Metiria Turei

Do Labour Deserve a Second Term — and Will They Finally Deliver?

Do Labour Deserve a Second Term — and Will They Finally Deliver?

By Elliot Crossan

Jacinda Ardern is headed for a landslide victory in the 2020 New Zealand general election.  The Labour Party are currently polling around 47-50% — down from the stratospheric high of 60.9% seen in July, but still on course for easily their best election result since 1987, and still in with some chance of forming the first majority government since proportional representation was introduced in 1996.

Do Ardern and Labour deserve this remarkable popularity?  By some measures, yes.  From a health perspective, Ardern has shown unwavering commitment to the government’s Zero Covid strategy.  This strategy has succeeded, despite August’s hiccup, and continues to be one of the few genuinely good international examples of how to stamp out this virus.  While so many fellow OECD nations saw hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths as a result of the first wave, and are now being hit by a second wave which in some countries, including the UK, looks to be even worse, the government under Ardern’s leadership have done a brilliant job in keeping New Zealanders safe.

Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

However, as huge a threat as Covid-19 continues to pose to us, the pandemic is far from the only crisis facing Aotearoa.  The housing crisis, a result of 30 years of free market economics, is still in full swing.  Labour have categorically failed to build enough houses, and they’ve failed to keep prices and rents under control.  Their flagship Kiwibuild policy is rightly derided, even though National could not be more hypocritical in their attacks, given their appalling track record in office from 2008 to 2017.  A new approach to housing is needed, one which involves building new, high quality state houses to be provided at affordable rates — and rent increases urgently need to be restricted.  Working class people are fed up with housing unaffordability, and with the fact that Aotearoa has the highest homelessness rate in the OECD.

Labour has also failed to tackle the chronic issue of low wages — teachers, nurses and thousands of other public sector workers had to go on strike against the government to get better deals after being offered pay rises barely above inflation!  Meanwhile, the government’s minimum wage increases have been better than nothing, but still do not constitute a living wage.

It’s the same story when it comes to tax — Labour wants us to be content with the absolute bare minimum.  Their policy is to introduce a new top income tax bracket at 39% for those earning over $180,000 per year.  One of the first policies of Helen Clark’s government was to raise the top tax rate for those earning over $60,000 a year ($91,400 in today’s money) to 39% in April 2000.  Labour’s current election proposal is better than the Ardern government’s first term policy of zero tax increases on wealthier New Zealanders, but it is still not good enough at all.  All other tax increases on the rich have been ruled out, even the capital gains tax recommended by the government’s own Tax Working Group.  Also off the table are reductions in regressive taxes such as Goods and Services Tax (GST), which disproportionately take money from workers and the poor.  Such unequal taxes should have been scrapped years ago!

Jacinda Ardern is without a doubt a better candidate for Prime Minister than hardcore conservative Judith Collins.  Collins coming to power would likely mean the most right-wing government New Zealand has had since 1993, even if it wasn’t in coalition with the fanatical ACT Party.  Collins and National Party finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith are planning extreme austerity measures, while ACT wants to freeze the minimum wage for three years, slashing the earnings of those at the bottom relative to inflation.  Thankfully, National and ACT are very unlikely to end up with a majority this election.

There is no question therefore as to whether or not a Labour victory is preferable to the bleak alternative.  But there is also no question that a second-term Labour government, freed from the excuse of Winston Peters and his obstruction, needs to finally deliver for workers.  Ardern’s strategy appears at the moment to be to coast to a landslide reelection based solely on her Covid record and her personal popularity, while promising the bare minimum in terms of progressive policy.  This means that the only scenario in which Labour will truly challenge the crises facing Aotearoa is if a huge movement of working class people rises up and forces them to do so.

Party Vote Green — But Get Ready to Build a New Party

The incumbent Green Party caucus.

Labour are not the only left-of-centre party contesting this election, of course.  The Green Party are once again hovering just above the 5% threshold required to return to parliament, while the Māori Party have made a sharp left turn in response to losing both of their electorate seats in 2017 after their disgraceful role in propping up John Key and Bill English’s government.  The Māori Party may have ruled out going into coalition with National this time, but the question of broken trust must surely remain.  Also worrying is that the nationalist undercurrent lying beneath their mostly progressive, sometimes radical policy platform is belied by a xenophobic commitment to “curb all immigration,” supposedly to deal with the housing crisis.

The Greens are clearly the most left-wing party this election.  Their Poverty Action Plan, which would give $325 per week as a guaranteed minimum income to all those in need, is a smarter way of packaging Metiria Turei’s brave but heavily scapegoated 2017 policy of increasing benefits and removing all Work and Income sanctions.  The party’s tax plan, released alongside the Poverty Action Plan — a 1% tax on all wealth over $1 million, a 2% tax on wealth over $2 million; two new top income tax brackets, 37% on income over $100,000 per year, and 42% on income over $150,000 per year; and a crackdown on tax avoidance and loopholes — is significantly more progressive than the Greens’ tax policies from previous elections, and should be common sense in a time of crisis like this.  They have emphasised that these policies will only affect the richest 7% of New Zealanders, who can surely afford to pay more to help everybody else right now.  Labour’s complete political cowardice is exposed in contrast, with the Greens stepping up.

The Greens have also made decent commitments on housing and workers’ rights.  They plan to build 5,000 new houses per year, in order to clear the public housing waiting list in five years, and to stop Labour’s privatisation-by-stealth of public land by scrapping the policy of building new state houses on 30% of the land previously used, while selling off the other 70%.  The party has also promised to restore the right to solidarity strikes and political strikes, and to make union membership default when starting a new job, moving from opt-in to opt-out.  These changes if implemented would have huge effects in building the strength of the workers’ movement.

If anything, their environmental policies are the Greens’ weakness this election.  The party’s male co-leader, James Shaw, is the current government’s Climate Minister, and responsible for the passage of the toothless Zero Carbon Act (ZCA), which was watered down in an attempt to be “cross-partisan” by getting support from Labour, National and NZ First — only for National, inevitably enough, to commit to gutting the ZCA if elected.  Shaw’s climate plan is heavily reliant on “green investment” into private businesses.  Shaw refuses to understand that the market cannot solve a crisis caused by capitalism’s need for constant economic growth.

This highlights the central contradiction in the Green Party — a large portion of the membership honestly believes they should have a politically “balanced” co-leadership: a female co-leader, Marama Davidson, who has been a staunch left-wing activist and Tino Rangatiratanga campaigner all her life, alongside a male co-leader, James Shaw, who used to work as a consultant at multinational corporations PricewaterhouseCooper and HSBC, and whose entire political project is emissions trading and green capitalism.  Shaw stated in his 2014 maiden speech in parliament that he is “a huge fan of the market” — and therein lies the problem. He also made the provocative statement that “Thatcher was right” about climate change; he knew what he was doing when he said that.

