fellow human-beings has become a lot harder in Neoliberal 2017 than it was in Christian Socialist 1938.
WHEN THE NATIONAL PARTY dismissed the Labour Prime Minister’s social welfare legislation as “applied lunacy”, his response was crushing. Michael Joseph Savage simply informed the House of Representatives that his preferred description of Labour’s Social Security Bill was “applied Christianity”.
In the ears of young, twenty-first century New Zealanders, Savage’s riposte must sound rather quaint. In 2017, New Zealand’s “mainstream” Christian denominations are, with the notable exception of the Catholic Church, advancing towards their respective graves on a collection of wobbly Zimmer Frames. Meanwhile, in those few churches still able to attract a youthful following, the theology being preached elevates faith above works with fundamentalist certitude. To the lost and the disappointed, salvation is presented as the permanent pay-off of their personal surrender to the Almighty. Neither version strikes much of a chord with New Zealand’s millennial generation.
Ah, but 80 years ago, it was a very different story!
Every Sunday the churches were full, and their lofty interiors rang to the sound of heartily sung hymns. Little children went to Sunday School and their older brothers and sisters to Bible Class. People said their prayers and, in the midst of the greatest economic depression the world had so far experienced, pondered the meaning of Matthew 9:24, where Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
And that kingdom was about something much more engaging than “pie in the sky when you die”. At some point in just about every Sunday service, Christian congregations recited the Lord’s Prayer. God’s will, they knew, was to be done “on Earth, as it is in heaven”. In short, Christianity was about more than mere personal salvation. The gospel of the carpenter from Nazareth had to be applied.
Mickey Savage’s sound-bite possessed divinely sharpened teeth!
That he said nothing more about National’s “applied lunacy” quip was because it said so much for itself. It drew the voters’ attention to the desiccated economic rationalism of the laissez-faire capitalism from which the National Party sprang – and to which it was irrevocably dedicated.
Giving the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash to the shiftless and the idle would always be lunacy. Without the goad of poverty to drive them back to the shop door and factory gate, what was to prevent the poor and needy from becoming a vast underclass of worthless spongers permanently subsidised from the public purse? Christian charity (an expression which has always stuck in the throat of the rich and the powerful) should be reserved for the “deserving” poor only. And their eligibility must always be subject to proof.
If this gospel resonates more loudly in the ears of contemporary Kiwis, it’s because it’s the gospel we have heard preached every day for the last 30 years. Indeed, so pervasive has it become that the Labour Party of 2017 would strongly counsel its leader against veering “off-message” and into the political long-grass of religious expression.
A government uneasy about reciting a parliamentary prayer in which God and Jesus still rate a mention is likely to become entirely unhinged by even those most oblique references to camels, needles and (shhh!) rich men.
And yet, as the report released just a few days ago by the Child Poverty Action Group makes agonisingly clear, the need for some “applied Christianity” is as strong today as it was in the 1930s. “Further Fraying of The Welfare Safety Net”, penned by Dr Gerard Cotterell, Associate Professor Susan St John and Dr M. Claire Dale offers a grim picture of what happens when a nation succumbs to the “applied lunacy” of free-market economics.
Mickey Savage, were he able to read the following words from the Report’s conclusion would shake his head in disbelief and wonder where it all went wrong:
“New Zealand’s traditional safety net, once described as “cradle to grave”, is failing to support the many families who need it most. There has been a subtle process over three decades in which New Zealand has lost sight of the original intentions of the welfare state. This has allowed a gradual unravelling to proceed regardless of which major political party has been in power.”
I suspect he would conclude that when the religious obligation to do God’s will “on Earth, as it is in Heaven” fades away to the point where it’s regarded as a quaint relic from the distant past; then the democratic-socialist injunction, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, is likely to follow hard upon its heels.
When caritas – the Christian love of humankind – withers and dies, then the fashioning of public policy on any other grounds than those of naked self-interest becomes politically suicidal.
The behaviour not of a saint, but a lunatic.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 December 2017.
Sunday 17 December 2017
Up Where We Belong? In the end, the promise to be a “transformational” government is a promise to put the need of the many ahead of the greed of the few. Keeping that promise is unlikely to retain the confidence of the business sector, but it just might be enough to win the confidence of that “other half” of the New Zealand people whose votes made this government possible.
THE LABOUR PARTY has never been very tolerant of dissenters. It is, therefore, unsurprising that very few within its ranks have reacted positively to my recent posting on The Daily Blog. No matter how many private reservations Labour supporters may be harbouring about Grant Robertson’s “fiscally responsible” economic policies, they would rather his critics refrained from giving public voice to their concerns.
The case they make for maintaining radio silence on the new government’s performance is that criticism, no matter how well-merited or constructive, will only reinforce the National Oppositions “shambolic” narrative. What Jacinda Ardern and her team need more than anything else at this time, argue their supporters, is a few weeks of relative calm in which to prepare themselves for the challenges of 2018.
