I remember sitting at a Labour Party conference in the 1980’s and hearing an old lady addressing the conference telling us all how delighted she was when Norm Kirk got the path to her clothesline of her state house concreted. Richard Prebble (remember he used to be a Labour MP) got up and completely rubbished her. The little person who was an equal member of the Labour Party as him. He was rubbishing something which was important to her. She didn’t get muddy feet on wet days as she hung out her washing. That was her reality. To him as a cabinet member it was an irrelevance.
To a certain extent this story is a metaphor of what has happened to the Labour Party subsequently. This was a working-class person who was grateful for a Prime Minister she could relate to.
I chaired the St Albans LEC for 10 years. We had 1100 members in the electorate in those days. Our treasurer worked in a factory. The delegates from different branches were freezing workers and wharfies. With a sprinkling of teachers. Mostly working people who believed in a better society. I’m still not sure why I stayed in the Party after Rogernomics, but I did.
Over the decades, thanks to the 4th Labour government and its successors in the National Party, the rights of working people have become less important. They are merely input in an economic mixing bowl. The ranks of working people within the Labour party execs have diminished. University graduates dominate the party ranks. In parliament it would be interesting to identify which MP’s do not have a university degree.
Victor Billot recently wrote in Newsroom https://www.newsroom.co.nz/protest-2022-a-great-variety-of-morbid-symptoms
What has changed is how political struggle plays out. Political divisions have grown increasingly opaque over my lifetime. When I first started paying attention to these things, I can remember old, retired guys and their wives, solid working-class types who were shocked and horrified by Rogernomics. They were losing a battle, but at least they knew what the battle was about. In the intervening years, the neoliberal capitalist agenda has been baked in. A few of the more extreme elements have been rolled back; ruling class politicians like John Key knew the important battles had been won and messing with remaining social protections would probably be counterproductive.
The self-defined left has dissolved into competing tribes of lunatics shouting at each other on Twitter, irrelevant to the majority. And a large, disenfranchised group of wage earners, beneficiaries and small contractors have formed, who have no contact with traditional working-class institutions like unions or the Labour Party. Why would they?
The average union member is a middle-aged female with a university degree. It’s good these areas are covered, but those who need unions even more don’t have them. Not only did unions provide a level of economic protection, but they also had an educative role, and could funnel social frustration towards constructive social change. At least some of the time.
From the writing of By Danyl Mclauchlan in Spinoff: https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/13-03-2022/sunday-essay-the-chain-across-the-river.
Havel * tells us that the power of the powerless is to recognise where the true power in our society lies, how it is used, how it conceals and justifies itself. “Ideology,” he wrote, “has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. Increasingly, the virtue of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it.”
The goal is to change the system, which begins with seeing it. Most people who follow politics do so the same way sports fans follow a game: you cheer your side and hiss at their opponents. I want people to stop looking at the teams or individuals and see these systems at work: “private-sector anticapitalism”; “upwardly redistributive socialism”; regulatory capture. Rent-seeking. Because I think that once you start looking you’ll see them everywhere. And you’ll see that both factions ritualistically manufacture ideology about socialism or revolution, freedom or capitalism, not to deceive the rest of us but primarily to delude themselves
(*Václav Havel was a Czech statesman, playwright, and former dissident, who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 and then as the first president of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. He was the first democratically elected president of either country after the fall of communism. As a writer of Czech literature, he is known for his plays, essays, and memoirs.)
Throughout the world people, like me, who were engaged in political parties have become increasingly disillusioned with the parties we sweated so hard for, and the sort of decisions they are now making. The Labour Party was captured by the Rogernomes.
Nothing much has changed since the 1980’s government. There are now generations of people who know nothing other than what was cemented into place in that era. How “contracting” became the norm. How public institutions ceased caring. How top officials changed structures which then allowed them to receive massive salaries. Look at the number of “consultants” who feed in the public trough.
Look at the energy reforms…
The old manager of the MED who was responsible for the lines company and the customer base would have probably earned 80% of the Town Clerks salary. The last manager of Orion (what it has become now) which is just the lines company (the customers are another separate business) was paid $1m per year in his final year in the company. (Orion also fly the chair of the Board from Queenstown for meetings…). The latest Town Clerk is paid $550K per annum.