Green Party male co-leader James Shaw is an advocate of “regulated” capitalism.

The Greens’ political strategy is to play to the left at the same time as trying to court middle class centrist voters, and the politically naïve membership is somehow able to constantly ignore the internal ideological struggle this supposedly “balanced” leadership structure constantly creates.  It is clear that the left of the party has written the transformative social policies, policies which won’t be taken up by Labour unless forced, whilst the right of the party has used its government power to advocate neoliberal market-based environmental policies which the centrists in charge of the Labour Party are quite happy to implement.

What this demonstrates is the urgent need for a new left-wing party based on the power of the working class.  Obviously it is too late this election cycle, but the left must get its act together for the 2023 election.  We can’t keep relying on the very mixed bag that is the Green Party, with its constant compromises, capitulations, and capitalist non-solutions to the huge threat that is the climate crisis.  The left in the unions and social movements of Aotearoa need to stop reeling from the defeat of Mana — which by 2023 will be nine years ago — and form a coalition against neoliberal capitalism which will unequivocally stand for people before profit.

We have three years to gear up for next time.  Until then, the Green Party is clearly the best choice for the left to vote for, despite the blight on the party that is Shaw’s co-leadership.  Moreover, a good result this election for the Greens could well get several left-wing MPs into parliament — as well as current radical MPs Marama Davidson and Jan Logie, the candidates occupying positions 8 to 11 on the party list are:

Left-wing Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson.

Those four candidates need the Greens to receive roughly 8.5-8.8% of the party vote to be guaranteed seats in parliament.  Therefore, voting Green could get six staunch left-wingers elected, and in the absence of a unapologetic left-wing party, those six left MPs will certainly be better than none — especially given one of the new male candidates could be well positioned to challenge Shaw’s co-leadership after the election!

Those who fear that a vote for the Greens could be wasted needn’t fear: proportional representation ensures that, as long as the Greens get at least 5% of the vote, they will stay in parliament.  In fact, MMP means that the centre-left bloc would actually be weakened by voters moving from the Greens to Labour, not the other way around — and though this may turn out to be the first election in many years in which Labour won’t require Green MPs to support the government, as Labour are almost certain to have a bigger share of the party vote than National and ACT combined, there is always a small chance that the Greens falling below 5% could let the Tories in through the back door.

But if we are to take the Greens’ election slogan as advice, the NZ left needs to “think ahead,” and start preparing to build a new left-wing party in time for 2023.  The Greens, progressive though some of their candidates may be, cannot as a whole be relied on to represent the left in parliament.  Therefore my advice to voters is:

  • Party vote Green
  • Electorate vote Green, Labour or left-wing independents, depending on the strength of your local candidates
  • Vote yes to the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill — the War on Drugs needs to end!
  • Vote yes to the End of Life Choice Bill — while this referendum is less clear cut, we believe that everybody has the right to die with dignity
  • Prepare to form a new left-wing party for next election!
Capitalism isn’t working — another world is possible.



This article has been republished. You can read the original here.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist.

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2020 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
The Green Party Must End the Era of Neoliberalism and Campaign for an Interventionist State

The Green Party Must End the Era of Neoliberalism and Campaign for an Interventionist State

By Elliot Crossan

The following is a speech I gave at the Green Party Summer Policy Conference 2018.  Sources and recommended readings are at the bottom.


Kia ora koutou, and thank you to the policy committee for allowing me this chance to speak.  I am going to argue today that the ability of democratically elected governments to actively intervene in the economy in the interests of people and the planet is perhaps the single most important factor which will determine our ability to honour the Green Party’s founding principles.

I want to start by placing this discussion within the historical context.  Between the 1930s and the 1980s, Aotearoa had an economic system which provided a much higher level of equality and dignity to working class people than does what exists today.  The economic pillars of this social democratic consensus were:

  • well funded public services and a robust welfare system paid for by high taxes on the rich; and
  • an interventionist state, with policy targeting full employment as a priority, and with significant sectors of the economy under public ownership or heavy regulation.

This social democratic consensus had its flaws, and existed in a time before the significant advancement of women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights and Māori rights, but it was nonetheless a system which facilitated a far more just distribution of resources than we see in 2018.

Roger Douglas, New Zealand’s Finance Minister in the Fourth Labour Government from 1984-1988, transformed the economy of this country from a welfare state to a free market model at alarming speed, and with no democratic mandate to do so.  Image credit: Te Ara.

This system was deliberately and successfully dismantled from 1984 to 1993 by right-wing free market ideologues.  I’m sure many of you know what Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson did, but to briefly reiterate, their agenda included:

  • large cuts to public services and welfare along with the introduction of GST, allowing for huge tax cuts for the rich; and
  • an end to the policy of full employment, along with fire sale privatisation and rampant deregulation of industry, commerce and trade, reducing the size and role of government and leading to the dominance of finance, insurance and real estate in the economy, as well as, crucially, to massive environmental destruction, such as the rapid expansion of dairy farming.

We are all acutely familiar with the results of the political project which we know by many names: Rogernomics, trickle-down economics, or most accurately, neoliberalism.  We know the big picture effects: a dramatic rise in poverty and inequality, with low wages, the worst housing crisis in the OECD, high personal debt, and environmental destruction all occurring alongside the accumulation of fabulous wealth by the owners of corporations, land, and financial institutions.  We know it on a more personal level, in our own lives and in the lives of people we care about.  This was what Metiria’s story was about — cuts to welfare directly caused the poverty she and her daughter suffered in the 90s.  This shocking inequality crisis is a direct result of the neoliberal economic system we have been living under since 1984, which the Fourth Labour Government and the Fourth National Government never had a mandate to implement — it is a system which should have immediately been overturned.

Metiria Turei confessed to the fact that she committed benefit fraud in the 1990s in order to feed her daughter.  She was forced to do so because of the welfare cuts which were a vital piece of the neoliberal project.  Image credit: Newshub.

But the neoliberal project did not end after National were voted out of power in 1999 and Helen Clark entered the Beehive.  Jane Kelsey outlines in her 2002 essay The Third Way: A Road To Nowhere that what followed the 1999 change of government was a more deeply embedded form of neoliberalism.  Rather than being toppled as voters wanted, the rule of the free market became the new common sense — whether people liked it or not.  Clark’s government was an administration which knocked off the very sharpest edges of neoliberalism, but was nonetheless utterly committed to the economic fundamentals put in place by the free market radicals.  It was an exercise in careful management, not meaningful reform.  Most privatisations were not reversed, net government spending was not increased, full employment was not reintroduced, and both labour law reform and tax increases on the rich were extremely limited.  As a result, the bottom 10% of New Zealanders got poorer under Clark, while house prices doubled, and the rich continued to get richer.  Emissions continued to rise and fresh water quality continued to fall.

