IT’S EASY to identify the people in charge – they’re the ones whose needs are attended to first. Remember the global financial crisis of 2008-09? In the United States, the question posed by that catastrophic economic meltdown was stark in its simplicity. Who will the government save: Main Street or Wall Street? The answer that came back was chillingly unequivocal. Wall Street.
When the US House of Representatives for once attempted to live up to its name by voting down the financial sector’s self-drafted “rescue package”, the reaction of Wall Street was ferocious. Its minions in the Executive Branch descended upon the Capitol Building en masse, making it crystal clear to the errant legislators that they had chosen the wrong side. The vote was held again. Wall Street was saved.
That’s what makes New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 Pandemic so remarkable. With the example of the global financial crisis to guide them, many Kiwis were resigned to the needs of “business” being put ahead of everybody else. After all, that’s what they saw when they looked abroad – especially to New Zealand’s ideological kith and kin in the United States and the United Kingdom. Here, too, many predicted grimly, it will be profits first, people second.
But they were wrong. Here in New Zealand, by a miracle of historical alchemy, we were blessed with a prime minister and a government who, against all expectations, reversed the neoliberal formula. In “going hard and going early”, Jacinda Ardern’s government had opted to put people first.
For thirty-five years it has been a very different story. For thirty-five years New Zealanders have been told that their welfare is utterly dependent on the health of the business sector. Looking after the business sector, we have been encouraged to believe, is the same as looking after ourselves. Because, in the final analysis, if you don’t have a thriving business sector, then you don’t have anything.
Jacinda Ardern turned that proposition on its head. Looking after the people, she said, is the same as looking after the business sector. If you don’t have a healthy people, then you don’t have anything. To the utter astonishment of the nation’s business leaders and their media mouthpieces, the state intervened unreservedly and decisively. It locked the country down.
And we got it. Blessedly free of the sort of economic expertise that insists such policies are completely counter-productive, New Zealanders cheered-on a government prepared to borrow tens-of-billions of dollars to keep them and their loved ones safe. When was the last time anyone had done that?
Older New Zealanders recalled the stories their parents had told them about the Second World War. Stories about people united in a common cause. Stories about sacrifice and valour. Younger New Zealanders hardly dared to believe it was actually happening. Jacinda was defying economic gravity. But, when she talked about “the team of five million”, the vast majority of New Zealanders’ chests swelled with pride.
Not everybody cheered Jacinda on. Almost from the moment the country went to Level 4, the volume of the complainers’ chorus began to swell. Instinctively, the social classes which had benefitted the most from the Neoliberal Revolution, grasped the enormous potential dangers that were set to flow from Jacinda’s reversal of social and economic priorities.
It’s the motive force behind the talkback hosts’ spittle-flecked expostulations. The explanation for the business “community’s” endless whining and moaning. The reason why academics (who should know better) are lending their prestige to “Plan-Bs” which, when stripped of all the obfuscating non-science, are about allowing the aged and vulnerable members of our society to be sacrificed on the altar of “The Economy”. Some of the nation’s professors have even called for our democratic institutions to be set aside in favour of an administration of technical experts – like themselves.
Neoliberals have every reason to fear what ordinary people have learned from the Covid-19 crisis. How are all those arguments about there not being enough money for all the things they so desperately need going to sound after the dollar-downpours of 2020? All those trite phrases about not being able to solve problems by “throwing money” at them – who’s going to believe that now?
And if Jacinda and her team are re-elected on a landslide? Will they even try to put the genie back in the bottle?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 August 2020.