Convincing New Zealanders that their new finance minister is not a swivel-eyed economic loon is regarded as crucial to this process of political consolidation. Grant Robertson winning accolades from mainstream journalists for his fiscal and economic responsibility is much more to be desired, at this stage of proceedings, than receiving the hearty endorsement of radical leftists. It’s “baby steps” that Labour needs to take right now – not giant strides.
One critic of my criticism put it like this:
“What you are dealing with in NZ today, is a fairly conservative political climate. The political Left is no longer a strong and coherent force. The electorate is split roughly down the middle between Left and Right. Any government somehow has to bridge the conflicts and disunity to represent the voting population, and it’s going to be centrist. The new government is treading carefully very deliberately, so as not to alienate the business sector or impede market confidence. The new government has to gain confidence and that imperative guides it for now.”
But, if the electorate is “split roughly down the middle”, then describing the Left as no longer “a strong and coherent force” makes no sense. Equally nonsensical is the suggestion that in a society characterised by “conflicts and disunity” the only viable strategy is to embrace the politics of centrism. Governing on behalf of the centre makes sense when, on social and economic issues, there is a broad measure of agreement. While that may have been the case in the 1960s, it is certainly not true of today.
Nor is it true that New Zealanders are living in a “fairly conservative climate”. Mainstream newspaper and magazine editors may like to think that their own conservative views are also those of the majority; and talkback hosts like Leighton Smith will loudly insist that they are; but that half of the population routinely excluded from mainstream political discourse seethes with entirely justifiable resentment and barely suppressed rage.
These New Zealanders are unlikely to be mollified or impressed by the spectacle of a Labour-led government “treading carefully very deliberately so as not to alienate the business sector or impede market confidence.” They have, after all, seen this happen many times before and they know that the moment “their” government makes the maintenance of business confidence its No. 1 priority, then all hope of it ever living up to its promise of “transforming” society flies out the window.
Because, of course, gaining and maintaining the confidence of the business sector involves a great deal more than managing-down Crown debt and building up healthy surpluses. Nothing requires more in the way of constant state intervention and control than a laissez-faire economy. The slightest hint that the plethora of legal constraints required to keep the markets “free” might be thinned-out or, horror of horrors, done away with altogether, is absolutely guaranteed to send the confidence of the business sector into a nosedive.
Just recall the howls of outrage that accompanied Metira Turei’s promise to make a bonfire of the MSD’s hated “sanctions”. New Zealand’s brutal social welfare regime fulfils exactly the same role as Britain’s nineteenth century workhouses: it is a means of ensuring that workers will accept low wages and poor working conditions in preference to enduring the humiliation and material deprivation of life on “the benefit”. Any relaxation of the “rules” governing beneficiaries’ lives would shake the business sector to its core.
Even more destabilising to the business sector would be any serious attempt on the part of a “transformational government” to rebuild the strength and fighting spirit of the trade union movement. Restoring “compulsory unionism”, and lifting the current legal restrictions on the right to strike, would instantly provoke employers into full-scale revolt. They do not need to read the works of Karl Polanyi to know that “the only way politically to temper the destructive influence of organized capital and its ultra-market ideology [is] with highly mobilized, shrewd, and sophisticated worker movements.”
My point is that just about any measure aimed at loosening the controls that keep the “free market” running smoothly will be deemed unacceptable by the business sector. Any attempt to make the lives of working-class people less constrained and fearful; any move to emancipate and empower the inhabitants of the social depths; will be interpreted by those who occupy the commanding heights of our society as a direct thrust at their interests and privileges.
Yes, raising taxes and/or increasing the deficit would be regarded as an unfriendly act, but so, too, would decriminalising marijuana, or emptying the prisons of all those found guilty of victimless crimes, or following the example of Costa Rica and abolishing the armed forces.
In the end, the promise to be a “transformational” government is a promise to put the need of the many ahead of the greed of the few. Keeping that promise is unlikely to retain the confidence of the business sector, but it just might be enough to win the confidence of that “other half” of the New Zealand people whose votes made this government possible.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 December 2017.
Friday 15 December 2017
Same As The Old Boss?Robertson’s fetish for paying down Crown debt and amassing government surpluses will limit this government’s options to doling out some extra cash to beneficiaries and the working poor; increasing public servants’ pay; and making a handful of modest improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.
IT’S OFFICIAL – there is now no prospect of this government living up to its promises of introducing “transformational” change. Thanks to Grant Robertson, the Labour-NZ First-Green Government will, with one exception, be fundamentally indistinguishable from the Clark-Cullen ministry of 1999-2008.
The exception? After its initial “Free Tertiary Education” and “Families Package” spending splurges, the Ardern-Robertson ministry intends to keep new spending at levels well below those of both Clark-Cullen and Key-English. Robertson’s fetish for paying down Crown debt and amassing government surpluses will limit this government’s options to doling out some extra cash to beneficiaries and the working poor; increasing public servants’ pay; and making a handful of modest improvements to the nation’s infrastructure.
