AT SOME POINT, the National Party is going to realise that the rules of the game have changed. If the party’s history is any guide, such a realisation is likely to come later rather than sooner. That same history, however, suggests that National will get there in the end – and that, when it does, its lease on government is likely to be a long one.
The global rule-change, economically and politically, was precipitated by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009. Prior to the near collapse of the world’s financial system, the accepted wisdom was unequivocal that “market forces” were the best regulators of globalised capitalism. Better, certainly, than politicians and bureaucrats. As the GFC unfolded, however, it soon became clear that if the resolution of the crisis was left to “market forces”, then the global economic system would grind to a catastrophic halt – setting-off a second Great Depression.
Newsweek magazine celebrated the dramatic re-entry of the nation-state into the political-economic drama with a cover proclaiming: “We Are All Socialists Now”. This was very far from wry journalistic hyperbole. Not when the new US President, Barack Obama, had just nationalised General Motors. Banks, investment houses, insurance companies and automobile manufacturers, had all been designated (to employ the catch-phrase of the hour) “too big to fail”.
The rule-book had been re-written.
The problem was that acknowledging the eclipse of free-market capitalism was very difficult to do, without resurrecting all the social-democratic and socialist nostrums the free-market revolutionaries of the 1980s had worked so hard to extirpate. The upshot was that practically all of the economic dogmas discredited by the GFC continued to enjoy a kind of bizarre post-apocalyptic afterlife. Neoliberals had become the walking-dead; dull-eyed transmitters of “zombie economics”.
And then the Covid-19 Pandemic struck.
Now it was entire national economies that were being designated as too big to fail. If Keynesianism’s first appearance in history had been in response to the multiple tragedies of the 1930s; it second appearance has taken on the qualities of farce.
The US Congress has just passed a “rescue package” of $US1.9 trillion. Yes, that’s right “trillion” – twelve zeroes! And this latest money-gusher is only the latest in a succession of equally gigantic monetary geysers.
Government spending hasn’t so much spun out-of-control as it has taken on the quality of an out-of-body experience. The United States, and the rest of the big capitalist players, hover above themselves in the economic operating theatre, looking down at the pale, prone, patient on the operating table and wondering, with curious detachment, if they’re going to make it.
In this political-economic environment, allegiance to the old rulebook simply makes no sense. When the central banks of the major capitalist economies have more-or-less agreed to keep the global system functioning by taking in each other’s financial washing, a political party like National has absolutely nothing to gain by clinging-on for dear life to the moribund principles of fiscal rectitude.
If money really is no object, then the only sensible political strategy to adopt is the one which best fulfils the electorate’s most urgent needs. Such a strategy makes even more sense in the face of a government seemingly enslaved to the “zombie economics” of its neoliberal advisers. Labour is currently relying on men and women who do not appear to have had an alive-and-kicking idea since July 1984. The only thing that makes the Government’s behaviour look even slightly rational, is that National is, itself, beholden to the same zombies.
Why is there no one in the senior ranks of either of the two major parties with the cut-through intelligence of the young, conservative political commentator, Liam Hehir. He, at least, “gets” that the current housing crisis cannot be solved by tightening-up LVRs, further weaponising the “bright line test”, or, God save us, introducing a Capital Gains Tax. Such “marginal” measures are not for him. Responding to Jack Tame’s questions on TVNZ’s current affairs show, Q+A, Hehir ruthlessly dismissed the “Lost Generation” of aspiring home-owners as being beyond effective help. Better, he argued, to engage in a root-and-branch reform of New Zealand’s tenancy laws. What works so well in Western Europe and the Nordic countries, must be made to work here.
He’s right, of course. To house, within a politically acceptable time-frame, the tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders in need of well-designed, well-constructed, affordable and securely held accommodation, the Government and the private sector have to build apartment blocks – lots of apartment blocks. Not the “vertical slums” of the 1960s and 70s, but the progressively conceived and architecturally impressive projects presented to the First Labour Government in the late-1940s.
These plans, discovered over ten years ago by Dr Chris Harris (in the form of appendices to the 1946 Hansard) constituted the foundation of an Auckland that never was. As tragic as it is uncanny, this comprehensive effort by leading Ministry of Works planners, addressed nearly all of the problems which came to bedevil Auckland over succeeding decades. Everything from cycle-ways to light-rail; ring-roads to intensive public housing: all are there in those state-developed plans which National, beholden to property developers, roading contractors and the automobile lobby, could not abandon fast enough following its 1949 election victory.
Therein lies the true tragedy. After 14 years in power (six of which were years of war) the Labour team of 1949 was old and tired. Their failure to grasp the possibilities of the plans placed before them is, if viewed in a generous spirit, forgivable. Much harder to forgive, however, is a government peopled with young, idealistic and highly-educated politicians, well set up for their second term with a solid parliamentary majority.
Suitably updated, those radically social-democratic plans from the late-1940s could, with just a little political imagination, form the basis of a comprehensive response to New Zealand’s steadily worsening housing crisis. Of course Jacinda Ardern’s and Grant Robertson’s bureaucratic advisers are going to tell them that nothing like the old MoW’s plan is any longer desirable or doable – before eating what’s left of their brains.
It would be strangely fitting if National – albeit eight decades too late – embraced the MoW’s urban development blueprint. After all, it took them more than a decade to grasp the fact that the rules of the game – as understood in the 1920s – had changed. It was only when the party pledged to keep in place the core of Labour’s social reforms, that National became a viable electoral proposition. Its political survival in the twenty-first century could just as easily depend upon National not only adopting Labour’s policies – but anticipating them.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 15 March 2021.