When National replaced Labour in 2008, they continued not the legacy of Roger and Ruth, but the legacy of the Clark Government: careful management of the system, albeit with minor alterations in favour of capital rather than labour.  The overall structure of neoliberalism continued unperturbed.

The Budget Responsibility Rules, the fiscal policy we along with Labour contested the 2017 election on, were a commitment to the same exercise in management rather than genuine reform which the Clark government embodied.  BRR committed the Greens and Labour to keeping core crown spending to an average of 30% of GDP over a three year cycle, roughly 1% of GDP more than National intended to spend, while running surpluses, and reducing debt to 20% of GDP.  This is while international interest rates are the lowest they have been in decades and while New Zealand has a public debt level so low that it is the envy of the developed world — and far more importantly, it is while so many of our people are struggling to make ends meet, and while our environment is facing utter devastation from climate change and other forms of pollution.

There is no economic rationale for BRR whatsoever — on the contrary, this was a political choice.  Andrew Little declared at the launch of the policy that Labour and the Greens if elected would be “a smart government, not necessarily a big government.”  This was not sound economics — it was neoliberal ideology.  It was stating that Labour and, to our shame, the Greens were campaigning to blunt the blade of neoliberalism, but not to fight back against it whatsoever — BRR could not have been a more blatant refusal to champion a new economic order in the interests of the majority of New Zealanders.  BRR was political cowardice and an utter neglect of the kaupapa the Green Party exists to fight for.

The lack of commitment in our election priorities to reversing privatisation was worrying.  Privatisation is one of the main reasons why our economy is a dictatorship of profit and greed, while inequality and environmental destruction are produced as toxic byproducts of wealth accumulation.  Any progressive party which refuses to commit to renationalisation is, implicitly if not necessarily rhetorically, agreeing with the neoliberal dogma that market is best.  All this dogma does is entrench an economic system rigged in the interests of profiteers at the expense of everybody else.

Privatisation was one of the main forces which drove the dramatic rise in inequality in the 1980s and 1990s.  Image credit: Closer Together.

So what is an alternative policy, one which breaks with the era of small government and resultant obscene inequality and environmental destruction?  The Green Party needs to commit to rebuilding a state which intervenes directly into the economy to redistribute wealth — not just to end poverty, but to dramatically improve the living standards of the working class as a whole; a statwhich invests in urgently resolving the colossal environmental crises we face, such as climate change and the impending extinction of much of Aotearoa’s biodiversity.  This means a policy of fiscal expansion; rather than arbitrarily capping our ability to spend public money, as BRR did, we must declare that we start from the principle of wanting to ensure higher living standards and a healthier environment for the majority of the population, that we will spend as much money as we require to do so, and that we will tax the rich to pay for it.  Austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

We must end the era of privatisation and commit to reintroducing public ownership.  Universal basic services is a model which has been proposed by inequality experts in the UK, which would entail the public ownership of housing, healthcare, education, transport, energy, water and communications, all of which would be provided free at the point of use, at a high standard, to everybody.  Rather than redistributing money after market forces have taken place, as the welfare system currently does and as a proposal such as universal basic income would, universal basic services means rejecting the dogma that market is best and reducing the cost of living for everybody by ending private control and the profit motive in areas of the economy most crucial to society.  Universal basic services would ensure a new era of equality and stability for Aotearoa.

A UK Labour Party poster from 1945 called for “public ownership, not private monopoly!”  NZ Labour has abandoned its commitment to nationalisation and is a neoliberal party to the core — the Green Party must now advocate for public ownership instead.

Direct public ownership in energy, transport, housing and water means government would be able to intervene to create better environmental outcomes, far more so than does the system based on short-term private profit taking precedence over the people, the planet, and the future.  As British economist Paul Mason argues in his 2015 book Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future: “[t]he real absurdists are not the climate-change deniers, but the politicians and economists who believe that the existing market mechanisms can stop climate change, that the market must set the limits of climate action and that the market can be structured to deliver the biggest re-engineering project humanity has ever tried.”  Mason is absolutely correct; a Green future must be forcefully and urgently constructed by an interventionist state.

Fiscal expansion and public ownership are absolutely key to realising our Charter principles of Social Responsibility and Ecological Wisdom, and also, I would argue, to creating power structures based on Appropriate Decision-making.  It is a complicated subject however, as many in the Green Party rightly have an uneasy relationship with the idea of a centralised and top-heavy state.  My view is essentially that under capitalism, democratically accountable governments are far preferable to corporate control for protecting people from the greed of the wealthy, and for empowering people and giving them agency in their lives.  In her maiden speech in parliament, Metiria quoted a conversation between Noam Chomsky and a group of Brazilian activists which perfectly sums up my view on this complex relationship between anti-authoritarianism and the state: “We know we’re in a cage.  We know we’re trapped.  We’re going to expand the floor, meaning we will extend to the limits what the cage will allow.  And we intend to destroy the cage.  But not by attacking the cage when we’re vulnerable, so they’ll murder us.  You have to protect the cage when it’s under attack from even worse predators from outside, like private power.  And you have to expand the floor of the cage.  These are all preliminaries to dismantling it.”

I also propose we examine closely two reports to better honour Appropriate Decision-making in this policy.  One is the recently released report to the UK Labour Party on Alternative Models of Ownership, which goes into detail on how to ensure that the state is more participatory and democratically accountable than ever in its processes even while fiscal expansion and public ownership are taking place, with workers in and users of public services having a say in how they are run rather than succumbing to big state bureaucracy.  The other of course is the Matike Mai Report, which is essential for understanding how we might design a state which functions according to Te Tiriti and does not violate the tino rangatiratanga of Tangata Whenua in its actions.

The questions before us come down to the very core of debates within the Green Party at the moment: are we going to be a party which exists to manage the status quo, or are we to be the political force which calls time on inequality, environmental catastrophe, and unaccountable private power, and argues for government intervention in the interests of the many, not the few?  I think I know which of these options the inspired activists who founded the Values Party 46 years ago had in mind.  I know which option resonates with myself and my peers as we yearn for a future in which ourselves and the generations who come after us can once again live with dignity, safe in the knowledge that across society nobody must suffer for the sake of wealth accumulation.



Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist. At time of writing, he was a member of the Green Party and the GreenLeft Network.