The water reforms will create a new trough for expensive engineers to place their snouts.
Back to the Labour Party, my old party. It’s full of academics without working people close to them reminding them about what it’s like on the shop floor
Mary Paul in Newsroom https://www.newsroom.co.nz/the-pandemic-has-highlighted-inequality-but-nothing-has-changed wrote:
Sadly, though, the Labour government has not used the pandemic as an opportunity to remedy inequalities or to try to address the alienation that existed before the pandemic and was denied in the unity rhetoric. An obvious move that may have ameliorated some of the anger now being expressed would have been to give children and families the opportunity to live with dignity by increasing benefits sizably as widely advised, and to increase taxes on property or wealth or both to allow significantly more spending in health, education, and housing.
Although I believe the government has shaped its pandemic policies with an intense awareness and anxiety about inequality, it has only implemented new policies when pushed. It has concealed the reality of social division and suffering using unity rhetoric and has fallen far short of addressing the inequality it inherited.
Verity Johnson a young and refreshingly honest writer wrote in this article https://www.stuff.co.nz/opinion/128047599/why-i-am-thinking-of-ditching-labour.
All the unresolved disappointments of the last election are still here. And then despite there being a global pandemic, last year house prices still went up 23.8 per cent. It looks like I won’t be able to take the Auckland rail link until after I hit menopause. And now there’s a cost of living crisis. It’s a grim day when houses, petrol and broccoli all start to look unaffordable.
The cost of living crisis is also dangerous for this Government because quality of life was Their Big Thing. I know with inflation and Ukraine it’s not entirely their fault. But they can’t ignore the fact that they ascended to the Beehive trumpeting their emphasis on wellbeing, like archangels with organic body-oil side hustles. They filled us with hope about wellness budgets and affordable living … and now this.
And refusing to call it a crisis just looks like they’re trying to gloss over this, so they don’t look so guilty. Not to mention it’s especially galling to have your frustration ignored by a Government who has been hammering on about kindness like a Care Bear with a jackhammer.
So now, as we come out of Covid, we’re looking to peacetime governance. And we’re faced with the underwhelming choice of staying in a loveless marriage – or cheating with Luxon. This is about as grim as $4.50 for one piece of broccoli.
But it’s true, you can’t stay in a relationship out of gratitude for the past. You have to actually have hope and faith in their future. And I don’t know if I do any more with Labour.
So far, I have focused on issues. However, it is often the actions of politicians when they get into power that hacks us off. They stop listening. They get captured by deep cells within caucus and cabinet. I noticed that with the Labour politicians whenever they got into power.
Some don’t but most behave the same… A lot of what this government is striving to achieve is quite correct. However, they are not taking people with them in their haste to make progress. When a government only listens to its own eco chambers which reinforce what they are saying to each other, they miss feedback loops which could soften or modify what they propose to do. There is a very great danger of a racial backlash against some of the government’s proposed reforms and that will be counterproductive. This makes me very sad.
Dishonesty by politicians also adds to the rejection of politics by ordinary voters. It turns people off. This term there has been an at least one extreme example. Despite not campaigning on 3 waters legislation the government proceeded to force the ownership of locally owned water assets and turn them over to a structure which would be totally acceptable to Roger Douglas, or Ruth Richardson. To gain information on 3 Waters around NZ the government made an offer to councils that if the government paid a grant to councils’ they would get access to council’s information on existing systems. An agreement was signed between each council and the government which said:
Agreement to this Memorandum and associate Funding Agreement and Delivery Plan are required prior to the release of Government funding. The council will have the right to choose whether or not they wish to continue to participate in the reform program beyond the term of the Memorandum.
The parties may choose to enter other agreements that support the reform program. These agreements will be expected to set out the terms on which the council will partner with other councils to deliver on the reform objectives and core design features, and will include key reform milestones and detailed plans for transition to and establishment of new three water service delivery entities.
What happened next was despicable. The government, having signed this agreement, changed the rules after they had got the information they wanted, and made it compulsory for all councils to agree to the government’s proposal for 3 Waters. Now over half of NZ’s councils have stated that they are against the proposed plan. I wonder why.
