Fully Informed? Labour’s 2017 promises raised expectations that were little short of revolutionary. Unfortunately, they were never adequately shaken through the fiscal sieve. The hard economic work was not done – and it shows. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s critics have long complained that her grasp of the way the New Zealand economy works is alarmingly weak.
“HOW ARE WE going to pay for it?” If you are in the business of “transformational” politics, that is the $64 billion question. It was a question aspiring transformers were always tasked with answering back in the days when the Alliance was a “thing”. A big thing, too. For a few intoxicating years in the early-1990s, the Alliance regularly outpolled the Labour Party.
It frightens me to think that there will be people voting in next year’s general election who weren’t actually born when the Alliance was going strong. Not for them the memories of a rampant Jim Anderton leading his rag-tag left-wing coalition to an 18 percent showing in the 1993 election. No memories at all of when the Greens were not a party in their own right, but a leading constituent party (alongside the socialist NewLabour Party) in Anderton’s merry throng.
It was one of the things that I most admired about Jim Anderton: his absolute commitment to showing the voters exactly how he planned to pay for his promises. Every year John Lepper and Petrus Simons, the two economists Anderton had retained to advise him, would get together with the young – and not so young – policy wonks that flocked to the Alliance’s colours and thrash out what Anderton called his “Alternative Budget”.
The Alliance never ran from the accusation that they were “tax and spend” socialists – they embraced it. Those Alternative Budgets were the proof. Anybody who cared to could calculate, with considerable precision, by how much their taxes would rise, and identify exactly on what the additional revenues would be spent.
Of course there were sceptics, both in and out of the Alliance, who questioned this approach. “Why would people vote for a party promising to raise their taxes?” – they demanded. The patient reply was perennially supplied by Professor James Flynn: “Because promising people progressive changes without first detailing how they are to be paid for is unethical.”
Flynn understood that real change could only come when the people offering it enjoyed the confidence of those who make change possible – the voters. If you hadn’t already convinced them that it should be done, then it wouldn’t be – couldn’t be – done.
The Alliance made a great many mistakes before it finally imploded in 2002, but its greatest mistake (or, more accurately, its leader’s greatest mistake) was to set aside Professor Flynn’s sage advice in the interests of consolidating a coalition agreement with Helen Clark’s Labour Party.
Labour, however, was promising too little to accomplish real change because it was unwilling to tax the voters too much. Even worse, it was point-blank refusing to roll back the “Rogernomics Revolution”. Given that rolling back Roger Douglas’s neoliberal revolution was the Alliance’s raison d’être, Anderton’s acceptance of Labour’s refusal to challenge the status quo amounted to political suicide.
But, surely, all this is the dead-and-buried politics of the unlamented twentieth century? What has the long-defunct Alliance got to do with today’s politics?
Two word answer: Jacinda Ardern. The Prime Minister’s performance at the lectern in the Beehive theatrette on Monday (12/8/19) was a sad and deeply frustrating vindication of both Jim Anderton and Jim Flynn. All those transformational chickens set loose by Jacinda in the election campaign of 2017 are now flocking home to roost.
Labour’s promises, raising little short of revolutionary expectations, were never adequately shaken through the fiscal sieve in the manner of the Alliance’s fully-coasted manifesto. The hard economic work was never done – and it shows. The Prime Minister’s grasp of the way the New Zealand economy works appears weaker than that of the humblest Alliance parliamentary candidate. The latter were thoroughly schooled in basic economics by Messrs Lepper and Simon. It was always the case with the Alliance that, from the very beginning, its leaders understood which questions they absolutely had to be able to answer.
It makes me wonder whether, in the gloom of all these gathering economic storm-clouds, Labour’s leaders ever wish that they had a Jim Flynn to remind them of the ethics of knowing how social and economic transformation will be paid for – before it is promised.
Probably not. Very little provokes the scorn of Labour MPs like a favourable reference to the Alliance. Hardly surprising, really, because the Alliance was always the party Labour could have been; should have been; but wasn’t.
This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 August 2019.