Recommended Reading

  • Barrlott, C., Brown, M., Cumbers, A., Hope, C., Huckfield, L., Jump, R. C., McInroy, N., Shaw, L., & Anonymous. (2018).  Alternative Models of Ownership (Rep.).  London, UK.: Labour Party.
  • Chomsky, N. (1997, April).  Expanding the Floor of the Cage [Interview by D. Barsamian].  Z Magazine.
  • Harvey, D. (2005).  A Brief History of Neoliberalism.  New York, USA.: Oxford University Press.
  • Jackson, M., & Mutu, M. (Eds.). (2016).  He Whakaaro Here Whakaumu Mo Aotearoa: The Report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (Rep.).  Matike Mai Aotearoa – The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation.
  • Kelsey, J. (2002).  At the Crossroads: Three Essays.  Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books.
  • Klein, N. (2017).  No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.  London, UK.: Allen Lane.
  • Malva, S. (2017, December).  Land, Housing and Capitalism: The Social Consequences of Free Markets in Aotearoa New Zealand.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.academia.edu/35718593/Land_Housing_and_Capitalism_The_Social_Consequences_of_Free_Markets_in_Aotearoa_New_Zealand
  • Mason, P. (2015).  Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future.  London, UK.: Allen Lane.
  • Mazzucato, M. (2011).  The Entrepreneurial State.  London, UK.: Demos.
  • Percy, A., Portes, J., & Reed, H. (2017).  Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services (Rep.).  London, UK.: Institute for Global Prosperity.
  • Rashbrooke, M. (2017, September 22).  A Tenuous Grasp on Inequality.  Retrieved March 2, 2018, from http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/election-2017/339982/a-tenuous-grasp-on-inequality


Sources

Barrlott, C., Brown, M., Cumbers, A., Hope, C., Huckfield, L., Jump, R. C., McInroy, N., Shaw, L., & Anonymous. (2018).  Alternative Models of Ownership (Rep.).  London, UK.: Labour Party.

Chomsky, N. (1997, April).  Expanding the Floor of the Cage [Interview by D. Barsamian].  Z Magazine.

Duncanson, M., McGee, M., Morris, S., Oben, G., Simpson, J., & Wicken, A. (2017).  Child Poverty Monitor Technical Report (Rep.).  Dunedin, NZ.: New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service, University of Otago.

Jackson, M., & Mutu, M. (Eds.). (2016).  He Whakaaro Here Whakaumu Mo Aotearoa: The Report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (Rep.).  Matike Mai Aotearoa – The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation.

Kelsey, J. (1995).  The New Zealand Experiment: A World Model for Structural Adjustment?  Auckland, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books.

Kelsey, J. (2002).  At the Crossroads: Three Essays.  Wellington, N.Z.: Bridget Williams Books.

Kelsey, J. (2015).  The FIRE Economy.  Wellington, NZ.: Bridget Williams Books.

Little, A., MP, & Shaw, J., MP. (2017, March 24).  Budget Responsibility Rules.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://www.greens.org.nz/policy/smarter-economy/budget-responsibility-rules

Malva, S. (2017, December).  Land, Housing and Capitalism: The Social Consequences of Free Markets in Aotearoa New Zealand.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.academia.edu/35718593/Land_Housing_and_Capitalism_The_Social_Consequences_of_Free_Markets_in_Aotearoa_New_Zealand

Mason, P. (2015).  Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future.  London, UK.: Allen Lane.

McCammon, B. (2016, June 28).  10% richest Kiwis own 60% of NZs wealth.  Retrieved September 30, 2017, from http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/307458/10-percent-richest-kiwis-own-60-percent-of-nzs-wealth

Minto, J. (2008, May 05).  Labour’s policies continue to keep NZ children in poverty.  Retrieved September 30, 2017, from https://johnminto.wordpress.com/2008/05/05/labours-policies-continue-to-keep-nz-children-in-poverty/

Pasquali, V. (2015, October 31).  Percentage of Public Debt in GDP Around the World.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://www.gfmag.com/global-data/economicdata/public-debt-percentage-gdp?page=2

Percy, A., Portes, J., & Reed, H. (2017).  Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services (Rep.).  London, UK.: Institute for Global Prosperity.

Rosenberg, B. (2017, August 28).  Economist Bill Rosenberg details how low and middle-income wages have been hollowed out as higher earners experienced greater growth while those below them had to work more hours each week.  Retrieved January 01, 2018, from https://www.interest.co.nz/news/89552/economist-bill-rosenberg-details-how-low-and-middle-income-wages-have-been-hollowed-out

Rashbrooke, M. (2017, September 22).  A Tenuous Grasp on Inequality.  Retrieved March 2, 2018, from http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/election-2017/339982/a-tenuous-grasp-on-inequality

Turei, M., MP. (2002, September 03).  Maiden Speech of Metiria Turei.  Retrieved March 01, 2018, from https://home.greens.org.nz/speeches/maiden-speech-metiria-turei

Turei, M. (2017, July 15).  Mending the Safety Net – Metiria Turei’s speech to the Green Party 2017 AGM.  Retrieved February 28, 2018, from https://www.greens.org.nz/news/speech/mending-safety-net-%E2%80%93-metiria-turei%E2%80%99s-speech-green-party-2017-agm

Wright, T. (2017, February 27).  Special report: how polluted are New Zealand’s rivers?  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/02/special-report-how-polluted-are-new-zealand-s-rivers.html

Author unknown. (2017, January 11).  Global Housing Watch.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.imf.org/external/research/housing/index.htm

Author unknown. (2017, March 09).  Global house prices.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/03/daily-chart-6?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fbl%2Fed%2F

Author unknown. (2018).  Interest rates – Long-term interest rates – OECD Data.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from https://data.oecd.org/interest/long-term-interest-rates.htm

Author unknown. (n.d.).  Greenhouse gas emissions.  Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://archive.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/nz-progress-indicators/home/environmental/greenhouse-gas-emissions.aspx

Author unknown (n.d.).  New Zealand Households Debt To Income  1991-2018.  Retrieved January 01, 2018, from https://tradingeconomics.com/new-zealand/households-debt-to-income

Posted by Elliot Crossan in Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments
What Happened? A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

What Happened? A Class Analysis of the 2017 New Zealand General Election

Part 1 of 2

By Elliot Crossan

Once again, and for the fourth time in nine years, in the wake of New Zealand’s general election, the aftermath for the left is despondency and despair.  The National Party has again won a percentage of party votes that should be impossible under MMP; a racist and slightly mad populist holds the balance of power despite only receiving 7.5% of the vote; and the Green Party has lost half its MPs.  While it is understandable, much of the reaction thus far involves negativity towards voters and non-voters alike — largely consisting of accusations that the electorate are inherently either selfish or apathetic.  This analysis does not feel right to me at all.

