It’s been a long time since I have written a blog. My thesis got in the way and I made a promise to my Supervisors not to write a blog as it took time away from that. I was, I admit, bad at keeping some of the other promises that I made to them but I did keep the one about the no blogging – until now.
After one of Nationals’ inevitable victories when I was a kid in the 1970s, my father, who was a railway worker and Labour supporter, said to me; “You know I often think that the working class is its own worst enemy.” Doubtless, if he was still alive he would have said that last night as well. While I feel it’s an overstatement, there is a large amount of truth in that observation. After all, in 1931 in the depths of the Great Depression, the majority of people marched to the polling booths and voted for the Tories. In 1935, the majority of people again marched to the polling booths and voted for the Tories. The difference was that in 1935, the Tory vote was split and the FPP system favoured Labour which won its first election. In 1938, after three years of a Labour Government, the majority of people finally marched to the polling booth and voted Labour.
Not blogging and not being, until relatively recently, politically active has allowed me time to think. To be honest I am really disturbed by the lack of progress that the left has made in the past decade. Certainly, the Labour party needs to have fingers pointed at it. Simply, the party appears to have lost the plot. It does not seem to have any sort of coherent programme or vision. A friend of mine made a similar observation today on his face-book page commenting that once Labour stood for workers. Back in those far-flung days, when my father supported it, Labour did support workers and the poor and it used to get over 40 percent of the vote. We have been informed that times have changed and as a result Labour needed to move and so it therefore adopted neo-liberalism and the ‘third way’ or as the former deputy leader of the UK labour party, Roy Hattersley described the third way “a series of cliques looking for a coherent thought.” Yet, horribly for David Cunliffe his most successful moments as labour leader was when he was actually contesting the position and in the immediate aftermath of his win. This was when he actually had stated positions on programmes and actually renounced the ‘third way’ liberalism of his predecessors. However, this success stopped at his first conference as leader when he fudged over free trade and then continued to fudge thereafter.
Of course, Labour is not alone in its sins and, in this breath, I could mention certain left-wing bloggers who regrettably appeared to spend their time inventing or promoting conspiracy theories or scandals. Certainly, the allegations behind Dirty Politics need to be fully investigated. However, the most annoying thing is the extent to which Dirty Politics and the ill-named ‘The Moment of Truth’ were promoted by these bloggers as legitimate alternatives to serious debate and analysis.
All of this leads me to ask what precisely is it that the left actually stands for? People on the left used to talk about the ‘grand plan’ or ‘grand narrative.’ Essentially that they (we) had a set of ideals for a better society which set them (us) apart from the Tories or the capitalists. This grand plan used to be generally referred to as ‘socialism’ and/or social democracy. While, socialism is a term which I am comfortable with, but which has many unwelcome connotations for others, it nonetheless promoted a society which accepted social justice, equality and economic democracy as its basis. Social Democrats tended to opt for the phrase ‘equality of opportunity’. However, the idea was that in this society people had the equal opportunity to achieve their various aspirations.
I have been told that the social democratic project is over. I would argue that it barely got started in New Zealand and that we adopted a conservative version of it. The Welfare state with its emphasis on full employment, free health care and education, decent standards of living, etc are an important part of such a society. But, they are only one part of the programme. The other part which guarantees economic and social democracy and participation remains untapped. A recreated social democratic grand vision needs to turn its back on neo-liberalism and agitate instead for the restatement of social, economic and democratic justice as a central part of its programme. It needs to restate the ideal that people’s aspirations are not achieved through the ‘free market’ but through the ability of equality of opportunity.
An integral part of socialism (and of Sesame Street) is the concept of co-operation. This is something that the left (and yes, the Labour party) has particular trouble with. To be fair, so does the National party. Peter Dunne and the new forgettable ACT MP for Epson are not co-operating partners with National. Rather, they are vassals to a feudal lord. National has effectively cannibalized the right-wing vote which will cause it problems at some point in the future. But, quite frankly, having partners on the left is not, as many in the Labour party appear to believe, a bad thing. It is, particularly in an MMP situation, a good thing. It is something that should be encouraged. The reason for this is because such parties can actually contribute to building and strengthening the left. They can go places, engage with people and suggest things that might be an anathema to some of Labour’s own supporters but nonetheless shore up a left-wing vote and actually help develop an alternative programme. It has to be remembered that most of the reforms that we have today – the welfare state, employment rights, public healthcare and education were all someone’s radical and revolutionary idea at some point.
