Class Warrior: Like his predecessors in the Social Credit Political League, the NZ First leader is acutely aware that the small rural towns and provincial cities of New Zealand are hotbeds of class conflict. Not simply the classic Marxist conflict of capitalist versus proletarian, but also the no less bitter conflict between large and small businesses. Indeed, it is possible to characterise life in provincial New Zealand as a constant struggle of the particular against the general: of individual agency against institutional power.
WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that the most accomplished class warrior to emerge from the struggle to improve New Zealand’s labour laws would be Winston Peters? No one else with a dog in this fight saw the class issues at stake as clearly as Winston Peters and NZ First. Not the employers; not the unions; and certainly not the Labour, National or Green parties. Peters and his colleagues can walk away from this debate as the undisputed champions of small provincial business. The electoral consequences of NZ First’s decisive intervention should not be underestimated.
There is a strong temptation on the part of left-wing activists in the major metropolitan centres to write off the people of the provinces as a bunch of undifferentiated reactionaries. To your average Labour or Green activist, provincials are racist, sexist and homophobic “rednecks”. The sort of people who still see nothing wrong with sending a float filled with people in blackface down the main street of their little town. Hopeless and irredeemable, these voters are not worth wooing – unless you’re Stuart Nash. (And the less said about Stuart Nash the better!)
Winston Peters knows better. Like his predecessors in the Social Credit Political League, the NZ First leader is acutely aware that the small rural towns and provincial cities of New Zealand are hotbeds of class conflict. Not simply the classic Marxist conflict of capitalist versus proletarian, but also the no less bitter conflict between large and small businesses. Indeed, it is possible to characterise life in provincial New Zealand as a constant struggle of the particular against the general: of individual agency against institutional power.
People living in large cities have a bad habit of romanticising small towns. They like to think that in a place where everybody knows their neighbours life must be wonderful. The reality is almost the exact opposite. In a small community the social hierarchy is much more sharply exposed. Yes, everybody knows their neighbours – but they also know exactly where they sit in the social pecking-order. Fun, one imagines, if you are positioned at or near the top. Wretched, if you are located near the bottom.
The local lawyers and accountants, for example, are perfectly placed to know exactly how well, or how badly, their neighbour’s are doing. The town’s doctors and teachers are similarly well-positioned. If knowledge is power, then these provincial professionals have a lot to play with.
The senior managers of nationwide chains, salarymen who will not lose their houses if their executive decisions turn out badly, may look down their noses at the senior bureaucrats employed by local and central government but, in truth, their day-to-day jobs are distinguished by the same petty protocols; the same demands from above. Well remunerated, but subjected to unceasing “performance reviews”, many opt to take out their frustrations on those further down the totem pole.
Not that the owners of the town’s small businesses would include themselves among the pen-pushers’ inferiors. In their own eyes – and often in the eyes of their employees – they are town’s true heroes.
Independent of spirit, willing to have a crack, contemptuous of those whose only purpose in this world appears to be making the lives of people like themselves as difficult as possible, it is difficult not to admire these small businesspeople.
It is no mean feat to keep a business afloat in the provinces. Notoriously under-capitalised, they all-too-often keep their operations afloat by paying themselves less than their workers. They are no friend of the trade unions with their one-rule-fits-all approach, but neither are they friends of the banks who bleed them dry or the big firms who expect them to submit ridiculously low bids for the jobs they then take their own sweet time paying for.
But without these small business people the towns and cities of provincial New Zealand would die. Their absence is frighteningly easy to spot. Main streets are dead: their shopfronts boarded-up and the real estate agent’s “To Let” signs fading in the sun. The young people those shuttered businesses might have employed have either fled or broken bad. The only signs of life are around the local office of the MSD.
These are the towns NZ First is pledged to restore to economic health. Winston Peters and Shane Jones want those kids in jobs, earning money, dreaming of one day becoming their own boss – just like the man or the woman who took them on under the 90-day rule, to see whether they had what it took, and then employed them permanently when they proved themselves hard-working and trustworthy. The unions can knock on the boss’s door as often as they like – they will find few, if any, takers here.
Of course there are exceptions – but in small-town New Zealand it is more common to find the small employers and their workers united in solidarity against the people who live on the hill. It’s one thing to be paid by the taxpayers; to grow fat on the fees you charge; or draw the salary only a big corporation can afford to pay. It’s quite another to keep the town’s cars and trucks filled up and roadworthy; or to fill the bellies of its inhabitants with decent tucker. All those engaged in small businesses: both their owners and the people who work for them; have taken a bet on themselves. Very often that bet is lost. Fair enough. Making a small business pay has never been easy. All the players ask is that the game stays honest: that the deck isn’t stacked against them.
That is the pledge NZ First made to them – and that is the pledge it has kept. Wages are not always paid in cash. Sometimes they are paid in dreams. By honouring that currency, Winston Peters and NZ First have made the heroes of small-town New Zealand their own.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 November 2018.
