Friday 15 May 2020

The Day Labour Came Home.

Home Boy: "We can also draw the lessons of the past as to what not to do in response to a major economic shock. In this case Mr Speaker I can draw on the experiences of my own life. As the economic carnage of the 1980s and 1990s wreaked havoc in our communities, I saw that up close. It was based on a tired set of ideas that the market would save us, that if government sat on the sidelines all would be well. Well, it didn’t work out that way and lives and livelihoods were lost." - Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Budget Speech, 14 May 2020.

THIS WAS THE DAY my old comrades Bruce Jesson and Gerry Hill never got to see. Grant Robertson’s reaffirmation of Labour’s democratic-socialist principles, the Budget Speech they never got to hear. That I have lived long enough to see this day and hear that speech is something for which I am truly thankful.

What am I talking about? This is what I’m talking about:

“We can draw on the lessons of the past as to how to deal with [the challenges of the Covid-19-generated economic crisis]. The answers lie in the great traditions of the First Labour Government who rebuilt New Zealand after the Great Depression. It was a time when they understood a genuine partnership between government and the people. That each and every person in this country deserved the right to take up the chances afforded by being lucky enough to live in, as my predecessor Peter Fraser called it, this green and pleasant land. They built houses, rail and roads, they created the welfare state and a strong public health system, and they backed shopkeepers and manufacturers. We are taking those principles into the modern era.

“We can also draw the lessons of the past as to what not to do in response to a major economic shock. In this case Mr Speaker I can draw on the experiences of my own life. As the economic carnage of the 1980s and 1990s wreaked havoc in our communities, I saw that up close. It was based on a tired set of ideas that the market would save us, that if government sat on the sidelines all would be well. Well, it didn’t work out that way and lives and livelihoods were lost.

“That will not happen again, not on the watch of this government. We know that we must work in partnership with iwi, business, unions, community groups, every one of the team of five million to make sure we all not only get through this, but that we thrive on the other side.”

Nearly forty years ago, I was present to hear my old history professor, John Omer-Cooper, debate the ethics of the 1981 Springbok Tour with one of his post-graduate students, a young fellow by the name of Michael Laws. For a good part of his life Omer-Cooper had lived in Africa – an advantage he put to good use against Laws who grew increasingly exasperated as the mild-mannered professor methodically dismantled his arguments. The pro-Tour firebrand’s final shot was to accuse his opponent of attempting to pass off expediency as morality. Omer-Cooper’s reply, calmly but firmly delivered, I have never forgotten: “There are occasions, Michael, when the expedient thing to do, and the moral thing to do, are the same thing.”

I would offer Omer-Cooper’s observation to all those who dismiss Robertson’s remarks as boiler-plate Budget Day rhetoric. “Words are cheap!”, they object – which is certainly true. The point I would make in response to such cynicism, however, is that in the 35 years since Roger Douglas delivered his paradigm-shifting 1985 Budget Speech, no other Labour Finance Minister has felt either willing or able to speak such words. Until today.

Are Robertson and the Prime Minister referencing Labour’s democratic-socialist traditions because in the absence of such a transformative vision the numbers quoted in today’s Budget Speech will crush all hope of their government’s re-election? Of course they are. And doesn’t that constitute sheer expediency on their part? No, not “sheer” expediency: not when their joint repudiation of Rogernomics is genuine. Not when the idea of making the most vulnerable members of our society bear the burden of economic misfortune is one they sincerely consider objectionable. To seek to inspire New Zealanders with hope for a better future on the other side of this once-in-a-century crisis may well be the expedient thing to do in the run-up to a general election, but it is also the right thing to do.

All of which leaves us with a decision of our own to make. How should we respond to the extraordinary words spoken by Jacinda and Grant over the course of the last 48 hours? For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is we should take their words at face value. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we simply overlook the clear deficiencies of the 2020 Budget: the absence of tax increases for the wealthy; its lack of further financial assistance for beneficiaries; but neither should we allow the best possible budget to become the enemy of a bloody good one. In a nation that has suffered 35 years of relentless neoliberal sloganeering, discretion just has to be the better part of political valour.

What’s more, if Bruce Jesson and Gerry Hill had been here to witness the day Labour came home to itself; had they, too, heard Robertson repudiate Rogernomics; then I’m pretty damn sure that they – and every one of our dear departed democratic-socialist comrades – would say the same.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 May 2020.


