Tuesday 24 November 2020

"Goodfellas": The Neoliberal National Party Shows Its Ugly Face.

Unaccountable? A reasonable National Party member might have anticipated that a president who led his party to the second-worst defeat in its history would feel obliged to fall upon his sword in recognition of the scale of his failure. Such a member would have been disappointed. Peter Goodfellow (above) was unanimously re-elected president by National's Board of Directors.

ABOUT THE ONLY thing the National Party has got going for it at the moment is the Labour Party. National’s AGM, held in Wellington over the weekend, achieved worse than nothing. It proved conclusively that the political structures created by the party’s post-2002 constitution are impervious to  membership pressure. It showed New Zealand how far the party’s talent pool has shrunk since John Key vacated the leadership in 2016. Worst of all, in the speech of National’s President, Peter Goodfellow, New Zealanders got to hear the vile neoliberal narrative in which the party has trapped itself. Were it not for the similarly delusional mindset evident in the leadership of the Labour Party, National could expect to remain out of power for at least the next 6-9 years.

When Judy Kirk and Steven Joyce set about re-writing the National Party constitution in the aftermath of the disastrous 2002 General Election – when National attracted just 20.9 percent of the Party Vote – the resulting document betrayed the extent to which the political imperatives of neoliberalism had superseded those which drove the party’s formation in 1936.

Back then, the urgent need was to create a mass political party to match the formidable strength of the Labour Party. The political historian, Barry Gustafson, quotes Tom Wilkes, one of the National Party’s most important ‘founding fathers’, describing Labour as “numerically and financially … the greatest political organisation that has ever existed in the history of [New Zealand].” In Gustafson’s own words: “National needed to match it with an effective but more democratic mass-based party, whose members would control candidate selection and play a major role in shaping policy.”

Even the right-wing parliamentarians and former army officers driving the merger of the United and Reform parties – predecessors of the National Party – understood that a mass organisation could not be built on anything other than a constitution which guaranteed a large measure of democratic participation and control to the rank-and-file membership.

Eighty years on, however, the neoliberal concept of “governance” elevated the concepts of professionalism and organisational efficiency well above those of the often chaotic and unpredictable outcomes associated with democracy. Accordingly, Kirk and Joyce did their best to transform National from a political party into a political corporation – complete with a Board-of-Directors. At the time, even Blind Freddy could see than the latter was bound to become self-selecting and self-perpetuating oligarchy.

It is interesting to speculate as to why the Electoral Commission approved the Kirk-Joyce constitution. The Electoral Act requires all registered political parties to have recognisably democratic rules. No genuine democrat could possibly mistake the National Party’s constitutional arrangements as the basis for anything other than oligarchy. Yes, there were provisions that permitted members to cast votes, but the core democratic principle: full accountability of those at the top to those at the bottom; was almost entirely absent. Clearly, the Commission is not prepared to call to account any political party that might one day be in a position to have it abolished! Alternatively, its members, like Kirk and Joyce, may also be of the view that “good governance” should always trump democratic accountability.

Certainly, there was no concession made to accountability by Peter Goodfellow. A reasonable National Party member might have anticipated that a president who led his party to the second-worst defeat in its history would feel obliged to fall upon his sword in recognition of the scale of his failure. Such a member would have been disappointed.

Under National’s old constitution, the membership might have responded to Goodfellow’s failure by voting him out of office. But, under the Kirk-Joyce constitution, that sort of root-and-branch change is no longer an option. Power flows down, not up, in the National Party of 2020. Presidential patronage takes precedence over presidential proficiency. No National Party members with parliamentary ambitions are going to put themselves off-side with the Board.

It is precisely this unwillingness to take risks – this enforced sycophancy – that explains why it has become so hard to attract persons of principle and courage to National’s ranks. When the only behaviour that counts is the sort of behaviour that wins the Board of Directors backing at candidate selection meetings, then it should come as no surprise that politicians of John Key’s calibre no longer seem to make it in the National Party. That Key was selected under the rules of the old National Party constitution – as were Bill English, Don Brash and Judith Collins – is surely no accident. Likewise, that Simon Bridges and Todd Muller were selected under its neoliberal replacement!

