Monday 22 March 2021

Something Big.

Lange versus Douglas Round Two? Rumours of a prime-ministerial resignation may be intended to head-off something considerably more dramatic on the policy front.

THERE ARE ALL KINDS of political rumours, but they don’t get much bigger than: “The PM is about to resign.” When that rumour was relayed to me on Friday morning, my initial reaction was “Bullshit!” Wellington is a very intimate capital city, so the idea that such an important story could somehow be kept from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, struck me as fanciful. Were it not for the fact that my informant was “a usually reliable source”, I would have given the matter no more than a dismissive shake of the head. Instead, I decided to make some calls.

As I suspected, nothing remotely resembling a resignation rumour had been picked up by the Press Gallery. What I did hear, however, were concerns about “Jacinda”. The Prime Minister, I was told, was “out of sorts”, “morose”, “not her usual self”. Among female journalists, I discovered, there was much speculation about whether or not the PM was pregnant. Scuttlebutt, I thought to myself. Although, I had to concede, the PM’s sunny disposition has, of late, given every appearance of having fallen under a cloud. Even to the casual observer, Jacinda seems distracted.

It is doubtful whether her overall mood was uplifted by the latest poll results. Though Labour still hovers around its Election Night 50 percent, the TV1-Colmar Brunton survey showed Ardern falling a statistically significant 15 percentage points in the Preferred-Prime-Minister stakes.

It is likely that these latest numbers only accentuated the PM’s dissatisfaction with the way she and her government are being represented in the newspaper columns and across social media. This dissatisfaction turned out to be one of the most consistent themes of my Friday-morning soundings. The PM, it is alleged, has been stung by the sharp criticisms of her administration which have been growing in intensity since Labour’s landslide victory last October. At the heart of these critiques lie two inter-related questions: “Why the preternatural caution, Jacinda. What, or who, is stopping you?”

While New Zealanders understood the role played by Winston Peters and NZ First in reining-in the PM’s “transformational” aspirations (and were, accordingly, prepared to forgive Labour’s less-than-stellar record of achievement on the big issues of homelessness and child poverty) after 17 October 2020 that excuse was no longer available. Not when Labour, the Greens and Te Paati Maori between them command 77 seats in New Zealand’s 120-seat House of Representatives.

Labour’s caution and timidity were attributed (often none-too-kindly) to the party’s determination to hold on to the huge swag of former National Party voters who had defected to Labour in recognition of the PM’s outstanding handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Commentators mused that “Jacinda” was little more than a brand; and that, for all her talk about “the politics of kindness”, Ardern was just another party leader with one over-riding priority – winning the next election. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from one of Ardern’s most reliable supporters on social media. Martyn Bradbury, Editor of The Daily Blog. Playing on the left-wing swearword “Neoliberalism”, Bradbury described the PM as a media-savvy purveyor of “Neo-kindness”.

The message coming back to me throughout Friday was that these accusations had hurt. That the PM was feeling keenly the lack of faith in her bona fides – especially from those who are regarded as being (and who certainly see themselves as being) on the Left. I was told that over the summer Ardern’s determination to keep her promises to the homeless, the poor, and the planet had grown ever-stronger. That she refused to go down in history as an instinctively empathic crisis-manager. That someone who could pull off an electoral rout on the scale of 17 October required an altogether more substantial legacy. The word began to spread through Wellington’s labyrinthine corridors of power that “something big” could be expected on the policy front by the middle of the year.

Hearing this, I wondered how much attention Ardern and her closest advisers had paid to the words of the veteran left-wing trade-union leader, Robert Reid. Barely 48 hours had passed since the Red Tide had ripped the infamous “handbrake” from NZ First’s hands, but Reid was already tweeting out a warning to the new Labour majority government:

“No one mentions that every government is a coalition between the elected governing party(s) and the senior bureaucrats.

“The bureaucracy acts as more of a handbrake than NZ First ever did.

“But most 'ruling' parties continue to let it dictate policy.”

What would happen, I asked myself, if the PM made it clear to her Cabinet colleagues that she was no longer willing to play it safe; that, having made promises to the New Zealand people, and been rewarded with an absolute majority, she was now absolutely determined to keep them?