Now, don’t get me wrong, all of these things are “nice to have”, but we must be very clear about the sort of economic policy Robertson’s “Mini-Budget” is locking-in. Essentially, what we have is a new government offering to be – at best – a slightly more generous version of the government it replaced. At worst, we may be looking at an initial burst of generosity followed by years of the most flinty-faced parsimony. Very much a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.
Conservative politicians and commentators are forever telling us that problems cannot be solved simply by “throwing money at them”. This simply is not true.
If a business is failing to grow; if it’s employees are being lured away by promises of higher wages; if the technology in use is out-of-date and prone to breaking down: what does the business owner do? If he’s smart, he borrows additional capital and ploughs it into the business. With the additional funds he buys new technology which, in turn, allows him to employ fewer staff at higher wages. The resulting uplift in the business’s productivity generates higher profits, out of which he repays the borrowed capital sum.
Throwing money at problems works a treat. If it didn’t, Capitalism would never have gotten off the ground.
Unfortunately, Robertson does not appear to grasp the critical fact that if New Zealand is to be “transformed” then he, as Finance Minister, is going to have to lay his hands on a very large sum of money. But, not only is Robertson averse to increasing the level of Crown Debt (even though it has never been cheaper for governments to borrow money) but he is also absolutely determined not to use the most important tool which governments – and only governments – possess: the ability to raise “capital” by levying taxes.
Raising taxes is important not only because it would allow the government to accumulate the financial resources necessary to do more than deliver a one-off lift in the incomes of the poorest New Zealanders, but also because a significant increase in the taxes of the wealthiest New Zealanders would begin to undo the transformation that the neoliberal policies of the past 30 years have already accomplished.
The transformation I’m talking about is the transformation which brought an end to the humane and generous social-democratic society for which New Zealand was renowned internationally, and which, in its place, erected the brutally competitive and grossly unequal society the vast majority of New Zealanders are required to live in today. If that society is to be transformed into something more decent and caring, then a substantial redistribution of wealth and power will have to be accomplished.
That could have been the brief of the much-ballyhooed “Tax Working Group”. (On the subject of which I penned a small political fantasy for The Daily Blog back in September.) But, once again, Robertson erred on the side of caution – not transformation. The Tax Working Group, chaired by Robertson’s mentor and political patron, Sir Michael Cullen, has been given a ridiculously narrow brief, whose less-than-transformational outcomes will not come into effect until after the 2020 General Election.
By when, of course, it will be much too late to rescue this government from its all-too-evident parsimony and political gutlessness. Robertson’s tight rein on spending can hardly fail to set the coalition partners at each other’s throats. And as for that “Hallelujah Song” of emancipation and transformation, which Jacinda Ardern somehow convinced Winston Peters of Labour’s willingness to sing. Her ruthless finance minister will, long since, have truncated its stirring verses to a few discordant bars.
There will be some who take umbrage at my uncompromising pessimism. To them I say: “It is only because I have been here before.” I remember another inspirational Labour leader who put an end to nine long years of National Party rule by promising to take New Zealand “up where we belong”, and who then allowed his Finance Minister to wreak havoc on the expectations and aspirations of his party’s electoral base.
David Lange’s was a “transformational government” and no mistake. As transformational in its way as the First Labour Government. Except that, the transformation Labour wrought was not the transformation the people who’d voted for it were expecting.
“Rogernomics” was able to destroy New Zealanders’ humane and generous society because the political resistance to it was too little, and came too late. If the members and supporters of this government similarly fail to act immediately and decisively against the give now/withhold later policies of Finance Minister Robertson, then the best chance New Zealanders have had in 30 years to heal the harms of the neoliberal “revolution” will be lost.
Not that you’ll hear the National Party and their friends complaining. The low debt and large surpluses bequeathed to them by Grant Robertson will be more than enough to fund yet another round of generous tax cuts – for the rich.
The right-wing transformation of New Zealand will continue apace.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 December 2017.
Change Agents? Grant Robertson’s economic orthodoxy bodes ill for the expectations of Labour, NZ First and Green Party followers that Jacinda Ardern will, indeed, preside over the “transformational” change promised in her new government's coalition agreement.
LABOUR’S ECONOMIC ORTHODOXY presents its supporters with an A-Grade conundrum. If all you ever do is all anyone has ever done, then what are the chances that anything will ever change? Something in the Marxist nucleotide of Labour’s DNA continues to carry forward the message that economics and politics are inextricably linked. Stuff up the former and the latter will swiftly follow suit. That being the case, Grant Robertson could be Labour’s worst enemy.
Not that he should feel too badly about that, because Labour finance ministers have a well-established historical reputation for being their party’s worst enemies.