It is, therefore, disconcerting when you decide to ‘kill off’ your potential partners. Last night, Labour killed Internet Mana. It may deny that, but that is what it did. For Laila Harre, it would have been a situation of déjà vu, as she was the leader of the Alliance when the Labour party decided to kill it off in 2002. The outcome of that killing was Labour coalitions with Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters.
Simply, the days of the Labour party being the only major force on the left is over. Subsequently, it should (needs to) embrace other parties on its left as perhaps bothersome, but nonetheless useful potential allies.
This is already occurring in terms of the party vote. Although, the campaign slogan is “only two votes for Labour can change the Government.” People largely know that this is not true with the result that people are casting their electorate and party votes for different parties. This I feel explains some of the discrepancy in votes in various seats. The media, fixated as they are on simplistic reporting, overlook the combined votes of the Greens and Labour in a seat and instead decide to focus on the single large National vote. Mostly, because the vote for National’s right wing partners are virtually non-existent.
Lastly, there remains the need to engage with people. I have been told, but am yet to check that the turnout in this election is low. If it is low then National’s grand victory is illusionary and that the engagement process has failed. People remain disengaged and feel that the current electoral system does not have a place for them within it. It is little good to encourage people to advance vote if the only people who do so are those who would have voted anyway. If the turnout was reasonable then the left has simply failed in its attempt to engage with people. Certainly, the National party has a simple message to engage people by tying their aspirations to those of its leader. He is a self-made man and you can be too. National’s message is like a Tony Robbin’s advertisement or a verse from Hot Chocolate, “Everyone’s a winner, babe, that’s the truth.” Only, it ain’t.
It would be best at this point to reflect on the attitude of Labour’s first (and only Marxist) leader Henry Edmund (Harry) Holland. Holland knew that the progress of a party was based on more than simply an electoral cycle. It was a long-term project which required patience and education. To conclude this is not the time for fear. Now is the time for reflection and rebuilding. To quote the old catch phrase, “Things are always darkest just before the dawn.” The dawn is coming. It might be a while, but it is coming. People just need to have a little patience and a little faith.
Former UK Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson once famously observed ‘that a week was a long time in politics’ and John Key must be painfully aware of that observation at the current time. It has been a week in which Key has effectively gone from ‘hero to zero’ as a consequence of him having a simple ‘cuppa’ with ACT’s Epson Candidate, John Banks. A ‘cuppa’ which, although being held in full media glare in a cafe in Epson, had an unwanted addition, as on the same table, unnoticed by either Mr Key or Banks, sat an inconspicuous little black bag containing a switched on recorder, which was quietly recording their private conversation.
Over the past week, the revelation of what might be on that recording has seen the Prime Minister deny any wrong doing in relation to comments which he made in the course of the ‘cuppa’. He has questioned the integrity of the journalist whose bag it was and then accused the New Zealand media of acting like the ‘News of the World’ and UK tabloid journalism in securing the recording. He contacted and laid a complaint with the police about the recording, he has walked out of press conferences, and he has made bizarre comparisons of the recorded conversation with suicide. The entire thing would be completely laughable, if it did not have the potential to seriously undermine Key and National’s campaign and effectively kill ACT in the process.
Key walking out of a press conference and avoiding comments about the matter provoked Labour leader Phil Goff to comment that he could not have imagined any other Prime Minister back to Muldoon, acting in such a manner. I would have to concur. Certainly, one could not imagine Sir Robert Muldoon acting like John Key. Muldoon would not have dodged any media ‘bullets’ and he certainly would not have run from a press conference. Instead, one could imagine Muldoon meeting with John Banks in an office (probably his office in the Beehive, as cafe’s were never his ‘thing’), bluntly laying down the terms for any political concessions and then, later, equally bluntly facing down any journalist who dared question him about the situation.