An interesting observation is that the PR machine at parliament (and being also used by iwi advocates) is referring to those who object as being in a “splinter” group. Does council’s representing over 3 million NZ’ers constitute a “splinter” group. Or is that a majority? Maybe not to government PR spin merchants.
Noam Chomsky once said: “the most effective way to restrict democracy is to transfer decision making from the public arena to unaccountable institutions”
Read what Jo Moir wrote last week in Newsroom https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2023-election-fertile-ground-for-democratic-change.
Labour’s landslide 2020 win was the first ever single majority government under MMP and the impacts of that are wide-reaching.
It holds the chair roles on all but one of Parliament’s select committees and has a majority on each.
It gets five or six of the 12 questions at 2pm in the House on sitting days while the other four parties share the rest.
Legislation and decisions around who or what can be scrutinised by Parliament is made by just one party.
None of this is surprising or wrong – to the victor goes the spoils and Labour well and truly thumped everyone else at the last election.
Put National in the same boat and it would undoubtedly be doing a similar thing because the structures of Parliament are designed in that way.
And then an indicator of how those in power treat those who aren’t, or, even worse, are in the media:
National’s Chris Bishop has been denied requests to have the Director-General of Health appear, and his colleague Paul Goldsmith most recently got obstructed by Labour MPs when he called for the Police Commissioner to front over the Parliament protest.
It was Labour’s Justice Committee chair, Ginny Andersen, who put an end to Commissioner Andrew Coster appearing, but when Newsroom approached her, she didn’t want to discuss why.
In a text exchange she said the matter was “well covered by the PM at post-cab yesterday. I have nothing further to add’’.
And she completed the article with the following statement:
The power and influence politicians have on New Zealanders’ lives has never been in the spotlight more. Improving transparency and accountability couldn’t come sooner.
…and so, say all of us.
It is a feature of people moving into cabinet that they grow cloth ears. They stop listening unless they get done over in the media. Then they listen. Often to the wrong things. This happens to all cabinet ministers, of every party, unless they keep their feet firmly on the ground and surround themselves with good advisors who seldom hang around parliament. They become increasingly dependent for their advice and social company on those who work for them in the beehive. These people are generally out of the same gene pool as those in power. University educated and upper middle class.
Victor Billot, in the Newsroom article above continued:
Outside its successful response to the pandemic, the Labour Government has largely given away the opportunity to make social change. The tragicomic aspect is how Jacinda Ardern is reviled as a “pretty communist” when she dumped the capital gains tax, a reform which would have been a symbolic and practical statement of intent. Even the pandemic response has led to a vast upward sucking of resources in this country, which is already heading back to a 19th Century-style wealth distribution. Journalist Bernard Hickey complained about it in a state midway between rage and resignation. “We’re talking a trillion dollars of wealth in less than two years landed in the hands of people who were already wealthy … at the same time as the Government last Christmas refused to increase the benefits by $50 because they were worried that it would increase the government debt.”
Everything seems to conspire to simply shovel cash upwards. How a centrist, status quo Government still under the sway of a neoliberal bureaucracy and a neoliberal business class has become identified as Bolshevik by a large, loud minority is one of the great mysteries of our time. No doubt we will have other tragicomedies coming down the line; one could be a Chris Luxon-led Government dealing with that cost of living crisis he seems so worried about.
Marches and occupations. Angry people. Maybe $700 a week rents would do it; maybe young people on modest wages being told to save up a few miserable thousand bucks a year when the cost of a house goes up $100K. But silence hangs over the suburbs. There is no movement or organisation capable of a cohesive, substantive response in building the economic power and political confidence of the majority, of leading the fight against climate catastrophe. After three decades of capitalist realism, the majority has been stunned and shocked into at best consumerism and at worst survivalism. The wheels spin but don’t connect. Something has been lost. People sense it. The mental dissonance of having free elections, free speech and free markets, and somehow progressively losing a sense of control – and being most definitely unfree.