One has only to think of Philp Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain’s first and second Labour governments. While no one could fault the old man’s dedication to Labour’s working-class voters, his utterly conventional economic ideas left him helpless in the face of the Great Depression. In the words of his biographer, Keith Laybourn: “He was raised in an atmosphere which regarded borrowing as an evil and free trade as an essential ingredient of prosperity.”
It was Snowden’s unwavering faith in these nineteenth century liberal orthodoxies that broke his party and discredited his government. The people who paid the price for their Chancellor’s intellectual rigidity were (as is so often the case) his beloved working-class.
Things might have gone the same way here in New Zealand just a few years later had the proposals of Labour’s economically orthodox leaders (Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser and Walter Nash) not been voted down by the more radical members of their party’s caucus.
It was thanks to this latter group that Labour went into the 1935 election with an economic policy calling for the “immediate control by the state of the entire banking system; the provision of currency and credit to ensure adequate production, guaranteed prices and wages; readjustment of all mortgages” – along with a policy of state-fostered industrialisation which, today, would be described as “economic nationalism”.
How very different these policies were from the policies of Roger Douglas, the Labour Finance Minister who championed the same laissez-faire economic policies implemented by Philip Snowden between 1929 and 1931. “Rogernomics” radically transformed New Zealand’s economy and politics – and very nearly destroyed the New Zealand Labour Party!
The two politicians most responsible for rescuing Labour from political oblivion were Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. In a double act of extraordinary sophistication, Clark and Cullen kept hold of the political reins for nine years by cleverly masking both the true extent of their government’s economic success, and the political opportunities it opened-up.
As Finance Minister, Cullen proved a master at making his burgeoning revenue surpluses, which might have funded a much more ambitious social-democratic programme, disappear.
Some of Cullen’s billions were invested in the special superannuation fund that still bears his name. Even more went into Working for Families, the massive employer subsidy which Cullen introduced in preference to allowing the trade unions to extract the money from corporate shareholders. Most of Cullen’s surplus billions, however, were directed towards paying down Crown debt.
The opportunity cost of these fiscal diversions would only become apparent towards the end of the next decade, when New Zealand’s physical and social infrastructure began to, quite simply, fall apart.
That Michael Cullen has for many years been Grant Robertson’s political patron and mentor bodes ill for the expectations of Labour, NZ First and Green Party members that Jacinda Ardern will, indeed, usher in the “transformational” change promised in the new government’s coalition agreement.
Even before he received his ministerial warrant, Robertson was at pains to bind Labour to precisely the same diversionary economic strategies pioneered by Cullen.
A Finance Minister who repeatedly swears allegiance to his own “Budget Responsibility Rules” is unlikely to champion the sort of creative and progressive economics that makes for creative and progressive politics.
Unless, like Savage, Fraser and Nash; Ardern, David Parker and Robertson are reined-in by a Labour caucus determined to fulfil their government’s “transformational” ambitions, then the long-deferred renovation of New Zealand’s disintegrating institutional and physical infrastructure will not receive the resources it requires.
A transformational government cannot be brought into being except by means of transformational economics. For all his faults, Roger Douglas understood this fundamental proposition. Progressive voters need a Finance Minister whose economic policies are as bold as his government’s political promises.
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 December 2017.
Wednesday 13 December 2017
Yanis Varoufakis Would Tell Grant Robertson That Neoliberalism’s Rules Are For Breaking – Not Keeping.
Progressive Economist: YanisVaroufakis is one of neoliberal capitalism’s most outspoken and acute critics. Winston Peters might have declared his determination to give capitalism a human face, but Varoufakis would likely argue that the necessary transplant operation would entail far more effort than it was worth! Hardly surprising given his belief that the leading capitalist nations have been waging an unrelenting war on their poorest citizens for the past forty years.
IMAGINE THE REACTION if Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, announced a broad-ranging, government-sponsored seminar on progressive economics chaired by Yanis Varoufakis. Vilified and demonized by EU bankers and politicians for his heterodox economic ideas, Varoufakis resigned as Greece’s Finance Minister in 2015 rather than impose yet another of the European Central Bank’s crushing economic diktats on his impoverished homeland.
Inviting Varoufakis to chair a seminar on progressive economics would constitute the clearest possible proof that the Labour-NZ First Coalition’s promise to be a “transformational government” was genuine. International and domestic market reaction to such an announcement would, however, be instantaneous and extreme. New Zealand’s government would be portrayed as having taken leave of its senses.
And, in many respects, the markets would be right. Varoufakis is one of neoliberal capitalism’s most outspoken and acute critics. Winston Peters might have declared his determination to give capitalism a human face, but Varoufakis would likely argue that the necessary transplant operation would entail far more effort than it was worth! Hardly surprising given his belief that the leading capitalist nations have been waging an unrelenting war on their poorest citizens for the past forty years.