At the heart of the neoliberal mindset, now seemingly unchallengeable in the National Party, is the belief that capitalism and democracy are essentially incompatible. Democracy begets more democracy. “Certain inalienable rights” if honoured, have a way of discerning additional inalienable rights. If allowed to develop unchecked, democratic institutions will, eventually, arrive at the gates of private property and private profit and demand admittance. Hence the neoliberal obsession with “governance”: which is more truthfully rendered as “democracy on a tight leash”, or, even more truthfully, “decision-making that – at all costs – protects capitalism”.

Goodfellow’s speech to the AGM fairly reeked with this antagonism towards any political leader and/or political institution failing to protect the interests of capitalism. In National’s world, the rights of private property and private profit must always take precedence over every other consideration: even the health of the population; even in the face of a deadly virus and a global pandemic.

Jacinda Ardern’s clear and uncompromising decision to put the interests of her fellow citizens ahead of the interests of the individuals and corporations Goodfellow is so good at extracting donations from, earned her his own, and to a degree little short of repellent, his party’s, sneering contempt. Oh yes, he dressed it up in euphemistic language like “celebrity politics” and “temporary tyranny”, but what he meant was: “You broke the rules. You put people ahead of profits. You have identified both yourself and your party as unfit to manage a modern capitalist economy.”

The tragedy, of course, is that Ardern half-pie agrees with him. With Covid-19 stamped-out (for the meantime) and the need to act instinctively no longer in evidence, the Prime Minister has reverted to the political and moral default position of her generation: neoliberalism. Led by her head, Ardern’s path forward is practically indistinguishable from that which National would have followed had it, by some miracle, ended up commanding a majority of the seats in Parliament.

Led by her head, the Prime Minister, like her party, subscribes to the notion of “good governance”. Why else is she refusing to take the steps necessary to address New Zealand’s rapidly worsening housing crisis?

Presumably, because that would involve requiring monetary policy to serve the interests of the homeless – not property investors. Presumably, because that would require those at the top of our society being accountable to those at the bottom.

But, most of all, because it would require Jacinda to do what “Jacinda” does best: respond to a crisis by following the urgings of her heart.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 24 November 2020.


pat said...

Except that monetary policy is not distributional....Ardern can effect housing change without the RBNZ.....IF she has the will.

Archduke Piccolo said...

Hear him, hear him! The problem with elective oligarchies, is that their metamorphosis from something more resembling 'democracy' has been sufficiently gradual that too many people think what they are looking at is still 'democracy.' It is my belief, though, that the metamorphosis was far along already when the 2002 National Party Constitution underwent its reform. All that reform did was to reflect the real situation as it had already existed for a considerable while - as it were, to 'formalise' a an informal state of affairs.
Ion A. Dowman

Shane McDowall said...

Pedantic point.

It is half-pai, not half-pie.

Pai being Maori for good, so half-pai means half good.

It is a rare, if not unique, amalgam of English and Maori.

Kat said...

You write John Key was a "politician of caliber" I would argue Key truly upholds the values you so despise in Peter Goodfellow but with a more smiley convivial disposition.

Jacinda is bound to prove you wrong on your "half pie" assertion that what is inside her head has no connection to her heart.

sumsuch said...

'Her Heart'. I used to pass by 'Sacred Heart', walking up a pathway to work on Napier Hill. I like what the last generation of us who grew up in the Welfare State are doing. 84 Labour didn't see the goods but we do. Since they all thought they were doing the Lord's Work it's about time some of them recanted. Money can buy consciences. Our elite now think they are they there by their own merit. Nil fellow-feeling that interferes with that. I formed that sentence for you, Jacinda. Or you would hold your annual address in your hometown of Murupara.

sumsuch said...

Why this devotion to Labour, Kat? Not even the MPs give a fuck. Nash trying to form an alternative party etc. Anyone who doesn't remember prior to 84, and none of them do, is much good. Jac and Grant talking the good talk and doing the bad walk. And we knew that about those two from a long way back.

Brendon Harre said...

National's sycophancy means it governs for capitalists not capitalism - which makes the party even worse for NZ...

Trev1 said...

We need an effective Opposition to make our democracy function well. That role is increasingly being filled by Act. National are lost up a blind alley, completely delusional.

Rogernome said...

