Tuesday 12 July 2022

David Seymour Enlists History In Act’s Struggle For Power.

History Man: Does David Seymour have a case? Does history confirm that National campaigns from the right when it’s in opposition, only to govern from the left when it’s in government? The answer to this question is ….. complicated.

DAVID SEYMOUR is on to something with History. Shrewd use of the past can enhance the political campaigns of politicians battling in the here and now. Knowing this, the Leader of the Act Party is seeding the idea that the National Party has a history of “campaigning from the right, and then governing from the left”. On the five occasions the National Party has defeated and replaced a Labour Government, Seymour alleges, it has failed to scrap its predecessor’s socialist reforms.

It isn’t difficult to discern why Seymour is advancing this line of argument. One of the abiding features of New Zealand’s MMP electoral system is its propensity to pile up seats for the parties of the centre, National and Labour, while denying the more overtly ideological (that is to say, policy-driven) parties the parliamentary seats required for anything more than a supporting role. The long-term effect of MMP has been to condition the voting public into looking upon the smaller parties as “also rans”. Useful for applying pressure on the major parties when they are failing to perform in opposition, but best left to the tender mercies of the ideologically-driven at election time.

From an historical perspective, the voting public can hardly be blamed for declining to reward the also-ran parties with too many seats. The first MMP election (1996) allocated 44 seats to the National Party and 17 seats to NZ First. In other words, nearly a third of the resulting coalition government was made up of NZ First MPs. This made for a particularly fractious partnership, the longevity of which was, from the get-go, extremely doubtful. As the Lakota Native Americans used to say: “Too few to win, too many to die.” No one was surprised when the coalition broke apart well short of the 1999 election.

And yet, a replication of those 1996 coalition percentages would appear to be exactly what Seymour and his team are seeking in 2023. He is asking conservative New Zealanders to vote sufficient Act members into Parliament to ensure that National cannot simply brush aside their policy priorities. To convince them of the need to do this, he is reaching back into New Zealand’s political history.

But, does he have a case? Does history confirm that National campaigns from the right when it’s in opposition, only to govern from the left when its in government? The answer to this question is ….. complicated.

Certainly, one could make the case that the National Party leader, Sid Holland, was only able to defeat the First Labour Government, in 1949, by first promising to leave the essentials of Labour’s welfare state in place. In saying that, however, it is important to note that National’s pledge to undo Labour’s reforms, which had formed a crucial part of its appeal to the electorate in 1938, 1943 and 1946, had also been a crucial factor in its succession of electoral defeats.

Seymour needs to accept that if National had continued to refuse to accept that New Zealanders had no intention of losing their welfare state, then his party would likely have ended up in the same position as the conservative parties of Sweden: political losers for decade after decade.

What National did with the power in won in 1949, by accepting the welfare state, was to make damn sure it was not further extended. The fight Holland picked with the Watersiders Union, and the successful struggle he waged against the most militant elements of the trade union movement, shoved “Overton’s Window” sharply to the right. Holland’s and National’s vindication in the snap election of 1951, in which National won 54 percent of the popular vote, intimidated the Labour Party to such an extent that it would not be in a position to hold power for more than three years until the general election of 1984.

The other thing National did between 1949 and 1957 was make damn sure that Auckland became a city of cars, motorways and dormitory suburbs on the American model. The plans presented to Labour by the radical planners of the Ministry of Works in 1946 would have transformed Auckland into a city on the Scandinavian model: a state-designed and constructed network of public apartment complexes, connected by a comprehensive public transport system featuring light-rail and cycleways. If capitalists drive cars, and socialists ride trains, then National’s 1949 win proved to be an unequivocal capitalist victory!

Seymour is on firmer ground when he castigates National for perpetuating Labour policies following the defeat of the 1957-1960 government of Walter Nash. Between them, Labour’s Finance Minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, and its Trade & Industry Minister, Phil Holloway, set forth an ambitious plan to diversify and modernise the New Zealand economy. National’s Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, saw no good reason to abandon Labour’s plan. Although the machinations of a young back-bencher, Robert Muldoon, did force him to tear up the already-signed contract for a massive cotton-mill in Nelson.