Writing for the latest newsletter of Project Syndicate, Varoufakis marvels at the “bourgeois rage” directed at the “militant parochialists” responsible for Brexit and Trump:
“The range of analysis is staggering. The rise of militant parochialism on both sides of the Atlantic is being investigated from every angle imaginable: psychoanalytically, culturally, anthropologically, aesthetically, and of course in terms of identity politics. The only angle that is left largely unexplored is the one that holds the key to understanding what is going on: the unceasing class war unleashed upon the poor since the late 1970s.”
As evidence for his class war claim, Varoufakis presents the following stark statistics:
“In 2016, the year of both Brexit and Trump, two pieces of data, dutifully neglected by the shrewdest of establishment analysts, told the story. In the United States, more than half of American families did not qualify, according to Federal Reserve data, to take out a loan that would allow them to buy the cheapest car for sale (the Nissan Versa sedan, priced at $US12,825). Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, over 40% of families relied on either credit or food banks to feed themselves and cover basic needs.”
Unleashing Varoufakis on the equivalent New Zealand data would doubtless produce a series of equally startling conclusions. Which is why Grant Robertson, himself, would, almost certainly, resign rather than invite someone like Varoufakis to draw the obvious policy conclusions from the last 30 years of class war in New Zealand – especially since many of that war’s most destructive campaigns were conducted under the generalship of Labour Party politicians!
Robertson’s pitch to New Zealand’s capitalist class is very different from Varoufakis’s unabashed “economic humanism”. Only this morning, (11/12/17) speaking to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, Robertson declared:
“For us to keep being able to afford the policies necessary to achieve higher living standards we must remain fiscally responsible. It goes without saying that a Government that presides over high deficits, increasing debt, or a shrinking economy could not provide the quality public services that New Zealanders want and deserve. That is why we have developed and committed to our Budget Responsibility Rules.”
Which is precisely the sort of language that Varoufakis encountered when he travelled to Brussels on his doomed missions to secure a more rational approach to managing the consequences of Greece’s crippling indebtedness. That Robertson shows every sign of being as committed to following “the rules” as the European Central Bank’s pitiless bailiffs, strongly suggests that, even if he could, somehow, be prevailed upon to organise a seminar on progressive economics, and invite Varoufakis to chair it, the maverick Greek economist would feel obliged to decline.
The former Greek Finance Minister’s own experience tells him that “the rules” formulated by the world’s economic and political elites; “the rules” bankers and politicians consider themselves bound in solemn duty to uphold and enforce at all costs; are, in reality, no more than “the rules of engagement” in neoliberal capitalism’s “unceasing class war” against the poor. If Varoufakis was ever to accept an invitation to chair a government-sponsored seminar on progressive economics, it would only be because he had already been convinced, by their actions, that the politicians asking him to elaborate a more “transformational” political economy were rule-breakers – not rule-keepers.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 December 2017.
Tuesday 12 December 2017
Magnificent Loser: Boudica may have raised the Ancient British tribes against their Roman rulers, but she proved to be no match for the discipline and experience of Suetonius's XIV Legion. If Jacinda Ardern is to successfully overthrow the Neoliberal political and economic consensus and establish a genuinely "transformational" government, then she will have to weld her disputatious political tribes into a fighting machine every bit as formidable as Bill English's disciplined and experienced National Opposition.
ANYONE WHO VISITS the British Houses of Parliament cannot fail to notice her. Upright in her war-chariot, the Ancient Britons’ warrior queen, Boadicea, and her daughters, burst out of history like a trio of avenging angels. The bronze statuary does not, however, celebrate a victory. In the bloody revolt against Roman rule of 60AD, Boadicea (or Boudica, as she is properly called) was the loser. It was Suetonius, commander of Rome’s XIV Legion, who won.
Jacinda Ardern’s sudden emergence as New Zealand’s warrior queen, though nowhere near as bloody as Boudica’s, certainly bears comparison in terms of its sheer drama. Like Boudica, Jacinda was able to draw together all the political tribes determined to end the incumbent government’s rule. Also like Boudica, she has enjoyed considerable initial success.
What lies ahead of Jacinda, however, is an enemy who, though outmanoeuvred, has yet to be decisively defeated. Like Suetonius’s XIV legion, the National Party is well-equipped, highly-experienced, and, most importantly, formidably-disciplined. Jacinda’s ragged tribes may outnumber them – but can they outfight them?
The Colmar-Brunton opinion poll, released by TVNZ’s Q+A show on Sunday, brings that latter question into sharp focus. National’s level of support, measured at 46 percent, has not only held up, it has actually improved slightly over the 44.4 percent it won at the General Election.
For the governing parties, the news is not so good. When translated into seats in the House, the Government’s numbers (Labour: 39 percent; Greens: 7 percent; NZ First: 5 percent) deliver no advance on its current tally of sixty-three. If Jacinda was anticipating a “post-election bounce” in the polls, then she and her colleagues will find it hard to avoid feeling ever-so-slightly jumpy.
