SUSAN ST JOHN’S latest cri de cœur laments the dire straits in which New Zealand’s poorest citizens still find themselves. As she has so many times before, Susan attacks the criminal inadequacy of state assistance programmes and reaffirms the sheer impossibility of private charities taking up the slack. But, once again, she fails to explain why this government, like the governments which preceded it, simply will not take the steps necessary to substantially improve the lives of the poor.
There must be a reason why a government with an clear majority of parliamentary seats, facing the worst Opposition in a generation, with the perfect excuse of a global pandemic, will still not take the drastic actions necessary to rescue its most vulnerable citizens. What is it that Jacinda and her advisors know, that Susan and all who think like her don’t know? What are the transcripts of Labour’s focus groups telling the Prime Minister that she remains so immoveable? Why, in spite of her many, many promises, does Jacinda’s government refuse to act?
It must be bad – really bad. Those focus groups must be registering consistent hostility to the sort of policy shift necessary to lift the poor and their children out of poverty. Almost certainly, that hostility is born of the focus group moderators’ honestly setting forth what it would take to make a real difference. The participants are presumably being told that such a massive redistributive effort could not be responsibly undertaken without a comprehensive increase in taxation. They’re talking Income Tax hikes, a Capital Gains Tax, a Wealth Tax, a Land Tax, maybe even a Financial Transactions Tax.
This is not the sort of news that goes down well among the 400,000 former National Party voters who gave Jacinda her absolute majority. Hell, it’s not the sort of news that goes down well among the well-heeled, Labour-voting professionals who inhabit the leafy suburbs of New Zealand’s largest cities.
There will be some in those focus groups, more honest than the other participants, who will flat-out refuse to countenance such a policy-shift as contrary to their self-interest. Others, less honest, will insist that it simply wouldn’t work. “You can’t make a poor man rich by making a rich man poor.” Redistribution of wealth on such a scale would be dismissed as counterproductive. “It would disincentivise the most productive citizens on behalf of the least productive.” Inevitably, someone would mention Venezuela.
How many times have we been here? How often have we rehearsed these arguments? Jacinda will be guided by the reports of her focus group moderators because she knows they summarise the attitudes and intentions of the New Zealanders who vote.
If she knew for a fact that the New Zealanders Susan St John so tenaciously goes to bat for would turn out in their hundreds-of-thousands to support a government that supported them, then Jacinda and her Finance Minister might just consider pissing-off a large number of Labour’s most loyal voters. But election after election, the psephologists’ scholarly judgements remain the same: the poor don’t vote. Or, at least, not in numbers to justify Labour going out on a limb for them.
Labour will go out on a limb, however, for the voters once fêted as the heart and soul of the New Zealand working-class. Skilled workers and tradespeople: the people (oh, bugger all this gender neutrality) the men once referred to as “the aristocracy of labour”; the men who used to dominate the trade unions – and the Labour Party. These men were big on “the dignity of labour”, but had no time at all for those who “bludged” off others. Back in the day, when Labour activists could still say such things, they would happily declare: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” These men were all in favour of giving workers down on their luck a hand-up. But, allowing fit and healthy workers to live indefinitely off state hand-outs, that they did not favour.
In the twenty-first century these mostly Pakeha men are more likely to be found running small businesses than working in a factory. That they still vote for the Labour Party is probably out of a lingering nostalgia for the days when their fathers and grandfathers were the heart and soul of the party. It’s their way of doffing a cloth cap no longer worn, to a white working-class that no longer exists. But, just let Jacinda threaten to raise their taxes and that nostalgic vote will disappear in an instant. National and Act are always just a polling-booth away.
And so, triennium after triennium, this tawdry charade goes on. Labour’s leaders speak of rescuing the poor, not because they have any intention of doing so – the poor don’t even register such promises anymore – but because Labour knows that the kind, well-educated women voters who now constitute its electoral core get a kick out of supporting a party that talks about helping the poor – just so long as it doesn’t help them too much.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 3 September 2021.