We are allowed to weep, and we are allowed to lash out.  To be emotional in this time is inevitable.  My instinctive response is to try to avoid my emotions and rationalise everything, hence this essay!  But it is counterproductive and, in my view, quite unfair to attack the voters.  We need to analyse why people voted the way they did, what went so badly wrong that National could all but win a fourth term, and what needs to happen in 2020.  Don’t mourn, organise!

Politics primarily comes down to two things: the material conditions of the voters, and which political force is articulating the most coherent and convincing story about why the status quo is the way it is and what to do to change the to improve conditions for people in a just way.  In this essay I will try to analyse why the status quo continues to prevail despite an economic system that is granting benefits of growth to the already wealthy instead of to the majority of people.

Bill English celebrates National’s unexpectedly strong showing.  Image credit: Newshub.

National’s Support Holds Strong

The main reason the left feels so disorientated by this result is that National’s large, solid support base has once again not budged.  In moments of anguish, we see this fact as proof that a majority of New Zealanders are selfish and do not care about poverty, inequality, and climate change, as these issues do not affect them.  I believe this attitude is defeatist, simplistic and wrong.

Why has National received 45-47% of the vote in every election since 2008?  To understand we first must adjust that for turnout.  National has in fact received 35-36% in the last four elections, with turnout fairly steady at between 74% and 79%.  In short, the 35-36% of New Zealanders who vote National largely benefit from economic growth driven by rising house prices and low wages, and from the income tax cuts granted by a National government in surplus.  It can be argued that these people — the older, conservative, comfortable middle-and-upper classes — are morally condemnable for not caring about poverty, inequality and climate change.  To argue thus does not help us in any way, even if it is true.  People vote for their living standards and are mostly unaware of what is going on outside of their own personal bubbles.  This applies to the left as well as the right.  This is not going to change.  The problem is that, while 35% of people vote for National, we are not able to either articulate a more coherent narrative about society than the right’s vision of neoliberal individualism and therefore win over some of their voters, or muster at least 40% of potential voters to outvote and defeat the comfortable middle classes.

The only way National will lose their support base and cease to continuously win elections under the current political climate would be a severe recession caused by the global economy tanking and/or the collapse of the housing market.  This would be a catastrophe for all of us, hitting the poorest the hardest, as it would result in mass unemployment, massive cuts in government spending from whichever neoliberal government was in power, and in a ‘lost generation.’  This is precisely what happened in Ireland, Greece and Spain, and to a lesser extent in many other European countries.  We simply cannot let it happen here.  We need to defeat National, diffuse the housing market bomb, make our economy more resilient to international conditions, and rebuild the welfare state — before it is too late.

‘Jacindamania’ Falls Flat

But Jacinda Ardern increased the Labour vote by 10.7%?  Once again, it is not as simple as that.  In 2014, Labour and the Greens fell to a nadir, with a combined total of 35.8% of the vote, while National received 47%, an unprecedented result for any party in an MMP system, and especially a scandal-ridden government going into its third term.  This result looks even better when you realise that Colin Craig’s Conservative Party all but stole 4% from National — if it had not been for the Conservatives, Key would likely have scored an outright majority, utterly unheard of under MMP.

The collapse of Craig’s party thereafter masked the polling trends over the next three years.  National suffered a small amount of third term attrition, but that drop in the polls was stymied by pretty much all of the former Conservative voters returning to the Nats or New Zealand First.  The polls did not change much when John Key resigned and National transitioned with once again remarkable skill to Bill English.  Between the resignations of John Key and Andrew Little, the Labour-Green bloc polled consistently within a range of 37.1% and 44%, while National’s range was 43%-49%.  With the election result of Labour-Green 41.6%, National 46%, these poll results were strikingly similar to what happened.

What, then, was ‘Jacindamania’ all about?  Firstly, she realigned the existing centre-left.  The Greens were polling between 9% and 14.5% before hitting an all-time high in Colmar Brunton polling of 15% after Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud and attempt to start a conversation about poverty.  In the chaos that followed, with Kennedy Graham and David Clendon sabotaging the Greens, Ardern becoming Labour leader, and Metiria herself resigning, the Greens collapsed from 9-15% down to their worst election result since 2005, 5.9%.  Labour, meanwhile, increased their vote by 10.7%.  This is roughly equivalent to the 4.8% of voters Labour took from the Greens, plus the 4% they had already taken from National while Little was still leader, plus a couple more percentage points from Winston Peters.  NZ First polled between 7.5% and 13% while Little was leader, and ended up on 7.5%, at the bottom of that range.  It is likely Ardern took 2-3% from NZF, but no more.  All ‘Jacindamania’ resulted in was Green voters jumping from their burning ship to Labour, plus a small number of NZF voters also returning to Labour.  Ardern is acting like this was some kind of triumph, and from her narrow, tribally Labour perspective, 13 new MPs is a victory.  To not manage to overturn a three term government, despite the massive media hype she generated, is a cataclysmic defeat.

Jacinda Ardern should not be celebrating victory over anyone but the more progressive Greens.  Image credit: RTE.

Secondly, during her seven-week campaign, Ardern did, for a time, start to win over National voters.  The combined Labour-Green polling under her leadership ranged from 41.3% to 51%.  The National vote ranged from 39% to 47.3%.  Why, then, did the election result end up at the very lowest estimate for the centre-left, and the very highest estimate for the right?

There are two most likely reasons for this.  The first is that people did not turn out for Labour and the Greens.  The second is that ‘Jacindamania’ ground to a halt because of Labour’s utter weakness on tax.  This second explanation requires some historical context.

The Third Way

Since the 1990s, social democratic parties across the developed world, such as Labour, have been predominantly run by ‘centrist’ leaders who are not prepared to challenge the neoliberal status quo of small government and low taxes on the rich.  This movement in social democracy, named the Third Way, was spearheaded by Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK, who, after the right-wing revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, argued that voters were fundamentally happy with this new norm of stratified, unequal societies, and that the centre-left should not alter neoliberalism once in power.  The success of Third Way politics in hijacking social democratic parties across the western world has meant that elections since the 80s and 90s have been fought on this premise: under conditions of economic growth, the right, if they win, will deliver tax cuts, and if the centre-left win, they will deliver a small increase in public spending.  However, the centre-left will not raise taxes much if at all, and will not counter any of the systemic changes made in the 80s that saw dramatic rises in inequality across the world.  If there is a recession, both parties will cut government spending, increasing inequality even more.  The neoliberal project could not have been successful without the victory of Third Way politics within formerly left-wing parties, parties which would traditionally have opposed and implemented policies to counter these shocking levels of inequality.

Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the world’s most iconic political champion of free market, union busting neoliberal economics, was once asked what her greatest achievement was, and her answer was New Labour.  New Labour was the rebranded UK Labour Party after the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994.  This was either high praise or a damning indictment of Blair’s legacy, depending on what side of the political spectrum you fall on — for whether or not you agree with free market economics, what is clear is that the founder of neoliberalism in the UK saw the final victory of her political and economic project as the coming to power of a Labour leader, and from 1997 to 2007 a Labour Prime Minister, who believed that Thatcherism as an ideology and a set of policies was both necessary and justified.  An example of New Labour cementing neoliberalism into place in Britain was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (UK equivalent of the Finance Minister), in Blair’s government, Gordon Brown’s approach to the size of government.  After 18 years of a hard right Conservative government aggressively shrinking the size of the welfare state, with fire sale privatisations, major cuts to public services, and huge tax cuts for the rich, Brown came into office as Chancellor promising to commit for the first two years of the New Labour administration to the same austerity spending plans as the outgoing Conservatives.  He also pledged Labour to a Fiscal Golden Rule of only ever borrowing money for investment purposes.  As a package these fiscal policies meant keeping the size of the state low, to Thatcher’s delight.  Left-wing critics, such as socialist Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, called for an increase in social spending and in taxes for the rich to close the inequality gap Thatcher had created, and were ignored.  Brown was later to be Prime Minister from 2007-2010, and implemented cuts to government spending in response to the Global Financial Crisis before being voted out at the 2010 election, only for the Conservatives to increase the harshness of the cuts.  New Labour represented, as was always the intention of the neoliberals in the UK, the full adoption of free market economics by the major social democratic party alongside the major right-wing party which introduced the ideology in the first place.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK 1997-2007, and Bill Clinton, US President 1993-2001, the Third Way ideologues.  Image credit: BBC.

Left-wing critics of Third Way politics opposed Blairism, but were even more hostile to 1993-2001 US President Bill Clinton of the Democratic Party.  President Clinton not only cemented neoliberalism as New Labour did, but aggressively expanded it.  He was responsible for, among other policies: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which locked in low wages, labour and environmental standards across the continent; the repeal of the Wall Street regulation Glass Steagal which separated investment banking from commercial banking, contributing directly to the Financial Crisis; and savage cuts to welfare in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.  In the State of the Union address in which he announced these welfare cuts, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over.”  This aptly summarises the Third Way approach to the economy: the free market is here to stay.

Third Way Politics In New Zealand

In New Zealand, Helen Clark’s Fifth Labour Government conformed directly to this formula of Third Way politics.  Under Clark’s watch, inequality continued to rise, until the implementation of Working For Families, when it fell back to roughly the same level it had been before Labour came into power, under the market fundamentalist Fourth National Government.  Labour raised the top rate of income tax from 33% to 39%, which was significantly lower than the 66% top rate under National Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (1975-1984).  But the bottom 10% of New Zealanders got poorer under the Clark government, because Labour refused to extend Working For Families to beneficiaries.  This is consistent with Third Way ideology, which allows for a very moderate redistribution of wealth to working families in times of economic growth, but only conditionally.  If the economy stops growing, advocates of Third Way politics believe that such redistribution cannot be afforded.  Meanwhile, this redistribution is not granted at all to those who are not in work, whom Third Way politicians condemn to poverty, starvation, poor health, and decreased life expectancy.  This is the result of refusing to break with the fundamental structures of neoliberal economics.  Meanwhile, under Clark, our fresh water quality was degradednet carbon emissions rose, and house prices doubled.

Inequality in New Zealand over time — Helen Clark’s government never intended to restore inequality levels to what they were before the 1984-1993 neoliberal revolution.  Image credit: Closer Together.

Jacinda Ardern is a Third Way politician, as are most Labour MPs, and some in the Greens (disgraced former Green MPs Kennedy Graham and David Clendon would probably fit this description, but not social justice activists such as Metiria Turei).  In March this year, Labour and the Greens, who had agreed in a Memorandum of Understanding in mid-2016 stating that they would work together to change the government in the 2017 election campaign, signed up to Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR) which committed the parties, in a future coalition government, to tight fiscal parameters.  These parameters were directly modelled on New Labour’s fiscal Golden Rule policy and its commitment to austerity-era spending plans.  Labour leader at the time, Andrew Little, echoed the words of Bill Clinton at the launch of BRR; “We’ll be a smart government, not necessarily a big government,” he declared.  The key aims of the BRR were to keep core crown spending to an average of 30% of GDP over a three year cycle, or roughly 1% of GDP higher than National intended to spend, while running surpluses and reducing debt to 20% of GDP.  This is while international interest rates are the lowest they have been in decades and while New Zealand has a debt level so low that it is the envy of the world.  This initiative came, not from the blatantly Third Way and ‘centrist’ Labour Party, but from Greens Finance spokesperson and current sole co-leader James Shaw, arguably a Third Way politician himself — certainly on the right of his party.  The BRR was a direct signal to the media and business establishment that a Labour-Green government would not deliver any structural changes to New Zealand’s economy — changes which would challenge the status quo of low public spending, low taxes on the rich, high inequality, high poverty, ridiculous house prices, toxic rivers, and rising emissions.

The signing of the Budget Responsibility Rules.  Left-to-right: now-former Green MP Barry Coates, Labour’s deputy leader at the time Jacinda Ardern, Green co-leader and finance spokesperson James Shaw, Labour leader at the time Andrew Little, business adviser Matt Pritchard, now-former Green co-leader Metiria Turei, Labour finance spokesperson Grant Robertson, and lawyer Hayden Wilson.  Image credit: Kensington Swan LinkedIn.

Little’s resignation and Ardern’s dramatic rise to the Labour leadership saw her double down on this Third Way political positioning.  Soon after coming into office in 2008, the Key government cut the top tax rate from 39% back down to 33%.  While Clark had been weak by historical standards for only raising the top tax rate to 39% when it had once been 66% and higher, and while David Cunliffe, Labour leader during the disastrous 2014 election, was even weaker for only promising a 36% top tax rate, Ardern ruled out any increase in the top tax rate at all — she could not even propose raising taxes on the highest income earners by 1%!  In an interview with Guyon Espiner, in which Ardern controversially stated that neoliberalism had failed, she also ruled out any changes to the structures created by the 1984-1993 New Right governments which originally embedded small government and free market economics in New Zealand: altering the Reserve Bank Act, reversing asset sales, and bringing back inheritance tax were all off the table.  She may not publicly identify as a neoliberal, yet her policies dispute her claims: she re-committed to the Budget Responsibility Rules which had been signed when she was deputy Labour leader, and said she was open to a renegotiation of the TPPA.  Meanwhile, what didn’t she refuse to rule out?  New mining, fracking, or deep sea oil and gas drilling projects.  Ardern was a staffer to Tony Blair in 2006 and is committed to Third Way neoliberal politics, just as he was.