But, Key is not Muldoon. Muldoon was a person of many attributes. He was a polarising and aggressive figure. However, Muldoon could also be bluntly honest. Key is completely different and that perception of honesty is one of the key (no pun intended) factors in this matter. After all, what can be said about a man who opinion polls are now saying that a significant proportion of New Zealanders like, but don’t really trust.
However, what is really different about Key to me is that he has always appeared as a media creation. As a result, one of the principle interests of the ‘cuppa’ saga has been it effectively taking the ‘shine’ off the Key persona.
In the past a number of political commentators, including myself, have tended to compare Key to National’s last long serving Prime Minister, Sir Keith Jacka Holyoake. ‘Kiwi Keith’ was perceived as having the ability to rise above political disputes. Moderation and consensus were the key terms of Holyoake’s administrations in the 1960s. Key has tried to project himself in that mould.
However, the real comparison to Key is not Keith Holyoake. It is, rather, former UK Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Key, like Blair, is supposedly media savvy – as are his ‘minders.’ Key, like Blair, carefully cultivated the media to bring across a particular image. Like Blair, that image was of Key being an approachable, amiable, likable everyman who had a ‘realistic’ programme, which was divorced from the ‘old’ ideologies which dominated New Zealand politics. Simply, Key wanted to appeal to mostly everyone. He wanted to be liked. He wanted to be ‘cool’.
Yet, despite his attempts to appear, like Holyoake as a progressive conservative; as a mediator and a moderator, as a ‘cool’ person, Key’s Government has undertaken a number of extremely right wing and ideologically motivated decisions – welfare reforms, tax cuts, and changes to employment law amongst the number. In addition, Key and National have also suggested a number of future policy changes should he and they be re-elected, such as asset sales. That is because, Key, like Blair, is actually very ideologically loaded and like Blair, Key has attempted to downplay and minimise these policy changes, by suggesting that they are necessary and ‘sensible’ reforms – when in fact, they are not. However, Key, like Blair, has been (largely) successful in this course of action as he has been aided and abetted by a compliant media.
The ‘cuppa’ fiasco is trivial and in any functioning, politically aware democracy it would not be worth comment except for a few lines in the paper or a few seconds on the news. But, in New Zealand’s ‘New Idea’ focused, politically unaware democracy it has become central to political debate. Yet, this is not just a failure or comment on the status of New Zealand politically unaware news media this is also a failure of Key and his media minders. Not just because, Key has massively stuffed up the situation, but, because I believe that initially it suited Key and National to have the issue centre stage as it effectively deadened debate and discussion during the latter half of the campaign. Key and his minders actually thought that they could initially ‘spin’ it. But, they were wrong and the problem, thanks largely to Key, is that this issue has now taken on a life of its own.
One of the factors that combined to bring down Blair was the media turning against him. In the end all Blair’s years of skilful and careful media manipulation were for nought. Blair, like the Emperor in the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, was revealed to have no clothes. With the police now threatening to raid key media outlets such as TVNZ and Radio New Zealand for copies of the recording, Key has effectively isolated himself from them and the media at large. Unfortunately, for Key it has also meant that this entire issue will continue to play out for a considerable time to come – right up, possibly, to Election Day next week.
As Wilson went on to observe…” and, a fortnight in politics is an eternity.”
Why a ‘Cuppa’ with ACT is problematic for National
Guyon Espiner has written an interesting opinion piece about the dangers of National sitting down for a quiet ‘cuppa’ with ACT. Espiner feels that such a sit down and chat over a cuppa could place National in some difficulty and actually hurt its chances at the polls. He comments that the vast majority of voters simply don’t like or trust ACT mostly as a result of the various actions of its MPs over the past parliamentary term. However, I think that National is caught between the ‘Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ on this issue.
It appears to me that National has two options. Firstly, to go for a majority government which would mean that it needs to get over 50% of the popular vote. Although the polls are suggesting that it might achieve this, it needs to be remembered that this has only happened, as far as I am aware, three times previously (1938, 1946 and 1951). While, polls can provide good snap shots, the final poll that counts is on the day itself. In 1996, National just managed to hold onto Government despite polling well throughout the year. In 2002, Labour, despite good poll results previously, only gained 41% on election night and was forced to put together an unlikely coalition comprising Peter Dunne’s United Future Party and Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition.