The most obvious starting point for the PM would be the housing crisis. A major initiative here would not only boost the well-being of New Zealanders considerably, it would also make a huge impression on the level of child poverty. Killing two birds with one stone has always been an attractive political proposition. But, to be at all effective, such an effort would have to be on a scale unprecedented since the 1970s – entailing an eye-wateringly large amount of expenditure.

Alternatively, the PM may have decided to give effect to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations on social development – including a massive increase in core benefit levels. This, too, would provoke genuine horror in Treasury. Effectively eliminating child poverty at a stroke does not come cheap.

And, it is here, perhaps, that the rumour about a prime-ministerial resignation may have had its genesis. Faced with ever-higher levels of government borrowing, Treasury officials would undoubtedly have attempted to pressure the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, into dissuading his friend and ally that what she was proposing was as irresponsible as it was unlikely to succeed.

In normal circumstances, this might have worked. But, from what I have discovered over the past 72 hours, these are not normal circumstances. Only last week, Robertson’s friend and mentor, Sir Michael Cullen, a man stoically succumbing to terminal lung cancer, is reported to have told a select gathering of Labour Party notables that: “It is not enough simply to win – you have to DO something.” Aware of how determined the PM is to “do” as Sir Michael advises; seized also, as his boss is said to be, by intimations of mortality, Robertson, “the reluctant radical” seems ready, for once, to throw caution to the wind.

From all sides, now, comes word of the imminence of “something big” being announced. The Labour caucus is said to be both “nervous” and “excited”.

Writing in The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury (whose connections with the Labour caucus are numerous and strong) sums up the situation like this:

“Jacinda has taken the time over the Summer to decide being kind has to mean something, desperate rumours spread by Wellington bureaucratic elites that there is a split between Jacinda and Grant are designed to create a rift not report on one.”

If Prime Minister Ardern’s big policy gamble fails, then her resignation will, indeed, have to be handed to the Governor-General. But, everything I have learned over the last 72 hours convinces me that “Jacinda” is no longer content merely to win: she means to DO something.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 22 March 2021.


greywarbler said...

We await in pregnant anticipation for the genesis of a bouncing, vigorous program to feed a rather underweight, over-term baby. It can be saved, we are assured, with proper medications and nutrition and wise, kindly, encouraging, committed attendants to support this lovely little pepi-tamaiti. Viva New Zealand and Kia ora.

Anonymous said...

Jacinda campaigned on doing nothing at the last election.
That certainty along with the "handling" of Covid is a large part of how they got elected.
If they want to do something truly transformative, they would have to go back to the electorate for a mandate as they do not have one to do anything major.
Of course, Labour have an utter disdain for democracy so will just pretend they have a mandate even though they do not.

If Labour go ahead with transformative changes without a mandate, the insane claims that she's a dictator would actually have come true.

mikesh said...

She has a mandate to govern.

greywarbler said...

Anonymous 13.32 Be careful what you put on your porridge. You reached for the maple syrup but actually grabbed the vinegar. Didn't you notice? Calling up the powers of academic darkness to crush the spirit of progress before Labour can build muscle to push the rock up to the top like Sisyphus is forgetting that our human histories and methods have always been adaptable and dynamic; and now they are positively galvanic.

Anonymous said...

Covid saved her ass last time, and she knows it. She was all set to lose before she milked it to the end. Our isolation saved us Chris, not anything she did. In fact, she closed the borders far later than she should have, as she wanted her 15 March dress up remembarance date. Agree with the anon above, Labour have an absolute disdain of true and ethical democracy. 2017 was stolen, but for them it's the means to the end.


Anonymous said...

When Cullen said to "Do something", Jacinda and Grant are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The solutions will eat through some of their political capital.

The housing crisis is the biggest issue and market intervention is necessary. Labour needs to find a way to reverse the problem started by selling state housing, population growth, and the movement of capital into property speculation.

The property market is less regulated than the financial markets. The media are dependent on property-related advertising. Silly stories about property flipping and auctions are fuelling irrational exuberance.

The simplest intervention is that the government starts buying residential property in each suburb and rents them at income-related levels. That way, rents drop, the incentive to invest drops, and property price levels stabilise. Then, the government and first home buyers can get better value for money from tradesmen to make up for the shortfall of housing.

And, while they're at it, include land and housing in the Consumer Price Index so that interest rates keep things in check.