Labour’s Tax Bombshell

In the 1992 UK general election, Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s hopes of defeating a three-term right-wing government were shattered.  The indirect predecessor to Tony Blair had spent nine years moving his party to the right, ditching any hint of policies that would offer radical change, such as taxing the rich.  Alongside that, Kinnock had ditched any hint of class analysis from the rhetoric of the Labour Party.  Everybody thought Kinnock would lead Labour to its first victory since 1974, but instead they were given another five years in opposition, to only win government in 1997 after the complete implosion of the Conservative government — which oversaw economic catastrophe, was soaked in endless scandal, and succumbed to internal civil war.  Why did Kinnock lose?  Because he tried to dodge the issue of how he was going to pay for the moderate increases in public spending he was promising.  The Conservatives ran now famous posters entitled “Labour’s tax bombshell,” which implied that every Briton would have higher taxes under Labour due to a weak economy and a larger government.  These posters had a devastating effect and destroyed Kinnock’s campaign.

This devastating Conservative attack ad from 1992 bears close parallels to the 2017 National Party campaign which stopped Jacindamania in its tracks.  Image credit: Pleece & Co.

One of the main reasons why Ardern’s flame faltered and failed was National’s very effective campaign against New Zealand Labour’s ‘tax bombshell.’  Ardern made a vague promise of a tax working group if she was elected to “assess how to make the tax system more progressive” after the election.  This was a hubristic move and cost her campaign dearly.  Voters whose living standards are already eroding do not want vague statements regarding who is going to be taxed and how much they are going to be taxed, they want clarity — and the National campaign knew this.  National went after the tax working group proposal hard — and it hurt Labour enough that Ardern had to perform a humiliating u-turn and announce that the results of the tax working group would not be implemented until 2021, after the next election.  This tax screw-up followed by the u-turn saw Labour drop from 44% to 37% in Colmar Brunton polling in the final week of the campaign.

‘Jacindamania’ had been taking votes from National, and then fell flat.  But was there an alternative?  Undoubtedly.  

Ye Are Many — They Are Few!

Jeremy Corbyn was the first major British politician in 32 years to break with neoliberal politics.  He came from the diminished but determined socialist tradition in the UK Labour Party associated with opposition to capitalism, war, nuclear weapons, and the European Union.  Corbyn was given 200-1 odds of becoming Labour leader when he declared his candidacy, barely received enough nominations to get on the ballot, and then a couple of months later won the leadership with the biggest mandate of any leader in history, 59.5%.  From day one, the establishment was against him — 74% of media coverage of Corbyn was negative, 80% of the (predominantly Third Way, Blairite) MPs in his own party filed a no-confidence motion against him not even a year into his leadership, and he generally struggled to gain any traction for his political project.  He was 19.5% behind in the polls in April this year when Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a surprise general election.  She set a campaign period of just seven weeks and refused to take part in any televised debates with other party leaders.  Everybody was predicting a landslide victory for the Conservatives and that Corbyn would have to resign, defeated, a symbol of the electoral oblivion inevitably inflicted upon those who try and contest elections from the left.

Corbyn ran his supposedly doomed campaign on the slogan “For the Many, Not the Few.”  His manifesto promised £48bn of new government spending in order to drastically reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and restore a measure of equality to Britain.  He promised to raise taxes by an astonishing £52bn to pay for this.  By all conventional political wisdom, this was suicide.  Imagine the campaign the Conservatives could run against a Labour Party promising to raise taxes by many times what Kinnock had proposed in 1992 — it would be Labour’s tax bombshell, multiplied.

Jeremy Corbyn passionate as he launches the 2017 Labour manifesto: ‘For the Many, Not the Few!’  Image credit: EveshamJournal.

Except for one absolutely crucial detail.  Corbyn promised to only raise this £52bn of taxes on the top 5% of Britons.  He was running a radical campaign based on the accurate premise that the rich have hoarded all the wealth in society, and that by dramatically raising their taxes and then spending that money in the interests of everybody, the gap between the rich and the poor could close.  It worked.  This is because it was an injection of radical, class-based politics into a previously neoliberal political atmosphere — Corbyn’s campaign provided the electorate with a sense of powerful perspective which resonated strongly with millions of people.

Corbyn went from 25% in the polls seven weeks out from the election to 30%, 35%, and finally won 40% on voting day — the highest percentage UK Labour had received since Tony Blair’s 2001 election victory; when adjusted for turnout, Corbyn’s result was higher than 2001.  It was in fact Labour’s second biggest share of the vote since 1979, second only to Blair’s 1997 landslide.  The Labour vote went up by 9.6%, their biggest increase in votes between elections since 1945.  While Labour did not win, Corbyn’s electrifying campaign did stop the Conservatives from securing a majority in parliament, when everybody from the media to the Conservatives to the Third Way majority within the Labour Party had been convinced that the Conservatives were on course for an historic landslide.  Corbyn did not win these votes from other left-wing parties, as Jacinda Ardern did.  The surge in support for UK Labour and Corbyn’s political project came from gaining older, conservative voters from the collapsing far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, voters commentators were sure would go to the Conservative Party; it came from taking votes directly from the Conservatives; and, most importantly, it came from an absolutely remarkable surge in turnout from young, working class, and black and minority ethnic voters, with turnout among 18-24 year olds increasing by a staggering 16%.

Jeremy Corbyn increased the Labour vote share by more than any Labour leader since 1945 — and he didn’t do it by cannibalising rival left-wing parties.  Image credit: SRF.

Corbyn proved that to succeed, a left-wing party in the age of populism needs to run on a platform to clearly position itself as a party for the working class and against the wealthy elite; For the Many, Not the Few.  Young people are sick and tired of establishment politics and establishment economics; we yearn for something which actually resonates with our lives, which involve high house prices, ridiculous rental costs, low wages, debt, and a general feeling that our future living standards will not be as good as the living standards our parents have enjoyed.  We yearn for a movement in politics to challenge the status quo, and to state the obvious: the wealthy and the powerful around the world have rigged the economy in their favour, and it is hurting ordinary people like us.  Corbyn also proved that young, working class and ethnically diverse people will turn out to vote for social democratic parties, but only when they believe that genuine change is possible.

At Glastonbury after the election, Corbyn once again did something which defied conventional wisdom.  Amidst the roaring of the crowd gathered to listen to him speak, he read 19th Century poetry to young people primarily there to attend a music festival!  The words he read out demonstrate perfectly the approach the left in Aotearoa desperately needs to use to counter right-wing political narratives, and to change the world.