It’s not only the fact that National continues to enjoy a substantial lead over Labour that must be vexing the Government, but also the sheer size of its opponent’s electoral base. Unlike the Centre-Left, the Centre-Right in New Zealand is not required to continually marshal political parties as diverse as they are disputatious. Instead, they can range themselves against the Left’s warrior queen as a formidable unitary force commanded by a single leader. If Jacinda is Boudica, then Bill English is Suetonius. And if the Government represents the fractious war-horde of the revolting British tribes, then the National Opposition represents the XIV Legion.
Historical metaphors aside, the disposition of political forces revealed in the latest Colmar-Brunton Poll reflects a dangerously divided society. National’s voters clearly remain unconvinced by the new government’s arguments for change. Certainly, this poll has registered nothing like the decisive 10 percentage-point shift in voter allegiance that followed the election of Helen Clark in 1999, and John Key in 2008. Branded by its enemies as a “coalition of the losers”, the Labour-NZ First-Green Government is beset by legitimacy issues entirely absent from previous MMP configurations.
These legitimacy issues are unlikely to be ameliorated by the Government’s apparent determination to keep its spending within the narrow bounds of its “Budget Responsibility Rules”.
The strategic thinking behind this self-imposed restraint is unclear – to say the least! For parties and candidates pitching themselves against the status-quo, boosting electoral turnout is everything. Donald Trump and the Brexiteers did not win by offering their angry constituencies careful and measured policies! For Labour’s share of the popular vote to overtake National’s, its leaders need to roll-out policies of sufficient boldness to mobilise the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders who have, hitherto, seen little or no point in voting. Proud reiterations of your government’s “fiscal and economic responsibility” will likely strike many of these potential voters as a pretty odd way to bid for their support. Very much a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
National’s strategy, by contrast, is clear and simple: take confidence in our strength; remain united and disciplined; and seize every opportunity to inflict maximum damage upon the Government. The Centre-Right seldom requires special policy carrots to lure its voters to the polling-booths. Conservatives know who their friends are.
When Suetonius set the XIV Legion across Watling Street and waited for Boudica to come at him, he was supremely confident that, providing his men remembered their training and followed their orders, the Britons would be unable to translate their numerical advantage into victory. On the contrary, he anticipated that the massive casualties inflicted by his legionaries would soon break the British tribesmen’s fighting spirit and send them into headlong retreat.
If Bill English and his National Opposition are similarly able to hold the line, and drive back every government advance, then he, too, will be rewarded with a loss of confidence in his enemies’ ranks. Moreover, if he takes advantage of Labour’s ridiculous determination to limit the Coalition Government’s room for fiscal and economic manoeuvre, then Bill English, like Suetonius, will bring down his warrior queen.
This essay was originally published in The Press and The Dominion Post of Tuesday, 12 December 2017.
Saturday 9 December 2017
Ominous Warnings: The Briefings to Incoming Ministers, released this week, paint a bleak picture of the previous government's consistent under-funding of public services.The veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, puts it like this: “What the Government is confronting is two separate pressures on its spending – one deferred spending from the austerity imposed by the last Government as a response to the GFC in 2008 and a new force in the form of a rapidly growing, ethnically diverse population.”
THE BRIEFINGS TO INCOMING MINISTERS (BIMs) have laid bare the accumulated failures of nine years of National Party Government. In sector after sector senior civil servants paint a grim picture of incompetence and neglect. The clear message which emerges from this sorry record is that New Zealand has been the victim of a nine-year austerity programme that nobody – other than the poor – seems to have noticed. Taken together, the BIMs offer stark proof of just how deep the class divisions in this country now run.
The veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, puts it like this: “What the Government is confronting is two separate pressures on its spending – one deferred spending from the austerity imposed by the last Government as a response to the GFC in 2008 and a new force in the form of a rapidly growing, ethnically diverse population.”
One of the reasons the three parties making up the present government were able to secure the votes necessary to win power was because the National-led Government was no longer able to confine the effects of its austerity programme to the poorest – and brownest – working-class communities. The effects of prolonged underfunding were beginning to be felt in New Zealand’s leafy suburbs as well as in its meanest streets. More and more people shared in the common agreement that something must be done.
An understanding that a great deal more money would have to be raised and spent, should have been at the heart of that agreement – and Labour should have been the party that put it there, imbuing it with the moral and intellectual force required to overcome the Right’s inevitable resistance. This had been the strategy of the Labour Party in the early 1930s, and it succeeded brilliantly. Labour took power in 1935 with a comprehensive and progressive manifesto, backed by the irresistible weight of an informed and impatient public.
Sadly, this was not the case in 2017.
Rather than build a broad consensus around the need for a substantial increase in public expenditure, funded by an equally large increase in taxation, Labour set out to convince voters of the exact opposite. No increase in personal income tax contributions were necessary, they were told, not even from the very wealthy. Corporate taxation, similarly, would not need to rise. The rate of the Goods and Services Tax could remain fixed at 15 percent. There would be no Capital Gains Tax, Land Tax or Inheritance Tax. Labour was at pains to let people know that it intended to cleave faithfully to the broad fiscal and economic settings bequeathed to it by the outgoing National Government. Gusts of rhetorical stardust notwithstanding, the new Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, was determined to run a tight fiscal ship.