The reason the housing market has taken off is precisely because Jacinda directed the RBNZ to implement "monetary policy for the poor" by adding "full employment" to the RBNZs mandate. That gave the green light to the RBNZ to cut interest rates to almost zero and, in addition, to print tens of billions of dollars to give to banks to lend, which they did to the housing market for the logical reason that housing loans are secured against a tangible asset, not an intangible like a business plan.

You keep excoriating Rogernomics without the slightest appreciation that it stopped NZ becoming another Argentina.

Adherence to pure Rogernomics/Ruthonomics means the RBNZ should keep interest rates higher than the rate of inflation. Some people will complain that the NZD will become "too high" but it would certainly prevent assets, not just houses but also shares, collectibles etc. appreciating at absurd rates.

Harsha Sirisena said...

The current housing price bubble is due precisely to Jacinda mandating "monetary policy for the poor" by adding full employment to the RBNZ's remit. Because unemployment rose sharply because of Covid-19, the RBNZ naturally cut interest rates to almost zero and moreover printed tens of billions of dollars for the government to pay wage subsidies to allow workers to keep their jobs while idling.

Banks in turn naturally lent the flood of money that ended up in their coffers to house buyers who had the tangible security of houses rather than to businesses against the intangible assets of business plans.

Jens Meder said...

Yes Brendon Harre - you are right in that National through freely consumable tax reductions is helping capitalists to become richer even without an effort, while leaving the poor free to remain poor non-capitalists or "have-nots".

Kat said...

Sumsuch, a few say big Norm was the last REAL prime minister this country had. Well, as much as I agree he was a very big Totara in the political forest of this land, when he fell he left a space where the sunlight got in. Jacinda Ardern is the seedling that grew in that space, and nourished by that sunlight is growing tall and strong. These eyes of mine have seen seventeen leaders of this country, I rest easy in my own knowledge that Jacinda Ardern is already a REAL prime minister AND destined to be a mighty Totara in the political forest of Aotearoa/NZ.

I used to get around in a Nash Rambler, lots of space between the indicators.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Kat

If you have lived to see 17 leaders of this country, Kat, then you must have been born before 1941.

Congratulations on 80+ eventful years!

(For all you pedants out there, the 17 leaders are: Fraser, Holland, Holyoake, Nash, Marshall, Kirk, Rowling, Muldoon, Lange, Palmer, Moore, Bolger, Shipley, Clark, Key, English, Ardern.

greywarbler said...

So nice to read someone who can cut right through the fluff to the centre.
The housing bubble is PM Jacinda's fault for saying, doing something. I can guess where you earn your money Harsha. An unfortunate name in an English speaking country.

Kat said...

To: Chris

Not 80 yet, and definitely no pedant. Perhaps I could have said 16 leaders, however Hugh Watt was leader, even if only for a week, and my eyes did see him.


sumsuch said...

Dear Kat, one of my major weaknesses is for old women. So you've just got a sighter of my bald head in the deepest obeisance. My first bosses were women who were adults at the end of WW 1. None better. I sometimes forget old woman now are very modern people. My mother just celebrated her 90th and as a 1970s feminist wore a t-shirt with the F-word on it -- though it was inconceivable to me she could actually say it. Of course the ultimate respect is honesty. Surely you must have parted ways at some point with the creature that bears the name 'Labour'?

I'm just an averager who's ideas don't encompass much, I rely on life continuing to slip around my dogmas to put me and us back on the solid foundation of satisfaction and fairness. Maybe Ardern has it in her, but you must understand there are grounds for doubt, that being the past evidence. I do think your ever-faith in modern Labour is religious, though we all like you. She's young, I'm sure she can grow.

sumsuch said...

Your list of leaders Chris, they are very human, no heroes. Maybe it's a mark of adulthood to realize we are all just human. Key and Ardern and 6 of the early ones( not Holland nor Muldoon) I respect.

sumsuch said...

Even if Trotter included the grand pragmatist after Savage you'd still not be 80 , Kat. I realized later , during the day . My Humanities Dad, like his Humanities child, the one out of five, we both had a close connection to addition. Him from the TAB and me from trying to make sense simmerly.

I despise sentiments against the needy. Tho' understand the social context.