Here is an amorphous incoherency to the movement. Intolerant of those outside its ranks, inside it is a broad tent, perhaps even a big top at the Circus. White supremacists stand alongside Māori carrying United Tribes flags; New Conservatives rub shoulders with juggling hippies; religious fundamentalists watch on in appreciation as gang members do burnouts on their chopped hogs. Vaccination and mandates seem at times to retreat into the background amongst the motley signs and demands. Anything goes. It may prove to be an ineffective organising model to achieve concrete goals. But it is achieving change of a kind. It has already changed New Zealand political discourse. Within a few short months it has driven the collapse of the poll ratings of one of the most popular leaders of a generation. The camp is gone from the Parliament lawn, but it is not gone.
To reinforce the observation above read this article about the splitting of political parties, reinforcing the sort of mess which USA finds itself in. This article was originally printed in Spinoff https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/the-spinoff-the-people-vying-to-build-a-political-force-out-of-parliament-occupation-fury/IIXDOE2XDVSJCI6GJBWCO7RODQ/.
There are a lot of angry people around, for a vast array of reasons. Covid, locked up in homes, Ukraine. You name it. In the Guardian Larry Elliot wrote in an article https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/mar/13/incessant-crises-show-old-economic-model-is-running-on-empty-financial-crisis-covid-inflation-war.
There is, though, an unmistakeable sense that the old model is running on empty, while the talk of levelling up and greening the economy suggests that the equivalent of the economic settlement that brought stability to the postwar decades is lurking out there somewhere. The current era of permanent crisis has highlighted the faults of the current system and the difficulties involved in returning to the pre-2007 status quo. It hasn’t yet given way to a fully fledged alternative, although history suggests that sooner or later it will.
There’s a challenge around the world demanding that our politicians must change. They bought into a neo-liberal model over 30 years ago and it hasn’t worked. Look at the great gulf between those who are at the bottom end of the pile and those at the top. Unless they change, and do that quickly, there will be more Wellington-type demonstrations where people from very different places will gather together, and we will end up with Bannon/Trump type politicians at the extreme end of the political spectrum in charge.
Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, incarcerated in one of Mussolini’s jails: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
I so want to say what a depressing load of bollocks.
But I can’t.
So now I’ll fight a depressingly heavy load of fact and truth and try to come to terms with how I live my life with some sense of decency.
Vivienne Allan says
Well done Garry. Another insightful article. We owe it to ourselves and our children to protest in the strongest possible terms what is happening to NZ. It isnt about voting for another political party, it’s about understanding what is happening within government. I cant blame the people who are tasked with reflecting what politicians say – what they write is fact-checked by the politicians or used to be – perhaps not now?
Ross Milne says
Good work Garry. We are at a critical juncture not only economically but politically and environmentally. Let me offer this quote which for sums up where the world is. In his book Identity, Ignorance, Innovation, Matthew D’Ancona lays it out very clearly. “ What we can say (Author’s emphasis) is that human beings have rarely, if ever, faced such extraordinary change on so many fronts. Almost no facet of our experience is untouched by rapid mutation, or its prospect. Digital technology leads the field as the most palpable force, but it is closely followed by a suite of competitors: the hard facts of climate science; the sharp decline of job security and indefensible inequities within the globalised economy; the opportunities and challenges of increased life expectancy; the collapse of trust in traditional institutions and corresponding polarisation of politics, a surge in pseudoscience and the proliferation of conspiracy theories; the geopolitical tensions between West and East, closely aligned with the respective innovative capacities of the US and China; the arthritic faltering of the post-war international order and the global organisations in which it is enshrined; the continued threat of fundamentalist and far-Right terror; and – alongside all this – a generational shift in ideas, values and social priorities unlike any for 40 years”. We then add Covid on top of that and the number of issues seems almost insurmountable.
It does come down to the economy and the functioning of capitalism. The neoliberal experiment has been a disaster and has led us to being close to the 19th century conditions that brought about WW1 and WW2. The other problem seems to me the absolute rubbish that politicians talk about the economy. Chris Luxon said that having Nicola Willis as the Spokesperson for Finance would build on the reputation that National is the best at managing the economy. – we know what that means – austerity. Nicola said as she and most women make the big household decisions it was good to have a female finance spokesperson. Despite what she and Angela Merkel might think running the country’s budget is not like running a household. All politicians need to be questioned about their pronouncements about economics because as John Lennon sang – “most of what I say is meaningless but I say it just to please you Julia”. We are in for a tumultuous few years ahead.