In essence, Robertson’s strategy was the same as Steven Joyce’s, his predecessor: keep the middle-classes happy. National had done it with rock-bottom interest-rates, and by allowing the value of their personal assets to soar. Labour hoped to keep them happy with promises of free tertiary education and affordable homes for their kids; decent pay raises for teachers, nurses, hospital doctors and civil servants; and the gradual upgrading of New Zealand’s ailing infrastructure as and when finances permitted. For the working-class and beneficiaries there would be lots of smiles and hugs – and bugger-all else.
But, as Harman puts it on Politik: “There is a subtle but strong message running through the Briefings to Incoming Ministers […] which comes near to putting a price that the Government is going to have to pay to implement its promises.”
Unsurprisingly, given the neoliberal predilections of senior Treasury officials, the price envisaged is a capitulation to the idea of opening-up the renovation of New Zealand’s public services and infrastructure to private investors. Robertson’s principal advisers are steering him, very quietly, in the direction of Public-Private-Partnerships. In this they will be greatly assisted by Robertson’s personal aversion to unorthodox economic ideas, and by his determination to stay within the bounds of his “Budget Responsibility Rules”.
No matter that New Zealand is short 75,000 houses, or that 700,000 Kiwis cannot be sure of the purity of their drinking water. Too bad that there aren’t enough beds for the mentally ill, and that the prisons are full-to-overflowing. Unfortunate that our courts are so under-resourced that justice is being denied by trial delays of up to 18 months. Labour will continue to resist the rising clamour for increased spending via the tax rises essential to the maintenance of a civilised society.
The grim picture painted in the BIMs is the consequence of National’s class-driven programme of austerity. Labour’s seeming helplessness in the face of the multiple crises they reveal, is the direct consequence of its refusal to accept that the wounds of austerity can only be healed by applying the sovereign remedy of substantial increases in state spending – facilitated by a radical expansion of the tax base.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Saturday, 9 December 2017.
Friday 8 December 2017
There Can be Only One: No matter how eloquently the partisans of a Jewish homeland reassured their Arab neighbours that they had nothing to fear from a future State of Israel, the brute logic of Zionism argued against the longevity of any such attempt at cultural and religious cohabitation. Sooner or later, the sheer impossibility of the two communities, Jewish and Arab, rubbing along together in peaceful coexistence would become apparent. And when that happened, one of those communities would have to go.
“APOCALYPSE IN THE VALLEY OF ARMAGEDDON”. The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, certainly displays a gift for evocative language! On the subject of President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, however, I believe Martyn’s evocation of the apocalypse is premature. Trump’s decision is less a sign that Armageddon is imminent, and more a signal that the Zionists’ end-game is about to begin.
By announcing the United States recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump has sent two very important messages to the extreme Zionist elements in Israeli society. The first message is brutally simple: the so-called “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead. The second, to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, is that, as the political logic of the two-state solution’s demise is followed to its inevitable and brutal conclusion, the United States has got Israel’s back. Not just at the UN Security Council, but everywhere Israel needs American support.
The political logic of the two-state solution’s demise is inextricably bound up with the relentless colonisation of the West Bank by extreme Zionist “settlers”. Essentially, the so-called “settlements” were planted on the West Bank in order to render the formation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. The larger those settlements grow, the tighter the hands of Israeli politicians are bound. The political cost of dismantling the settlements has risen so high that no sensible Israeli any longer believes that a Palestinian state is achievable.
This leaves the Israeli authorities with two options. They can either continue to act as an army of occupation on the West Bank of the Jordan River: controlling every aspect of the Palestinian people’s lives, while Zionist settlements metastasise into every corner of Palestine’s shrinking body. Or, they could simply transform the West Bank into a Palestinian-Free Zone.
This latter option has lain dormant in Zionism from its very inception. No matter how eloquently the partisans of a Jewish homeland reassured their Arab neighbours that they had nothing to fear from a future State of Israel, the brute logic of Zionism argued against the longevity of any such attempt at cultural and religious cohabitation. Sooner or later, the sheer impossibility of the two communities, Jewish and Arab, rubbing along together in peaceful coexistence would become apparent. And when that happened, one of those communities would have to go.
Ethnically cleansing the West Bank would, of course, be a gross violation of international law. It would constitute a crime against humanity on a scale not seen since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide and, more recently, the expulsion of the Rohingya people from Myanmar.
Protected by Donald Trump and the American veto in the UN Security Council, however, Israel is unlikely to much care what the world thinks or does. When all is said and done, isn’t its fifty-year occupation of the West Bank a blatant contravention of international law? And, haven’t Israel’s repeated incursions into Lebanon, and its brutal bombing of the civilian population of Gaza, occasioned many crimes against humanity?