That same Robert Muldoon also gives the lie to Seymour’s claims about National governing from the left in the aftermath of its stunning landslide victory over Labour in 1975. It was, after all, Muldoon who scrapped the scheme that was set to become one of the greatest socialist achievements in this country’s history – the Third Labour Government’s New Zealand Superannuation Scheme. Had the scheme proceeded as planned, New Zealand’s current appalling infrastructure deficit would not exist. Nearly 50 years after he killed the scheme, Muldoon’s ruinously expensive pay-as-you-go replacement scheme still hangs like an albatross around the necks of young New Zealanders.

No doubt Seymour would counter that Muldoon ended up running New Zealand “like a Polish shipyard”, making him “the best leader Labour never had”. But Muldoon was never a socialist, he was only ever an idiosyncratic Keynesian who had somehow failed to receive the memo explaining the international conservative movement’s decisive break with the Keynesian post-war consensus. (Maybe that’s because the memo somehow fell into Labour’s hands!)

Labour’s adoption of neoliberalism via “Rogernomics” renders what remains of Seymour’s historical schema nonsensical. Since 1990, New Zealand’s economic, social and political settings have been robustly bi-partisan. Such reforms as have been passed never posed the slightest threat to the neoliberal status-quo. Paid Parental Leave, Working For Families, the re-creation of a state-owned bank, and minor tinkerings in the workplace-relations space, were measures that could just as easily have emerged from a shrewdly-led liberal/conservative government. That’s because they tend to make capitalism work more, not less, efficiently. They’re good for business.

Sadly for Seymour, History is not on his, or Act’s, side. National has dominated post-war New Zealand politics not by governing from the left, but by positioning itself in such a way as to render any argument for a radical left alternative to the status-quo vaguely ridiculous. National’s second victory, like Labour’s, was its defining moment. 1951, and all that, destroyed Labour as a driving and decisive working-class-based force in New Zealand society. And, National’s car-centric Auckland was just the oily icing on New Zealand capitalism’s cake.

Paradoxically, about the only eventuality that could reconstitute a genuine left-wing movement in New Zealand would be the election of a National-Act government pledged to implement David Seymour’s reactionary agenda of gutting the welfare state, further engorging the rich, upping the exploitation of the wage-earning workforce and igniting a race-war.

What History really tells us about New Zealand politics is that Kiwis will only vote for radical change in the direst of circumstances. And that the politicians who most often win our elections, are the ones who promise voters to keep as much as possible about their country exactly the same.

This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 11 July 2022.


John Trezise said...

It is nonsense to say 'Robert Muldoon also gives the lie to Seymour’s claims about National governing from the left in the aftermath of its stunning landslide victory over Labour in 1975. It was, after all, Muldoon who scrapped the scheme that was set to become one of the greatest socialist achievements in this country’s history – the Third Labour Government’s New Zealand Superannuation Scheme. Had the scheme proceeded as planned, New Zealand’s current appalling infrastructure deficit would not exist. Nearly 50 years after he killed the scheme, Muldoon’s ruinously expensive pay-as-you-go replacement scheme still hangs like an albatross around the necks of young New Zealanders.'
There was nothing socialist about Roger Douglas's compulsory contributory superannuation savings fund. It was Robert Muldoon who scrapped it and gave us the more obviously socialist tax-funded universal pension that we still enjoy today, unfortunately in limited form because of the reluctance of the present and previous governments to tax the rich, especially their land. Here's Keith Rankin:

David George said...

"Kiwis will only vote for radical change in the direst of circumstances".

I guess that's why the radical changes, as per the He Puapua trojan horse among other things, were kept under wraps until after the election. Weasels.

There's always the Sri Lankan approach to their incompetent and ideologically possessed ning-nongs. Seriously though Chris; while there are plenty of us that believe we are in dire straits, or at least headed that way, and despite your embellishment, the ACT proposals could scarcely be described as radical changes. Mostly a return to prior arrangements and the implementation of actual democracy. A referendum on the application of the thoroughly outdated treaty for example.
Bring it on David Seymour, someone with the balls to confront the bullshit.