This leads to option two, which is to ensure that there is a suitable coalition partner in the event that National does get under 50% of the popular vote. If past election results are any indicator, it appears more likely that while National will emerge with the highest percentage of votes and as the largest party in the House. But, it may lack ‘suitable’ coalition partners, especially, those parties prepared to back its economic programme – even the Maori Party is not open to the idea of asset sales and the economic and social restructuring that is being suggested by National. Therefore, the only party that National can count on in terms of being open to its ideological agenda is ACT.
To sit down with Brash over a cup of tea (The Devil) may lead to the outcomes that Espiner is suggesting – as he notes, 99% of people don’t like ACT and the spinoff of such a deal could be bad for National along the lines of voter cynicism toward National and a corresponding decline in its vote. Plus, there remains no guarantee that National voters in Epson will vote for Banks, given the enmity toward ACT in the electorate. Even if Key endorsed Banks, Goldsmith could still win.
However, not to endorse Banks and ACT could lead to National being forced, in the event that it does not get 51%, having to put together a coalition (or being a minority) Government in which its key economic and social planks are scuttled (The Deep Blue Sea).
National has painted itself into a corner – it needs to get 51% or it needs ACT in parliament.
Margaret Thatcher is an icon of the free marketers. It was her Government, in the late 1970s and 1980s, which originally drove many of the reforms that were later copied by other free market governments in the West. In some cases, such as here in New Zealand, we exceeded Thatcher’s economic expectations, implementing ‘reforms’ which she must have only dreamt about. But, while, Thatcher may have left the UK political stage in 1990, with her resignation as a consequence of policies such as the ill fated ‘poll tax’, her economic legacy survives.
Her comments, such as there “being no such thing as society” and that “… any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country …“ not only provide a fascinating insight into her mind. They, unfortunately, still carry leverage and act as a basis for some people in the current political and economic sphere.
And, it is this legacy that has found root again in statements made by New Zealand’s Minister of Finance, Bill English over the weekend. For it was that during the weekend, English and John Key addressed a weekend leadership forum. This forum was attended by ‘leaders’ from Australia and New Zealand. Such forums can be dangerous places for politicians and so it proved to be so for English. As, it was during his forum speech that he committed his latest gaffe by criticising Australia’s high wages and conditions before remarking that New Zealand’s low wage economy was actually a selling point for the country by providing it with a competitive advantage.
He then criticised the Australians for having a poorer electoral system and a more complicated and restrictive set of economic and financial regulations.
English’s address was interesting, in that he was telling the truth when he talked about the fallacy of closing the wage gap with Australia. What English has done is openly admit to all that the Government had and has no intention of closing the 30% wage differential with Australia or indeed with any of the country’s other OECD trading partners.
English essentially stated the truth that if you live in New Zealand you will need to accept low wages and salaries as well as poorer conditions.
Rightwing Business Commentators, such as the NZ Herald’s Pattrick Smelliee were quick to endorse English’s comments, while, at the same time, conversely trying to pour oil on potentially troubled waters. Smelliee noted in his opinion piece titled, ‘Hang on, Bill English is Right,’ the following;
“He’s not saying it need be that way forever. That’s just how pessimistic Kiwis hear it. The assumption is either that we could never “catch Australia” – whatever that means – or “who’d want to anyway?”
Unfortunately, for Pattrick, that is exactly what it means. I remember friends of mine who were devotees of the free market cause in the late 1980s espousing much the same line of thought. They particularly emphasised that New Zealand’s economic success lay with it being competitive in terms of wage rates. They consequently argued that low wages were the only way to get high wages. Of course, the absurdity of this argument is very obvious. If you adhere to such a position then you have to consistently maintain a low wage economy otherwise you become uncompetitive. Indeed, you need to be prepared to lower your wages even further if you are to successfully compete in the global marketplace.
This is not a short term approach, but a long term and permanent one. That is exactly, what English has spelt out.