If a decision to expel the Palestinians from the West Bank is taken by the Israeli authorities, it would undoubtedly provoke fury in the Arab world. So great is Israel’s military power, however, that launching any kind of meaningful retaliation against such forced expulsions would risk a potentially devastating Israeli counter-strike.
Some of the most extreme Zionists might even welcome an Arab attack. What better justification for levelling the Al-Aqsa Mosque and laying the foundation-stone for the Third Temple?
Certainly, the rebuilding of “Solomon’s Temple” and the expansion of the State of Israel to the full extent of its biblical boundaries would be welcomed by the tens-of-thousands of so-called “Christian-Zionists” (and fervent Trump supporters) living in the United States. In their eyes, such developments would constitute proof-positive that the “End Times” had well and truly begun.
“Apocalypse in the Valley of Armageddon” would only be the beginning.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 8 December 2017
Avuncular Intervention: Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones, tells TVNZ's Q+A programme that he is determined to introduce measures which will ensure that his "ne'er-do-well nephews" get "off the couch" and into work. Historically, breaking the vicious circles of unemployment has required the state to become the employer of last resort.
YOU’VE GOT TO hand it to Shane Jones – he sure knows how to seize control of the political agenda! Ever since his provocative performance on last Sunday’s Q+A, his name has seldom been out of the headlines. More impressive still, his ideas are being debated everywhere.
Sparking a genuine national conversation on anything other than sport and celebrity sex isn’t an easy thing to do. Generally speaking, it’s evidence of somebody, somewhere, striking a nerve. In Jones’ case, the phrase that caused so many Kiwis’ knees to jerk was the one prompted by his determination to get his ne’er do well nephews “off the couch” and into work.
In many ways, Jones’ arguments for unemployed youngsters to be forced into the world of work are classic Labour. Traditional working-class New Zealanders have little patience with slackers and bludgers. Decent men and women measure their worth by the hours they put in. Neither are they fussy about the jobs they put their energies into. The main thing is to be busy; to contribute; and be seen to be doing everything possible to stand on their own feet and pay their own way.
The problem (if problem is the right word) with this “can-do” attitude, is that it’s, almost always, a reflection of the “virtuous circles” in which its exemplars have been raised. Families in which the virtues of hard work, and the need to “better oneself”, have been drummed into children from birth tend, strangely enough, to produce hard workers who better themselves. Success is thus rendered intergenerational: fixing the family’s upward social trajectory; and ultimately carrying them out of their class altogether. No matter how high such families may rise, however, the values that drove their success, providing they continue to be inculcated, prevent them from falling.
But, what about the much less fortunate inhabitants of “vicious circles”? Families broken by massive economic dislocation and enforced idleness. Families in which hope curdles and faith in the future withers. Households where all sense of self-worth is undermined by repeated knock-backs and rejections; where, even when work is secured, it is precarious, wretchedly-paid, and subject to conditions that only further erase any semblance of personal dignity. In these circumstances, the wonder is not that such vicissitudes precipitate addiction, desertion, violence and abuse; but that so many men and women struggle to resist the vicious downward spiral into indifference and despair.
The puzzle which Shane Jones has set himself, and (through sheer chutzpah!) the coalition government, to solve is: how to rescue those trapped in these vicious circles; and how to then install them in virtuous circumstances of sufficient permanence for that virtue to become self-sustaining?
Significantly, Jones is reaching back into New Zealand history for answers. Because, of course, this country has broken vicious circles before. To secure a decent life for the social casualties of economic depression and world war, the First Labour Government expanded dramatically the employment opportunities offered by the state. Tens-of-thousands of workers who might otherwise have subsisted from odd-job to odd-job, found permanent employment, with union-negotiated wage-rates and conditions, in the state-owned railways, postal and telegraphic services, and infrastructure projects. They may not have been the world’s most productive workers, but these state-provided jobs allowed them to establish homes and families, and to raise children untroubled by the viciousness of the downward spiral.
That Jones is experiencing resistance from his former Labour colleagues is one of history’s little ironies. Or, maybe not. Because it was the Fourth Labour Government who made such an issue out of the alleged “inefficiency” of New Zealand’s “feather-bedded” government departments. The much-vaunted process of “corporatisation”, out of which emerged the significantly-titled “State Owned Enterprises”, saw thousands of workers lose not only their jobs, but the economic and social security that came with them. Virtuous circles of fifty years duration were broken, and the vicious circles, which have become such a feature of the free-market era, began sucking thousands of New Zealanders into their whirlpools of dysfunction.
Shane Jones, and his boss, Winston Peters, both know that short bursts of employment, even for the minimum wage, cannot cure the effects of structural unemployment. They’re aware that the vicious circles of dysfunction can only be broken by the state-subsidisation of permanent employment.
And that will require the Labour-led Government to “get off the couch”.
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 December 2017.