How dire are thing; HOW NZ LOST ITS MOJO. Excerpt:
"Faced with a serious problem, the government sets an ambitious long-term goal. It then launches massive public relations campaigns. Following that, it blows up the bureaucracy but fails on deliverables.

It is the same story in practically every major policy area.

Housing was one of the big issues in the 2017 election campaign. At the time, Labour promised to fix the housing market, reduce homelessness, and build 100,000 affordable KiwiBuild homes over the next decade.

The results after five years? New Zealand house prices have grown by almost 8.7 per annum on average. Emergency Housing Grants, which were below $10 million per quarter in 2017, now exceed $100 million. And KiwiBuild, so far, has delivered just over 1,300 homes – with only 98,700 to go.

New Zealanders used to be proud of their education system, which was considered world-class.

Today, the only measure by which New Zealand schools lead the world is in declining standards.

Reading and literacy have dropped dramatically in the OECD’s PISA rankings. The mathematics skills of New Zealand’s 15-year-olds are only as good as those of 13.5-year-olds 20 years ago. Despite an increase in education spending per student, more than 40 per cent of school leavers are functionally illiterate or innumerate.

Aside from such big policy failures, New Zealanders are bombarded with worrying news daily. There are GPs reportedly seeing more than 60 patients per day. Patients are treated in corridors at some hospitals’ A & E departments, where waiting times now often exceed ten hours.

As gang numbers have grown, gun crime has also become a regular feature in news headlines. Ram raids, where youths steal cars and crash them into small shops, have become common.

Practically every industry can tell its own stories about new complex regulations, usually rushed through with minimal consultation, if any.

Furthermore, there is growing unease about the government’s move towards co-governance. It sounds harmless but it would radically alter how democracy operates in New Zealand and undermine basic principles of democratic participation.

All in all, the picture that emerges is that of a country in precipitous decline. That would be alarming enough. What makes it even more so is a perception that the core private and public institutions lack the understanding of the severity of the crisis or the ability to counteract it."

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I haven't been to Auckland since my parents died, but when I was last there I noticed that the traffic in the middle of the day was pretty much the equivalent of rush-hour traffic almost anywhere else in the country.
This isn't a good thing, partly because the parking situation doesn't match the number of cars on the road for people who have to work in the middle of our large cities. To the extent that my son has to spend about 12 hours out of the house to put in an eight hour shift on some days, and that's in Wellington whether public transport is ... a bit better.
Every so often in my YouTube feeds I take a break from watching comedians and people restoring old stuff to have a look at – what could be loosely considered to be people's reactions to stuff. It's interesting that Americans' reactions to going to and living in Europe, always stress the idea that they can walk to many places, and the public transport is so good that people don't need to own a car, to the point where some of them haven't bothered to learn to drive.
I've been in Japanese cities smaller than Auckland, where the transport system beats theirs into a cocked hat. Only had to take a taxi once, and that was to make sure we actually got to the bus stop on time with our suitcases. National did us a great disservice when they decided we should be a nation of cars. ACT would only exacerbate this, and probably make sure that poor people couldn't afford cars – in case they got too uppity.

Christopher said...

Might one suggest that ACT is not in a struggle for power, it is in a struggle for relevance

Brendan McNeill said...

If keeping most of the country exactly the same is the recipe for political success, then Labour has no chance of retaining office at the next election.

We have undergone the most radical top down cultural shift New Zealand has seen in living memory. Who can pronounce let alone remember the names of all those 'renamed' Government departments that now populate the landscape?

It is possible that in response to Labour's radical agenda, we will witness a radical reaction at the polls. Not that ACT is a radical party - David Seymour was for the mandates until he wasn't. It was embarrassing to watch a Libertarian party throw our personal liberty and the NZ Bill of Rights under the bus, simply because he considered public opinion and the winds of history were flowing in that direction. Principals, who needs them? Or as Groucho Marks reportedly said, if you don't like my principals, well, I have others.

There is a significant proportion of the electorate that is angry at this Government that exceeds the fallout from the reforms of the Lange Government. Interestingly the anger is being generated from both the left and the right of the spectrum. The right of centre don't necessarily see National being sufficiently different from Labour/Greens, so I wouldn't be surprised if ACT ended up with as many or more seats than National in the next Government. Who knows where the disaffected left will go.. TOP anyone?


