Thursday 27 June 2019

That Seventies Show.

Compare And Contrast: One of the reasons so many powerful forces combined to oust the Third Labour Government was its obvious determination to move beyond progressive rhetoric and embrace progressive action. When assessing the behaviour of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her team, it so often appears that they believe progressive rhetoric and progressive action to be one and the same. That to say it, is to do it. If only politics were that simple!

JACINDA ARDERN HAILS her government as the most committed to delivering progressive change since the mid-1970s. In other words, since the Third Labour Government of Norman Kirk and Bill Rowling (1972-1975). Before assessing whether or not the Prime Minister’s claim is true, it is worth considering what on earth possessed her to make it. What would make the leader of this Labour caucus – so very different from the caucus Norman Kirk presided over in the heady days following the 1972 election – so eager to assert her government’s close kinship with the Labour Party of the early 1970s?

Part of the answer must surely lie in the deep political impression which the Third Labour Government left upon those who were there at the time. Among left-leaning Baby Boomers, in particular, Norman Kirk and his government still elicit strong emotions. After twelve long years of National Party rule, its palpable political energy jolted the country awake in a way that was entirely new to a generation which had almost given up on the idea that conventional politics could usher-in genuine change.

It makes sense for Labour’s campaign strategists to associate Ardern with Kirk. The Baby Boomers are conscientious voters. If they can be persuaded to see Jacinda as the re-incarnation of “Big Norm”, then those who remember the tragic fate of his government will want to do everything they can to ensure that hers does not share it. Kirk died in office, and Labour was thrown out after a single three-year term. Over the years, many members of the Baby Boom generation have asked themselves: How might New Zealand have fared if Kirk had lived and Labour had won a second term? Encouraging these voters to hope that, somehow, re-electing Jacinda will show them, isn’t a completely stupid idea.

The other, slightly scarier, explanation is that Jacinda and those around her actually believe they are presiding over a government every bit as progressive as Kirk’s and Rowling’s. With so few of her key advisers and most trusted colleagues being old enough to have experienced the Kirk years (such people would need to have been born around, or before, 1955, making them 60+) it will be difficult for them to grasp just how radical was the political disjuncture between the New Zealand that existed before 1972, and the New Zealand that came after.

One of the reasons so many powerful forces combined to oust the Third Labour Government was its obvious determination to move beyond progressive rhetoric and embrace progressive action. When assessing the behaviour of Jacinda and her team, it so often appears that they believe progressive rhetoric and progressive action to be one and the same. That to say it, is to do it. If only politics were that simple!

If Jacinda’s coalition government really was the progressive equal of Kirk’s, then it would have behaved very differently in the 100 days following its formation. Kirk, like his counterpart across the Tasman, Gough Whitlam, wasted no time in announcing a complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; abolishing compulsory military training; and recognising the People’s Republic of China. These were all commitments he had made while in opposition, and he lost no time fulfilling them in government. The equivalent moves by Jacinda would have been to withdraw New Zealand from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; order an immediate halt to all oil and gas exploration; and repatriate immediately all New Zealand military personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jacinda’s supporters will, of course, object that two out of three ain’t bad. Except, her government’s oil and gas announcement is a post-dated cheque, not a decision with immediate effect. Similarly, with Iraq and Afghanistan. In deference to our “very, very, very good friends” New Zealand’s withdrawal has been staggered over three years. The less said about the TPPA (sorry, the CPTPPA!) the better.

And this, of course, is the fundamental difference between the Kirk/Rowling Government and Jacinda’s. Such decisions as the PM and her colleagues have made all tend toward the tentative, small steps of the preternaturally cautious. Entirely lacking is the bold, unequivocal gestures that distinguished the Third Labour Government. Kirk’s decision to send a frigate to the French nuclear testing ground at Mururoa. His cancellation of the 1973 Springbok Tour. Labour’s bold steps in public broadcasting. It’s economy-transforming superannuation scheme. Bill Rowling’s green-lighting of Matt Rata’s revolutionary Waitangi Tribunal. Kirk’s Government didn’t have to call itself “transformational” – it simply got on with the job of transforming New Zealand.

Perhaps the greatest contrast between these two governments, however, lies in the field of housing. The Third Labour Government’s record here is outstanding. In just three years many thousands of houses were constructed and/or financed by the state. The housing shortage, which loomed as the 70s began, was answered by Kirk and his ministers as emphatically as Michael Joseph Savage and John A. Lee responded to the housing crisis of the 1930s. Kirk’s Government built houses for Kiwis. Jacinda’s has given them KiwiBuild – which is not quite the same thing.

In one respect, however, Jacinda’s government is comparable to Kirk's. Not in the policy sense, but in terms of its heterogenous political composition. The Labour Party of the 1970s was a very broad church, encompassing everyone from rabid anti-communists, to American-style liberals, to avowed socialists. Jacinda’s coalition encompasses a very similar political assortment. From the social conservatives and economic radicals in NZ First, to the social liberals in Labour and the Greens. (Direct descendants of the ground-breaking Values Party, also an artefact of 1972.)

And yet, even here, the comparison falters. Norman Kirk bestrode his party like a colossus. He kept a copy of Labour’s manifesto at his elbow in Cabinet meetings – and woe betide the minister who attempted to deviate from it. Jacinda does not command her government in anything like the same way. What she does is front it. Spectacularly well, it must be said, but only in the way that a ‘method’ actor is spectacularly good. She has the same instinct for the camera; the same ability to deliver her lines with gut-wrenching conviction.

“Big Norm” wrote his own.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 27 June 2019. 


Barrie Saunders said...

Kirk was rather similar to Australia’s Gough Whitlam. Good on lots of stuff but not the economy. Jacinda is much more pragmatic.

Anonymous said...