Provincial, small-town businesses that I deal with, hate Peter's guts for having foisted Green-Labour on to them, with their endless added weight of regulations and pettifogging rules, not to mention the growing threat of increased taxes, and the numerous threats made against the farming businesses so many of these towns rely on.
Many are the grim jokes in these places about "good looking horses", followed by the comment that they'd love to have friends in politics like that too. The deck is stacked against them, and they now see Winston as the stacker supreme.
These are the towns NZ First is pledged to restore to economic health.
With a billion dollar slush fund? Everybody knows it's to try and buy Shane a provincial seat, most likely in the North, to try and keep Winston First alive after the Great Leader departs. But what people want in order to be restored to economic health is not a giant form of small-business welfare, but for government to take it's increasingly heavy foot of their throats and that of their customers.
And nobody outside of rest homes is being fooled by this guy.
Still, if National act as spinelessly with Winston as they did in 2017 - refusing to boldy stand up and say they won't go into coalition with him and that a vote for Winston is a vote for Green-Labour, allowing him to slither along that fence rail and allowing his right-wing supporters to stupidly believe he might choose National in 2020 - then he still has a shot at 5%+.
I'm only halfway through this and say - 'It is good'. Needs to be said. I am noticing all the things I know. The problems there are have getting things going, making limited change even, are rooted in the littleness of small town culture.
One minor leading citizen once commented disparagingly about a dissenter in the local paper, "He is a person with no standing in the community." The self-satisfaction from people who have raised their profile, bolsters them if their particular grandiose approach creates a division between them and the wider society. Things and people become entrenched with little interest in the real needs of the townspeople; it's hard to get traction.
I grew up in a small town. Wouldn't recommend it. And to be honest, I think you're in danger of romanticising small businessmen. I worked for a couple. They exploited the buggery out of their workers and regarded them as as dispensable as any executive or HR person from a large company regards their "human resources". Christ, they even exploited their relatives. I was let go once because the small businessmen had been asked to give one of his relatives a job because the guy had had a nervous breakdown. He worked for nothing. And he damn well knew he was being exploited nervous breakdown or not. Didn't help me much though.
The other one couldn't seem to get workers to stay. I worked there for a week and found out why. I shovelled dry chicken shit and sawdust for 12 or 13 hours a day without so much as a nose covering. For nine – can't remember if it was pounds or dollars a week. Shifted to a factory where I shovelled copper oxide for eight hours a day plus overtime, and at least got something to put over my mouth and nose – and twice the money. Not sure which was more dangerous to my health, shit or copper. :)
Very perceptive analysis of provincial towns, rural districts and the smaller cities. Life is as you describe.
Many of my relatives are just the people you describe, both as employees and as business owners. And they do have the attitudes you describe about managers in larger corporations, the higher end of bureaucrats, and the those with money, often inherited. But as with many New Zealand families, they have relatives in those self same categories. Relatives are accepted, but the institutions they are employed by, not so much.
As for their attitudes to Winston and NZF, well that is very mixed. At one level they admire him, at another they don't trust him. Similarly with Labour. Many like Jacinda, especially now that she is the epitome of modern families, but the "political correctness" and elite urban condescension, they are contemptuous. Not many Green Party supporters, but the green/environmental message is getting through, unless they are big car (V8) nuts!
With National. Well, mostly they are instinctively supportive, but by no means all. They want their local MP (almost all National) not be some stuck up so and so, but clearly representative of similar social background as themselves, even if they have done well educationally or financially. They want to give Simon his chance, in part because he does come from a similar background, no silver spoon in him. The mangled accent being the clearest possible indication of that.
I have retired from being a provincial town chartered accountant. Chris' comment about the local lawyers and accountants knowing so well about how the locals are doing; absolutely spot on. Incisive comment that is, sadly, absent from our daily newspapers. But one of my drinking mates has a staff of 45, so is ineligible for the 90 day employment law; it is limited to those with less than 20 employees. He is angry. He said the 90 day employment law enabled him to uncover gems in society; gems that he would never ever have found if he could not take them on trial.
Interesting; maybe his ineligibility for the 90 day rule might make him less of a prejudiced employer, because he has now found that there are great workers out there that previously he would have avoided.
In a provincial town one must join the local outfits; golf, rugby, tennis clubs and other organisations. That is where one learns of the scumbags who exploit, mercilessly, the unfortunates like Guerrilla Surgeon. Then you learn to keep away from that sort and counsel those poor people who have not. Curiously, that sort of person that exploited Guerrilla Surgeon; I will wager he was a deputy chairman of the local National Party branch, rather than a closet supporter of NZ First.
“Yellow vest” demonstrations began with disgruntlement over fuel taxes and have since spiraled into something far more nebulous and powerful, a rising groundswell of economic and class anxiety that the government is hard-pressed to placate.
We have an hourglass economy. Real-wages are falling in tourism and hospitality. People inflows mean rents are rising.
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