Chris Trotter says quote:

"Muldoon’s ruinously expensive pay-as-you-go replacement scheme still hangs like an albatross around the necks of young New Zealanders".

I am doubtful that this statement holds up as debt in relative (international) terms that is, at least up to 2019 always reposed in lower quartile territory when surveyed.

A shortage of capital investment for infrastructural project developments arises most from our appalling historically risible NZ sourced savings & investment funding. This in turn is the result of equally low numbers of firm start ups.

Maybe SpaceEx IT, and Games developers, even a Tourism rebound? can reverse these long term trends.

The proceeds of the sale of a SI high country run if reinvested as a tourist mecca of Yurts and horse riding qualifies as a uniquely Kiwi infrastructure investment-development ... does it not?

David George said...

I was unsure so I checked up on ACT's policies re the TOW, here is an excerpt from their leaders speech a few days ago:

"Finally, there is the Treaty Principles Act, or a referendum on co-governance. Labour and National Governments have threaded the ‘principles of the Treaty of Waitangi through every aspect of life and legislation.

Well, this could be simpler than we think. The Principles of the Treaty are the Court’s response to an Act of Parliament. If Parliament thinks they got it wrong, then Parliament has the right to legislate again, and set the record straight.

The Treaty says the Queen is Sovereign, your taonga or property rights are secure, and every single New Zealander - are you listening, John Tamihere? - has nga tikanga katoa rite tahi. The same rights and duties.

That way, when someone says they’re following the Principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, we can say great!

But there’s an extra element to the Treaty Principles Act. We need it to be ratified by referendum. I know people are skeptical about that word. Referendums have been abused and ignored by politicians, at great expense to the taxpayer.

What we’re proposing is that Parliament passes the law, with a clause saying the people get to confirm it. That way politicians can’t back out of the result. That way the law becomes supreme law. More importantly, having the vote makes it ok to talk about. Too many people feel they are shut out of discussing our future, well they do have a right to debate a referendum."


There's no doubt the treaty principles need to be clarified and set in law where appropriate. We have this situation where the phrase is used for all sorts of things undoubtably unintended in, or by any reasonable interpretation of, the treaty. When Don Brash was banned from Massey the apologists claimed it was due, at least in part, to the likelihood of Brash breaching the uni's commitment to TOW principles. By talking about it? These imagined and elusive "principles" are being widely used to justify all sorts nonsense - even including discussion of the TOW itself.

The talk of a re-examination of the treaty principles has raised the possibility of a highly disruptive and divisive reaction. Sounds likely but I don't think we can, or should, carry on this pretence any longer. The TOW, as it's currently being misused and misunderstood, is a mess of arbitrary interpretation that is not fit for purpose as a basis for law. It needs clarification and legalisation.

Anonymous said...

Chris you sound like you think Labour are going to lose the next election...

John Hurley said...

Martin Cooper - who took $800m of our "products" to the Shanghai Expo in 2010 seems to want to come across and The Guy - the one who gets the young person into their first (expensive) unit.
Act opposed this draconian system that uses developer power to scoop amenities from neighbouring properties free of charge.
What's more zero sympathy from a Metropolitan elite and cries of racism if you point out that this is part of a plan to disrupt NZ ethnicity and create a new society (going badly by the way).



Today's 14/07/22 NZ Herald - paywalled ... gives David's views on Racism an intelligent even an "inspired" airing.

Barry said...

My attitude to voting is:
1. Labour is usually a government of action. Half of what they enact is good or neutral. The other half of what they enact is disasterous. On balance they spend zillions and effectively achieve nothing. This current government is 90% disasterous
2. National try to do nothing unless they have to. They usually dont enact dumb things but they usually dont achieve much. However now and then they do get underway with big infrastructure which has long term benefits.
3. For the reasons above I dont vote for either of them. Ive voted always for either ACT or NZFirst.

Lee kwan Yew turned Singapore into a world power with two objectives: Education and good health.
Thats why I currently vote ACT. They are the only party to take education and health seriously.