Spread the word.

Tiger Mountain said...

Any, even half serious follower of politics, knows what Jacinda is made of ideologically, but even some tory switch voters were expecting her to do something at least to annoy them with benefits and social housing. Those middle class people able to, and having to, shell out for their kids house deposit, know in their hearts the joke is well over on house prices.

“Specuvestors” “scumlords” and other hardwired born to rule types will never admit Jacinda did well for those few glorious Level 4 weeks when she substantially put public health before private capital! But they will continue to lap up monetarist economic policy and a neo liberal govt structure the “Chicago Boys” could barely have topped.

Can she? Will she? move against the senior Ministry bludgers, who while despising public owned infrastructure, draw hefty salaries from the taxpayer–Fifth Columnists par excellence.

My instinct is no big moves from Labour, Jacinda and Grant will likely be taken before one or more of the Finance Capital “headmasters” and told how it is. A well contested 2023 Election might be the result, with reinvigorated Green and Māori Partys seeking support for implementing all the change Labour was too timid to make! It would be an MMP Govt with more than one party governing.

Kat said...

"But, everything I have learned over the last 72 hours convinces me that “Jacinda” is no longer content merely to win: she means to DO something......"

So.............21st century MoW to be reinstated then?

petes new write said...

A controversial tax policy perhaps. May I predict the future? Jacinda leads Labour to their third term. Six months in and she announces she is pregnant and will resign. A new PM to be announced.

greywarbler said...

Edmund Hillary (Sir) earned his knighthood by pushing his capacity to the limit and reached an amazing peak. Sir Roger Douglas (Sir Brian Botany) earned his by embracing the weaselly words of Treasury, a sly little group serving NZ's financial players, concerned to maintain NZ's position in the world's wealth exchange and advantages for those playing the money game. Thus Douglas received his knighthood at the cost of diminishing a large proportion of NZrs living standards and opportunities, impoverishing many, abandoning our own employment-rich economy aiming at reasonable self-reliance. It abstracted social mobility from many to favour a minority who revel in excess, and offers positions to those who serve them, often exclusively.
And it monetises our world, and considers efficiency of leading importance. A great philosophical thinker Aldous Huxley considered that the drive for efficiency would be our death knell. The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy; their second worst enemy is total efficiency. Aldous Huxley

So go for Sir Edmund's way Labour folks. We are at that tipping point that arises when you think 'things are bad and getting worse, what have I got to lose'. If Labour wants to give the country a glimpse of its possible future and hope, they will move now, and not incrementally. Otherwise they will still look like incompetents and National will win if it can build a convincing hoarding. We will become the corrupt banana republic that those rentiers and predators who most used that criticism in the past, actually are happy to accommodate.

Labour may still lose at the next election if it battles through with intelligent and needed policies but upsets enough of the inertia-bound adaptables who are doing okay. It will however wear a crown of gold soon after as National commits fraud after fraud, and Transparency International are revealed as the warped survey that it is. Then Labour can return with a definite majority and begin again on policies to help NZ into the future we know will be harsh and demand all our efforts and innovations as people to battle it; the climate change extremes, the insertions and incisions of machines and technology into the sociability of human life, culture and our need for continuing ethics with changes as required. It's a matter of biting the bullet and living up to the Labour ideals that embrace all people not just tertiary educated capable people who understand their own specialty in depth. We need people who can see the wood that grows the trees.

Now is needed people informing themselves, speaking thoughtfully and clearly, bringing participatory democracy to its central place in politics; representative style in 1984 received its death knell. Beautiful, amazing, contentious humanity and our world's companion animals and plants can still be lost - consider the spread of Nazism through Germany, home of the religious ferment that Martin Luther initiated in the Protestant Reformation, a developed country with many learned academics, a democracy that somehow collapsed under the weight of a strong idea and the manipulation of a charismatic personality and clever plotting.

People need to know how to form critical judgments and be widely informed individuals with some agency joining with others in decision making that is rational and fair to all. This is what to aim for, Labour now in acting as is needed, can set the ball rolling, show us the way to a better future of alert and capable people. The joke greeting 'Are you a-lert? - welcome to the 'Lerts', or something similar might with a smile start the vital group in getting the social movement needed going!

greywarbler said...