Chris, completely off topic but, in most paragraphs you address Ardern with her given name, the male PM's of earlier Labour governments with their surnames. Either you are being condescending or you are unconsciously wanting us to be at one with her, her politics and government by feeling that we have a closer relationship by use of the familiar name.......

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Another difference between this government and Kirk's is that in this broad church there are few if any who don't accept some form of neoliberal economics. Given that people in the States are becoming more – as they call it liberal – and given Kiwi Dave's "new left" it looks like New Zealand is as usual a few years behind the play.

Anonymous said...

I'd point out that Jacinda said it was the most progressive government SINCE the Kirk-Rowling years.

That means comparing this Government with the 1975-2017 lot. It is unquestionably more progressive than Muldoon, Bolger, or Key. That leaves the Fourth and Fifth Labour Governments - Lange and Clark. It's those you have to evaluate Jacinda against, not Kirk.

David Stone said...

@ Anonymous 12 51
Boris Johnson is "Boris" (or Bozo) but Donald Trump is "Trump"; Robert Muldoon was Piggy, Helen Clark was Helen Clark.
It's something to do with which name is a clear identification that becomes a norm and it's all over the place. But Jacinda is unusual enough to not be confused with anyone else as is Boris. Just think about how other politicians are referred to . It's random, but one nemonica always gets to be understood.

Kat said...

At last the Ruminations of an Old New Zealander gets to acknowledge the similarities between Norm Kirks govt and Jacinda Arderns. Well, I shall tell you this Chris Trotter, Norm is smiling on Jacinda and you bloody well know it. A young women competing in the mosh pit of politics today she has the equivalent credentials as Norm had back in 72. Jacinda is no bricklayer but she knows a good foundation when she see's one. This country has not been in better hands since 1975.

Unknown said...

Your right "Anonymous". Completely off topic!

Fred Retter

Nick J said...

Seems to me Jacinda has become a "brand".

Geoff Fischer said...

It may be that women prefer to be called by their first or given (or sometimes taken) names while men are often more comfortable with their second/family/surname and society in its conventional discourse respects that difference.
It would be interesting to know how many popular singers, for example, choose to be known principally by their first name and how many by their family name, and then to see whether there is a gender distinction at work there. I suspect there might be.
In any case I don't think that Chris is being either condescending or partisan towards Jacinda Ardern. As in most things, he displays a curious ambivalence towards the current Prime Minister.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Your right "Anonymous". Completely off topic!"
No, Fair point.

John Hurley said...

This run down on the state of politics works for me

GJE said...

To describe this government as one that believes that to say it is to do it is a pretty damning criticism.but not undeserved..The only question now is for how long we will put up with being continually disappointed by their lack of delivery....

sumsuch said...

Oh, Kat.

The difference between papery now and golden then isn't intellect but the drive that overshot in F.P.Walsh etc. They were often personal monsters. Fury, motivation, fight, from difficult lives (and psychologies). Or representation of reality. I don't expect there is much of that in my middle class, as proved in 84.

Kat said...

Ah, Sumsuch......

Jacinda Ardern is not just a "pretty communist" and the "papery" you allude to is more a reflection of perception than reality. The first time I saw and heard Norm Kirk was at the "Kelly" in Christchurch, it was the late 60's I was in my late teens. At the time I knew people who were active members of the Socialist Action league. I never got into that, I was attracted to Labour mainly because I was involved in various anti Vietnam protests and the policy of ending conscription was high on my political wish list. The Kirk govt opposition to the Vietnam war, anti nuclear protests and Frigates to Mururoa were all part of the mix. I suppose I have been a Lefty ever since. I was in the UK when David Lange gave his nuclear debate at Oxford Union and it was a very proud time to be a Kiwi. What followed with Rogernomics and the ransacking of this country's infrastructure by mad dog Prebble was the opposite. That was a gut wrenching cup of tea that David Lange stopped for. We live with the consequences of the destructive Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal legacy today. Jacinda Ardern reminds me a lot of Norm Kirk in the way she projects her political ideals and has done since she became leader of the Labour party. I believe the best is yet to come.

greywarbler said...

But is Jacinda Arden another David Lange, like a colourful, enthusing banner waved aloft; but then the soldiers march behind with orders to deal with the reality behind that eye-catching banner, and go about their grisly, mundane business-as-usual.

Shane McDowall said...

Kirk's government pledged to end legalised assault in our schools. This did not happen until 1990. Females over 10 were legally protected from the foul tempered sadistic creeps who dominated our schools from 1967.

Kirk also promised to " Take the bikes off the bikies ". I note with interest that not only have the bikies still got their bikes, but the outlaw MC's are bigger, wealthier, better armed and better organised.

I do not believe that Kirk clutched Labour's 1972 election manifesto that tightly.

PS, members of outlaw MC's HATE being called bikies. They prefer to be called bikers.

John Hurley said...

This was the 1970s

sumsuch said...

Dear Kat,

why do the neediest have to wait in the Arcadia of Ardern? Why can't climate change really be addressed?

The 'winter of discontent' in 2000, of rich pricks who benefitted from the dissolution of the old social-democratic common-wealth, is the real motto of your Labour Party.

Even in '35, my favourite Labour Party, they refused to elevate my old Socialist G. Grandfather to the upper house because of his compulsion for foul language ('bluidy'). Couldn't help himself even on national radio. Really a sign of the powder-puff socialism to come -- they didn't take the rudder like Scandinavia. Peter Fraser warning Warren Freer against mentioning socialism was the death knell, intellectually. Gave up the battlefield.

Social liberalism, while great, follows parallel with the decline of popular rule. Proposition: Muldoon was better than Fran Wilde in that respect. My garden centre /union boss boss knew it immediately.

Affection, Kat.