Further, as English and others of his ilk are aware, New Zealand has actively pursued this policy prescription over the past decades. Its wage and salary rates have fallen behind other OECD nations, significantly so in some cases. There is now a considerable divide even within the country as to what the mass of people earn compared with what is received by those in the upper wage and salary brackets. This divide, while slowing during the 2000s, has actually increased since National came to power.
Of course, several decades ago, New Zealand used to be ahead of Australia in its rankings of wages, standards of living and productivity. At that time, there were no complaints or concerns that New Zealand was uncompetitive or unproductive. While, New Zealand slipped in its rankings during the 1970s, its experimentation with monetarism and the free market during the 1980s and 1990’s have effectively ended any hope of this country achieving any of those rankings again. Since the 1980s, New Zealand has consistently had high rates of unemployment, low wages and salaries (as a result of economic reforms and the Employment Contracts Act) and has consistently experienced low productivity in comparison to other OECD states.
Why is that? Simply, because this is a deliberate outcome of those market led economic and fiscal policies that New Zealand has pursued since 1984. It is a deliberate outcome of these policies to have a set level of unemployment and it is the deliberate outcome of these policies as to why, New Zealanders must have low wages in comparison with other western nations. The Government could, very easily, increase wage rates and conditions by supporting expansionary policies combined with a more expansive range of economic targets and by imposing economic regulations. But, it chooses not to. It has chosen to deliberately pursue monetary and fiscal policies that deliberately hold down and restrict people’s wages and conditions.
The problem is for Mr English that there is always someone lower down the food chain than you. Most undeveloped nations have people who earn extremely low wages and have poor or no working conditions. Maybe Bill English should approach them and tell their populations had fortunate they really are?
It comes as no surprise that private insurance firms might be feeling the pitch in the light of the recent earthquakes in Christchurch. So it should not have come as a shock when people were greeted with the news this morning that AMI (Allied Mutual Insurance) is facing a financial crisis as a consequence of the Christchurch Earthquakes. TVNZ reported that,
“Christchurch-based AMI Insurance is New Zealand’s second-largest residential insurer with 485,000 policyholders and 1.2 million policies across the country. In Christchurch alone it has more than 85,000 policyholders with 225,000 policies – or about 35 per cent of the residential insurance market in the city”
AMI has stated that although it feels it can meet its existing responsibilities to policy holders who have suffered as a consequence of the recent quakes, it might struggle to meet any future responsibilities.
This issue has arisen also after another, considerably smaller, insurance company, Western Pacific which is (was) based in Queenstown was placed into liquidation after the February Quake. It could not meet its obligations to its 7000 policy holders.
Apparently, AMI informed the Government of its potentially damaging situation in early March. The Government response has been to bail out the insurance company, a move which it announced this morning. The Company will pay the Government $15million and the Government will extend AMI $500 Million to cover its claims and to allow it to keep functioning, if it is asked to do so by the Company and only once it has exhausted its own reserves. Bill English also announced this morning that the real total cost to the taxpayer could be more than $1 Billion dollars.
In the same manner that private banks had to be bailed out by Government (socialism for the rich), Government could now be asked to bail out the private insurance industry (AMI), this means that the taxpayers yet again pick up the tab for private concerns.
Of course, to be fair, the situation is completely different. The Banks were largely responsible for their own troubles. In this case AMI and its policy holders were not responsible for theirs. But, questions needs to be asked. Questions such as, that in the light of these two insurance companies having problems how many others might be in the same situation? And, whether it is a good idea to have private insurance companies carry the sole responsibility for claims? And, lastly, if the taxpayer is going to guarantee insurance payouts for homeowners etc then should not the state play a more active role in the insurance area?
In 1869 the Government was faced with similar issues in relation to the insurance industry. The area was under-capitalised and those private insurance firms which were involved did so under certain conditions and only covered certain people. The Government’s solution was to establish a state owned insurance company, Government Life. In later years, the state came to be more and more involved in insurance and ensuring that the needs of the wider community were met. They met those needs through the establishment in 1898 of the Government Accident Insurance Office and later of the State Fire Insurance. All of which were effective and successful in what they did. Prompting rebel Labour MP John A Lee to note in his 1938 book, ‘Socialism in New Zealand,’
“Undoubtedly judged on state capitalistic lines the State Insurance Department has been a glittering success. It has been generous to policy holders, its security has been undoubted, it has effected Liberal improvements in policies … Next to the State Advances Office, the Government life is one of the cheapest lenders in the country…”
Government Life was renamed and sold off in the 1980s, by that ‘far sighted’ visionary, Roger Douglas. It eventually became Tower Insurance and is one of New Zealand’s leading insurance agencies. At the time, Douglas queried the logic of the state wanting to own an insurance company. Why, indeed? The answer to that question is found in the pages of New Zealand’s political history and economics (never Roger’s strong points) and in the current chaos of the Christchurch streets.