In this complex age, NZ must be better educated;  we must have regular town debates and discussions involving the 'floor',  not just addresses from the stage;  these being effectively run with concise points made and set times, with unrelenting timekeepers   I am very keen on Ted-talks throughout the country, followed by discussion on points of contention from the floor, to be requested and written up on a whiteboard for everyone to see.  Then these gathered under headings where each topic is briefly discussed and those involved. concerned and knowledgeable, are invited to form a group to continue studying and discussing the problem with a presentation of findings and possible appropriate activity, in a month's time.   Even the night classes, the school holiday courses, advancing educational standards, or teaching art, skills, anything, should be encouraged and receive government funding so the cost to the participants is reasonable, and in some cases free.   A mood to learn, to expand  knowledge in some way, to mix with community in doing something;  this should be fostered.

From Aldous Huxley who applied his rational mind to testing problems, and through the power of the internet can be seen and heard on youtube.

Aldous Huxley
In the course of evolution nature has gone to endless trouble to see that every individual is unlike every other individual....Physically and mentally, each one of us is unique. Any culture which, in the interests of efficiency or in the name of some political or religious dogma, seeks to standardize the human individual, commits an outrage against man's biological nature.

And then from Julian Huxley, Aldous' older brother, who was acerbic about human development, and suffered from too much thinking (which can be debilitating I notice) having ideas far advanced from the accepted norms on everything, including eugenics. These are some of his tortured and tortuous thoughts.

This earth is one of the rare spots in the cosmos where mind has flowered. Man is a product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.

It is essential for evolution to become the central core of any educational system, because it is evolution, in the broad sense, that links inorganic nature with life, and the stars with the earth, and matter with mind, and animals with man. Human history is a continuation of biological evolution in a different form.

It is easier to believe that there was nothing before there was something than that there was something before there was nothing.

Human potentialities constitute the world's greatest resource.
The human race will be the cancer of the planet.

We are beginning to realize that even the most fortunate people are living far below capacity, and that most human beings develop not more than a small fraction of their potential mental and spiritual efficiency. The human race, in fact, is surrounded by a large area of unrealized possibilities, a challenge to the spirit of exploration.
Julian Huxley

Jasper said...

"I dare her too!" Follow through with this! It'll be a first if she does. It would be good for the party to go back to the drawing board to find their roots.

The Barron said...

If the Housing announcement is the 'something big', it raises a number of supplementary questions, the main one is how the Prime Minister lost the narrative in the announcement. She is a hugely popular political head, with a background in communications. She has more political capital in her fourth year as leader than any previous PM. Yet, if she made this the issue that she would go against treasury and possibly her Finance Minister - then where were the political friends. The Union movement, the NGOs, the Churches, Maori leaders, Pasifika leaders, those representing the homeless or refugees all silent. She should have been expecting to be under fire from the political right, the propertied and the landlords, but how did she put herself in the position where renters organisations and some of the homeless attack her? Why did the announcement not come with other measures that would have placated these groups? Why did she not have the allies and progressive economists lined up for public support?
The Housing announcement is big, and should have been sold better. Without complimentary moves to help the poor, the beneficiaries and acknowledgement of those renting, it came across as a sop to the young, Pakeha, educated, middle-class. It could have been so much more.

AB said...

" Nothing throughout history has given rise to more damage, injury and hurt than the attempts by ideologues of all persuasions to create a world in which nobody comes to harm"

"Nothing"? "Nobody"? Chris - this is a preposterous statement. I'm guessing the appeal of its orotund grandiosity may have lured you into making it. On the contrary, the worst damage, injury and hurt has been caused by those who aim to benefit from harming others. Think Stalin's purges, the Holocaust, the genocide of native Americans - all carried out by people who thought that there were other people unworthy of protection from harm. Equal worthiness of protection from harm is a cornerstone of human rights.

The rest of the piece is stating the obvious - of course we can't have over-strict definitions of harm and of course we will continually have arguments about where the line is drawn. My own inclination is to let people say whatever they want unless it constitutes direct incitement - but this freedom must be balanced by greater equalisation of who gets to speak, and who obtains powerful platforms for speech because of their existing economic resources. Whose freedom of speech is greater - Rupert Murdoch's vast international army of paid propagandists, or Chris Trotter on Bowalley Rd?