Wayne Mapp said...

Grant Robertson has used that type of language many times before. But in substance he tinkers rather than transforms.

Matthew Hooton in Friday's Herald is closer to the mark. Despite the size of the figures, it is a budget that could have been expected from either of the two main parties. The main difference being the 200,000 children getting school lunches (a very good move) and the 8,000 Housing NZ houses. The fundamentals of the "neo-liberal settlement" are untouched. Not even a tax rate of 40% for incomes over $120,000. Maybe that is for the election manifesto.

Much can be made of the $20 billion that is unallocated. Presumably for election promises. One point missed by many commentators is that the extension of the wage subsidy by 8 weeks means it ends in mid August. Can anyone imagine that will actually happen, literally a month before the election. There will be a further extension announced early August extending the subsidy for another 8 week to 12 weeks, to take it well past the election. And probably more support for small business. That could easily use $6billion of the unallocated money. Those announcements will be part of Labours election campaign. It still leaves $14 billion for other promises. Maybe an extension to Working for Families, a boost to education, more infrastructure of a more imaginative kind than seen so far.

But the end of the "neo-liberal settlement'. Not likely.

david Stone said...

The part of Grant's speech that Chris has quoted here seems to be a part that all the other news coverage has left out. Interesting that.
Referring back to the first labour government may have implications for how the money is to be found. Prebble's comment referred not to borrowing from overseas as Chris had assumed in an earlier article but to reserve bank created funding. This is what they did then and to fund the original State housing venture. In this day and age that would be truly revolutionary and entirely appropriate . This is starting to look very interesting.


Chris Trotter said...

To: Wayne Mapp.

As you might imagine, Wayne, I pay particularly close attention to what Labour ministers do and don't say - especially in regard to the so-called "reforms" of the 1980s and 90s. That's why I can tell you with some confidence that the rhetoric deployed by Jacinda and Grant over the past 48 hours is very different from the "Oh well, we might have gone a little bit far and a little bit fast in the 1980s - but something had to be done" statements that typified Labour's half-hearted "mea culpas" of the past.

And, in my political experience at least, Wayne, rhetoric precedes action.

Wayne Mapp said...

Well, I guess we will see such action in the programme set out for the upcoming election. Because the the budget didn't show a new start (apart from the rhetorical flourish).
I personally was expecting more. A greater sense of how the government envisaged the recovery might look like and the extent to which there would be some degree of departure from the past.
Perhaps the government considers they do not have the mandate for such an approach. With a election four months away, maybe they believe that type of proposition has to be won on the hustings.
You have already invoked the People's Manifesto. Maybe that is exactly the intent. That there will be a groundswell of support for a much more transformative approach than the Budget showed.
Of course the PM has used the language of transformation before, but we didn't actually see much of that in the last two years. However, a proper electoral mandate for transformation might bring it about. I personally doubt it, but we shall see.

greywarbler said...

Came home? When the Toad came home? Who is the Toad?

sumsuch said...

On your word I accept this. Robertson's words indicate he'll do for the neediest in the next term. Jacinda and Grant were all about the art of the possible and when that is open they remember our story. Unlike the vile American Democratic Party. 45% against demo-cracy here but we can still save our country.

sumsuch said...

One of the new things in post-lockdown is no one can talk about conditions for economic recovery as the priority in the light of climate change and resource exhaustion. 10 years. Just laughable, Wayne. Unless you disagree with the war governments of WW 2? It was a great distribution system, capitalism, but we are now at the ultimate crisis. 'Get in behind' you good NZer.

sumsuch said...

Gerry Hill? I remember the great demo-crat , Jesson, despite his shyness, turning around the Auckland Harbour Board in the face of the slavering hyenas and jackels.

America is such a lit-up show for where selfishness leads. And why is it central to born again christianity? Mystifyingly. Which is why we're glad they are only 5 % here. A govt should look after the people and tell its story.

Nick J said...

An end to the neo lib sentiment indeed Wayne. Of course we shouldn't deviate from your sentiment, after all we adore the impoverishment of the precariat, we just love the extreme upward distribution of wealth to the mega rich. Its all so marvellous, let's just do a direct credit to Bill Gates and Besos so that they can put food on their tables.

Your wilful blindness is pathetic.