There are two options in this situation. The first is simply having the Government prop up AMI (and possibly other insurance providers) through a capital injection (in this case $500 million) and then allowing it to run as normal (which I suspect is the Government’s preferred option). The Government’s current option does allow for Government control and ownership if AMI calls upon the cash injection, but only if it needs to. I suspect also that such ownership would only be for a short period of time.
Another option would be for the nationalisation of the company. Such a policy would allow the Government to directly meet claims, thereby providing policy holders with long term financial security. It allows the Government a direct stake into an industry, which it should never have been removed from in the first instance. AMI has no shareholders due to it being a mutual company – this means that it is directly owned by its policy holders. There would be no buying out of shares, merely a taking over of policy responsibilities.
Given the circumstances and the need to provide people with secure guarantees, I would go with the latter. The Government should be a permanent player in the insurance field.
The Government has announced further cuts to New Zealand’s public sector because of ballooning debt. The public sector, which has been the focus of Government cuts since the election of the National led Government in 2008, is being told to prepare itself for more cuts and even, privatisation in some areas.
As I mentioned previously in this blog, the Government is going to attempt to reduce some of the nation’s debt by reducing the public sector. Key had mentioned this course of action last year, he then trotted it back out in the aftermath of the second Christchurch Earth Quake, muttering that it was the only option. As I said at the time it was rather disingenuous considering he had already proposed this line of action previously.
The fact is that the New Zealand Public Sector is already very compact compared to other Western Democracies. It is not bloated and it is actually, thanks to 25 years of cuts, privatisation and corporatisation, fairly efficient. New Zealand’s public debt as a total of GDP is actually very low and as the CTU’s economist Bill Rosenberg noted in the CTU’s November Economic Bulletin, that Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP in 2007;
“ … are below the small country average, and below higher income countries such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Norway. On the other hand, Ireland with lower levels of government spending is now suffering economic calamity. Average spending in these smaller countries is higher than the OECD average as a whole. Even so, New Zealand’s expenditure has been below the OECD average for most of the decade (until about 2006).”
Where oh where then is New Zealand’s increase in debt coming from? Firstly, it is from Government borrowing, which the Government needed to do to starve off the worst effects of the recession. But, the vast bulk of the debt is actually private sector debt, (70% of which is owned by the Banks) which has ballooned in this country since the mid 1980s. Simply, the argument that the public sector has to be reduced to lessen debt has been the argument which has existed for as long as the New Right has had the purse strings. It is an ideological argument and nothing more, and an exceptionally weak one at that. Its weakness in this regard is noted by none other than the High Priest of the Free Market, Roger Douglas who in 1993 commented that;
“I am not sure we were right to use the argument that we should privatise to quit debt. We knew it was a poor argument, but we probably felt it was the easiest to use politically.”
The final insult to injury is allowing the very sector that is actually responsible for the majority of New Zealand’s total indebtedness run some public sector agencies and operations after the Government’s razor has been through the public accounts. The Government has announced that the private sector will pick up some of those resources that will be cut. Having the private sector run areas of the public service is akin to asking Dracula to run a blood bank.
Simply, the Government is doing everything it can to cover up for its own appalling and inept policies in the economic area. Having cut taxes for its friends on New Zealand’s rich list and then got everyone else to pay for it, through a hike in GST, it is now resorting to cuts and privatisation (which it always wanted to do anyway). Simply, the Government’s own policies are responsible for the state that the country is in. Instead of opting for policies to boost production and alleviate the recession, it is, instead, going to add to it.
People have to ask how long does it take before this particular baby is thrown out with the bathwater.