Thursday 29 February 2024

The Clue Is In The Name.

Truth In Advertising? The Nats do best when they take the “National” part of their name seriously,

WHEN ITS FOUNDERS christened New Zealand’s newest anti-socialist party “National”, they had two objectives. The first was largely cosmetic. The second, and much more important objective, was ideological.

In 1936, the year in which the New Zealand National Party was formed, the “Mother Country” – as a great many New Zealanders still referred to Great Britain – was under its third “National Government”. Although dominated by his own Conservative Party, the new Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, saw no reason to dispense with the fiction that he was leading something very similar to the government of national unity that had been formed to fight the Great Depression in 1931.

Essentially a “grand coalition”, the first British National Government had contained a substantial chunk of the British Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, the first leader of Britain’s first National Government was the Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald.

It isn’t difficult to understand why the men who drew together the defeated Reform and United Parties into a new and permanent coalition decided to call their creation “National”. By consciously referencing its British namesake, and the example it set of bringing together all “responsible” political actors for the sake of the nation; New Zealand’s conservatives hoped to borrow a little of its lustre.

But, more important by far than referencing the Mother Country was the deeper, ideological objective behind the “New Zealand National Party” name. Its founders were determined to differentiate the new party’s purpose and principles from the class-driven imperatives of the Labour Party.

Except for the most socialist of its followers, Labour’s name has always been a problem. It speaks unashamedly of the class conflict lying at the heart of New Zealand’s capitalist society, and of its founders’ avowed determination to put the interests of the working-class – Labour – ahead of those of the employing-class – Capital. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s enemies never tired of accusing Labour of sowing conflict and division. Years after the Great Depression, Labour leader Norman Kirk still fretted about the party’s name, confiding to his private secretary, Margaret Hayward, his wish to drop the word “labour” altogether, in favour, simply, of the “New Zealand Party”.

Had National’s founders been as recklessly honest about their political goals as Labour’s socialists, they would have called their new party “Capital”. Given the numerical paucity of the country’s capitalist elites, however, such forthrightness would have been ill-advised. In New Zealand’s parliamentary democracy, such ideological candour would have condemned the new party to permanent opposition.

Hence the bid to equate the interests of all those who belonged to, and/or voted for, the National Party with the national interest per se. In sharp contrast to the Labour Party, which it portrayed as sectarian, divisive, and disloyal, National presented itself as the great unifier, open to all New Zealanders, and dedicated to the nation’s continuing progress and prosperity.

In a strictly practical sense, the new party was correct – it did represent the preponderant interests of New Zealand. United under its moniker were the rural-based interests of the country’s principal income earners, the farmers; along with the principal generators of New Zealand’s economic activity, the owners of private enterprises large and small. The poet and broadcaster Gary McCormick spoke more truly than he knew when, many years ago, he quipped: “The National Party stands for all New Zealanders – farmers and businessmen alike!”

It is this curious, almost contradictory, combination of political motives: seeking to advance and unite the whole nation, while simultaneously protecting the private and special interests of its farmers and businesspeople; that has dogged National ever since its formation.

In times of prosperity, when farmers and businesspeople, along with the rest of the nation, are doing well, the National Party’s expansive and inclusive political rhetoric finds a ready audience. When times are hard, however, and a choice must be made between looking after everyone, and making the welfare of farmers and businesspeople the National Party’s No. 1 priority, then New Zealand politics can turn decidedly nasty.

Christopher Luxon, National’s ninth prime-minister, has assumed office in times that look set to grow increasingly hard. True to National Party form, he and his colleagues, egged on by their party’s coalition partners, Act and NZ First, are aggressively prioritising the claims of the farming and business communities over those of the rest of the New Zealand population – most particularly social-welfare beneficiaries. Under the rubric of “Tough Love”, Luxon is brazenly playing social and economic favourites.

