THE MORE THE VOTERS DISCOVER about Labour’s Three Waters, the less they like it. No matter, this Government has clearly decided that, if it is to be destroyed, then Three Waters is the hill upon which it will die. That being the case – and the still-unfolding Entrenchment Crisis leaves little room for doubt – then the only real question to be answered is: Why? What is it about the Three Waters project that renders it impervious to rational reconsideration?
When a group of people refuse to accept they have made a poor choice – even as it threatens to destroy them – then it is a reasonably safe bet that they are in the grip of dangerously delusional thinking. Cult-like thinking, some might even suggest. But is it credible to suggest that a mainstream political party could fall victim to delusional thinking on such a scale? Is Labour really crazy enough to put its long-term survival at risk?
It is certainly possible. And those in need of convincing have only to consider the destructive impact of Brexit upon the British Conservative Party, and Donald Trump’s malign influence over the United States’ Republican Party. If a majority of Tory MPs could be persuaded that leaving the EU was a good idea; and House Republicans that the 2020 Presidential Election was actually won by the incumbent; then the idea that Labour is hellbent on trashing New Zealand’s unwritten constitution suddenly doesn’t sound crazy at all.
The British Tories were tortured by the fear that remaining in the EU was tantamount to conceding that the days of global hegemony and imperial splendour were finally beyond recall. For the Americans, the fear was remarkably similar: that their fate would be the same as the Brits’; being edged off the world stage by larger emerging powers. Brexit offered the opportunity to “Take Back Control”. Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. Big ideas. Crazy lies.
What idea is big enough to derange the Labour Party into courting electoral suicide? The answer would appear to involve a radical revision of New Zealand history. Something along the lines of the colonisation of Aotearoa being a heinous historical crime. In this narrative, the colonial state is identified as the institution most responsible for the criminal dispossession of Aotearoa’s indigenous Māori population. Labour’s big idea is to facilitate a revolutionary reconstitution of the New Zealand state.
Now, where would Labour get an idea like that? Putting to one side Labour’s Māori caucus, whose interest in such an historical project is entirely understandable, how could Labour’s Pakeha MPs have picked up such a self-destructive notion? Well, the university graduates in Labour’s caucus (which is to say nearly all of them) are highly likely to have come across arguments for “decolonisation” at some point in their studies. The lawyers among them would certainly have encountered and absorbed “the principles of the Treaty”. So, too, would those coming to the Labour Party from the state sector.
It would be interesting to know exactly how many members of Labour’s caucus have, at some point in their past, attended a “Treaty Workshop”. Over the course of the past 40 years these have become virtually compulsory for members of the professional and managerial middle-class. The version of New Zealand history conveyed to those attending these workshops is remarkably consistent: colonisers = baddies; the heroic Māori who resisted the colonisers’ ruthless predations = goodies. Only by giving full effect to te Tiriti o Waitangi can the wrongs of the past be righted: only then will equity and justice prevail.
Many of those attending Treaty workshops will have been invited to “check their privilege” and “confront their racism”. This can be a harrowing experience for many Pakeha, leaving them with a strong inclination to keep silent and step aside whenever those on the receiving end of “white privilege” are encouraged to step forward and speak out. In the most extreme cases, Pakeha are actively discouraged from sharing their opinions, lest their higher education and superior facility with the English language overawe and “silence” those denied such privileges.
When Labour’s Māori caucus (the largest ever after the 2020 general election) sought to take full advantage of the party’s absolute parliamentary majority to advance their Treaty-centric agenda, it is entirely possible they found themselves pushing on an open door.
It is even possible that, formally or informally, the Labour caucus arrived at its own version of co-governance.* What the Māori caucus decided upon as its priorities were not to be overridden or gainsaid by the broader Labour caucus’s Pakeha majority. An arrangement of this sort would certainly explain how the Māori Health Authority and Three Waters became such immoveable items on Labour’s legislative agenda, and why the rising unpopularity of Nanaia Mahuta’s Three Waters project has, so far, proved unable to shift the Prime Minister and her Cabinet from their position of unwavering support.
Labour’s been here before. In the 1980s, the “big idea” that seized the imagination of most of the Labour caucus was what was then called “free-market economics”. By the end of the Fourth Labour Government’s second term it was clear that the consequences of the Rogernomics “revolution” were going to be electorally fatal. Desperate to negotiate an economic policy U-turn, the Labour Party discovered that the Labour Government was, like Margaret Thatcher, “not for turning”. Indeed, many MPs proudly declared that they would rather lose their seats than repudiate the economic reforms they had helped to introduce.
In 1990, Rogernomics was the hill Labour decided to die on. And die it did – at least as a recognisably social-democratic party. The party’s left-wing departed with Jim Anderton to form NewLabour and the Alliance, leaving behind a curious mixture of neo- and social-liberals. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Labour’s Māori caucus has found the party’s Pakeha majority so easy to cajole into backing what, from its perspective, is an entirely legitimate constitutional agenda. Led by Nanaia Mahuta and Willie Jackson, the Māori caucus has taken full advantage of the fact that their Pakeha colleagues’ lack of constitutional conviction has never been a match for their own passionate intensity.
Three Waters may be the hill Labour dies on, but when the victors survey the field of battle, the only corpses they’ll find will be Pakeha. Each one clutching the “Big Idea” for which their party has paid the ultimate price.
* Acknowledgement is due, here, to NZ Herald journalist Fran O'Sullivan, who first raised the possibility of Labour having become a co-governed party. - C.T.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 29 November 2022.