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many — they are few!

From The Masque of Anarchy
Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Few Outvote the Many

There were two main reasons why ‘Jacindamania’ did not materialise.  One was the weakness at the core of her Third Way politics; she refused to campaign on a platform of raising taxes on the rich, and was decimated on that crucial issue as a result.  The other reason was that young people; the working class; Māori, Pasifika, and other ethnic minorities; the disenfranchised; the people who are actually affected by neoliberal policies, did not turn out to vote for her.  This was despite the advantage she had that Corbyn did not have, of both the establishment media and the Third Way forces within her own party being exceedingly sympathetic to her political project.  Where Corbyn’s dramatic surge came from young former non-voters, UKIP voters, and Conservative converts, all Ardern was able to manage was to convert Green votes, while the overall centre-left didn’t progress at all.

The narrative that those who do not vote do not care needs to be smashed — it is patronising and ignorant.  The reason why low voter turnout is concentrated among the disenfranchised is that these people are disenfranchised and know from experience that establishment politics have not helped them in their lives.  Non-voters know that whether the government is centre-left or centre-right, red or blue, and whatever the minor parties in the governing coalition are, the election result will not significantly improve their living standards.  They have been betrayed again and again by political leaders and their cynicism is both understandable and justified.

Voter turnout has been steadily declining since the beginning of neoliberal policies: it was only up on 2014 by 0.9% in this year’s election.  Image credit: Te Ara.

Turnout of eligible voters in the last four elections has been: 79.5%; 74.2%; 77.9%; 78.8%; factoring in non-eligible voters, it was lower than those figures.  Jacinda Ardern utterly failed to expand the electorate.  That is why the 35% of New Zealanders who benefit from the gains of economic growth going to the asset-rich can continue voting in National governments to protect their wealth and essentially give themselves tax cuts.  It is because the disenfranchised will not turn out for bland, boring, ‘centrist’ Third Way politics.  Non-voters knew that Ardern was not delivering a break from these politics, the politics that have kept them and their whānau in poverty.  They do not vote because nobody represents them.  In order to win, the left desperately needs those non-voters.

What Happened To the Greens?

I would argue that the Green Party’s election campaign saw both the rise and fall of a chance for New Zealand to have its own Corbyn moment.  What Metiria Turei did was braver even than Corbyn, who has stood with oppressed people for decades and been arrested doing so; Metiria put her own personal story of living in poverty on the line and was torn down for it.  Metiria confessed to the cardinal sin in our beneficiary-bashing neoliberal society: she had lied to Work and Income to get more money when on the benefit because she was not receiving enough money to live on.

Metiria Turei confesses to benefit fraud at the Green Party AGM, unleashing a storm that comes to define the election.  Image credit: Newshub.

Once again, historical context shows a much more illuminating story than the media and mainstream political parties are prepared to accept.  In the 1991 ‘Mother of All Budgets,’ National’s Finance Minister Ruth Richardson heartlessly and methodically slashed all benefits to well below the poverty line.  She commissioned researchers at Otago University to conduct a report into how much money it would cost to survive in New Zealand and took the very lowest of their estimates, despite warnings that this amount of income could only last people a few weeks before they started developing health problems from malnutrition.  Richardson then reduced that already-too-low number by 20%, and set the result as the new level of core benefits.  There is no denying the brutality and callousness of her actions.  She did it in order to counter rising levels of government debt, believing that cutting benefits for the poorest New Zealanders was a better way to solve the debt crisis than raising taxes on the wealthy, just as inequality was shooting off the charts; she did it because her neoliberal ideology dictated that those who are not in work deserve to suffer in poverty.  The 1991 benefit cuts were one of the cruellest acts of state violence in Aotearoa’s cruel, colonial history.

“The people who are responsible are the politicians.  Politicians decide if we have poverty in this country; politicians decide if we end it.  That is the point of my story.”

Metiria Turei

Metiria told her story in order to raise awareness of the fact that the welfare system does not provide enough money for recipients to live on.  With one of the highest child poverty rates in the OECD, with the highest rate of homelessness in the developed world and people in this country living in cars or on the streets; with the top 10% of New Zealanders owning four times as much wealth as the bottom half of the population, something has to change.  Metiria’s story is a vital piece of a broader conversation that we need to have about this inequality crisis.  Telling her story cost Metiria dearly, so much so that media harassment of her family forced her into resigning as Green Party co-leader.  Her stand was the most courageous political act I have seen in my (relatively short, 19-year-long) lifetime.  Green MP Jan Logie, who has somewhat more wisdom and life experience than me, said the same thing on the night Metiria resigned.  This movement to challenge poverty and inequality in Aotearoa is long overdue.

Just one of the statistics that demonstrates Aotearoa’s inequality crisis: we have by far the worst homelessness in the developed world.  Image credit: The Daily Blog.

Metiria telling her story directly challenged the neoliberal status quo which deliberately keeps people in poverty.  That could not be tolerated by the establishment who benefits from neoliberalism.  The right screamed from the heavens; the corporate media bayed for her blood; and, perhaps most disgracefully of all, Jacinda Ardern refused to stand with Metiria, saying “you cannot condone lawbreaking”, and ruling her out of any cabinet role in a Labour-Green government.  When two Third Way Green MPs, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon, resigned in protest against Metiria and her admission of lying, and Metiria was forced to resign herself, the Green Party election campaign was thrown into disarray, with the party in some polls falling below the 5% threshold to get into parliament.  While the election did bring the Greens over the threshold, its MPs are down from 14 to 7, seriously eroding any bargaining power the Greens might otherwise have had in a potential Labour-Green-NZ First government.

What, then, is to be done?  What can the left do now to beat National and marginalise the racist voice of Winston Peters in the next general election, in 2020?  Was Metiria’s sacrifice for nothing?  I shall endeavour to answer these questions in the rest of this essay series!



Author’s note: you can read part two of this series here.  Please note that the election results as stated in this essay were subject to minor changes on October 7 when the results of the special votes were released. Those changes had major consequences however — Labour and the Greens gained one seat each from National, making a coalition with New Zealand First far more viable than it appeared at the time of writing, which ended up putting the Labour-NZ First coalition into government with the Greens supporting in a confidence-and-supply agreement.

Elliot Crossan is a socialist writer and activist. At time of writing, he was Co-Convenor of the Young Greens of Aotearoa New Zealand.

Posted by Elliot Crossan in 2017 New Zealand general election, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, New Zealand Labour Party, New Zealand National Party, New Zealand politics, 0 comments