Historically, this class oriented strategy has not turned out well for the National Party. The last time it turned nasty, during the first and third terms of the Fourth National Government (1990-1999) it set the scene for nine years of Labour-led governments. National only recovered power on the strength of John Key’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge, commitment to pick up where Helen Clark left off.

Luxon could do himself and his party a power of good by studying closely the strategy of National’s fourth prime minister, Rob Muldoon, who, in spite of holding the prime-ministership through some of New Zealand’s most challenging and tumultuous years, won three general elections on the trot. The secret to Muldoon’s electoral success lay in his decision to take the “national” part of National’s name seriously.

His 1975 slogan, “New Zealand the way YOU want it” indicated clearly the populist path Muldoon was determined to follow. Three years later he insisted that his government had pulled off an “economic miracle” and counselled against doing anything rash (like voting for Labour or, yikes, Social Credit!) that might undermine it.

In 1980 Muldoon refashioned the economic-nationalist policies formulated by the 1957-60 Labour Government – policies he had won his political spurs opposing back in 1960-61 – and presented them to the country as his own “Think Big” national development strategy. With these, and having demonstrated, with “batons and barbed wire”, his party’s unflinching commitment to New Zealand’s national game, Muldoon eked out a third consecutive electoral victory in 1981.

Critical to Muldoon’s destruction of Labour’s 23-seat majority in 1975 was his populist promise to outdo Labour’s contributory New Zealand Superannuation scheme. Seldom has so much been offered to so pivotal a voting bloc! Muldoon’s “National Superannuation” promised what amounted to a universal basic income, equivalent to 70 percent of the average wage, to every New Zealand citizen over the age of 60 years. The elderly would remain National Party loyalists – “Rob’s Mob” – for the best part of the next decade.

According to University of Auckland economics professor, Tim Hazledine, a similar opportunity exists today for a politician with imagination and daring to dramatically reconfigure the delivery of state support. Excluding the over-65s, there are more than 600,000 New Zealanders in receipt of transfer payments from the New Zealand state. Noting that many of the recipients of these benefits will remain dependent of the state’s charity for more than 10 years, Hazledine correctly observes that our social welfare system has morphed into something its creator, Labour’s Michael Joseph Savage, would struggle to recognise.

The Professor’s solution? Redirect the $10 billion currently being spent on state transfer payments into a non-means-tested Universal Basic Income of $300 per week for all citizens currently receiving state support.

“Yes, that is somewhat less than what beneficiaries get now,” writes Hazledine in his NZ Herald op-ed piece, “but not a lot less, and it would liberate the productive energies of several hundred thousand able-bodied citizens.”

It might also do for Christopher Luxon what New Zealand’s original UBI did for Rob Muldoon: demonstrate that National is, as it says on the tin, a party committed to the welfare of the whole nation; and, as an added bonus, cement-in the support of a hitherto unresponsive voting-bloc for the best part of the next decade.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 26 February 2024.


CXH said...

Labour should remove 'Labour' from its name because it no longer has any interest in the working class.

The part I find difficult to understand is why the blind obedience from groups like CTU. They are behaving like a beaten partner, always finding a reason to return for more.

John Hurley said...

John is Skeptical

John Hurley said...

Think about it: every place where a lower class might settle down and make a nest is there for the taking (on the overseas market); they aren't interested in "space convenience and beauty" for our lower classes. After all, if our demography reflects the world, why should we favor our lot over the rest of the world? Not only that but "Look how many [ 3rd world] have been lifted out of poverty"?
The cycle is "growth" then infrastructure", ad infinitum.
Two days ago travelling through Ashburton the traffic was qued at Winslow. Bishop will fix that, but only because immigration (by elite consensus) "should not be politicized".
In a couple of days I'm in Queenstown, there will be no parking for my bus at Novotel Frankton and our yard will be full. That leaves the Libary carpark (overnight) in Queenstown 10 kilometers away.
The above isn't a glitch it is a permanent blight - designed to favour Bishop, Collins and cronies.