Golden Opportunity Gone Begging

- Murray Horton

It seemed entirely appropriate that the first movie that I went to see after the October 2023 election was titled "Anatomy Of A Fall". Perhaps that should be the subtitle of this article. Because a fall of epic proportions is what we have just witnessed, from Labour's record victory in 2020 to humiliating defeat in 2023 (Labour's majority in Mt Albert, which was Jacinda Ardern's seat, was slashed from more than 21,000 at the 2020 election, to 18 at the 2023 one).

So, we have now had our second two-term Labour government (there have even been a couple of one-term Labour governments in my lifetime. The Tories have always lasted longer than that, indeed there has been one four-term National government in my lifetime). The previous Labour two-termer was the 1984-90 one, which is still remembered today for the nuclear-free policy and Rogernomics. I struggle to think what the 2017-23 two-termer will be remembered for in 40 years. Actually, I can - it was the Government which blew an absolute majority in 2020 (something that MMP was supposed to prevent from happening) to crash to resounding defeat three years later.

It needs to be remembered that it was only by luck that Labour got in, and stayed in. By 2017 it had gone through a succession of leaders in Opposition, and Jacinda Ardern only became leader a matter of weeks out from the election. Jacindamania ensued but Labour still didn't win the election on the night - National, under Bill English was the largest party. But Winston Peters, to the surprise of many (including me) chose Labour.

And it is instructive to be reminded of the reason he gave for choosing to go into coalition with Labour in 2017. "During his live TV speech in which he announced his choice of Labour as NZ First's Coalition partner, he said: 'Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe'".

"'And they are not all wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain it's responsible - it's human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations'" (Stuff, 20/10/17),

Winston Peters is no opponent of capitalism. He just wanted capitalism to be "humanised". But it is extraordinary that it was him that raised this subject - certainly the mainstream media thought so. Labour certainly never talks about capitalism as such. Jacinda would only venture as far as criticising neo-liberalism, which is the current, failed, fashion within capitalism (see Press, 13/9/17).

So, what an indictment of the Labour government that it's only public critic of capitalism was an old Tory warhorse from way back. Perhaps Winston had acquired some of the wisdom that is supposed to come with age. Or maybe it was just guilt. The ruling class can rest easy. If Winston Peters ever mentioned capitalism again during his three years as Deputy Prime Minister, I'm not aware of it. He certainly didn't do anything about it. And I certainly don't expect that to change now that he's back in bed with National, once again as Deputy PM.

Good Luck & Good Management

The conclusion by the chattering classes is that Labour never expected to become the Government in 2017 and wasn't ready for it once in office. That unreadiness was reflected in large scale embarrassments such as the abject failure of Kiwibuild. The next election was in 2020 and at the beginning of that year National, under Simon Bridges, was well on track to comfortably win, polling in the mid 40s (much better than what National under Christopher Luxon polled at the 2023 election).

Then, of course, covid happened, Jacinda's government handled it very well in 2020 (a 2023 study concluded that NZs covid response saved 20,000 lives - and good old quantitative easing saved businesses and the economy). It also helped that National spent 2020 committing electoral suicide. Hundreds of thousands of grateful Tory voters switched to voting Labour.

The result was a Labour landslide, an absolute majority. But those fickle Tory voters were only there for a good time, not a long time. And Labour, having retained power by winning over National voters, decided that it might as well be the National Party in all but name. It can be argued that Labour's six years in power were the result of some lucky breaks and external factors.

There is a repetitive pattern in NZ's recent politics. John Key was undoubtedly the biggest asset of the 2008-17 National government, as Jacinda Ardern was of the 2017-23 Labour one. Both those Prime Ministers shocked their Governments and the people when they unexpectedly resigned (Key in 2016, Ardern in 2023). Both their respective Governments were doomed when their biggest assets suddenly walked away.

Add to this the historical fact that not one unelected Prime Minister (in my lifetime) has ever won the first available election after being gifted the Prime Ministership by their colleagues, not the voting public. Here's that list of unelected PMs: Jack Marshall, Bill Rowling, Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jenny Shipley and Bill English. We can now add Chris Hipkins to that sad little club of the short-lived, unelected and unsuccessful.

This is what I wrote in my analysis of the 2017 election: "I'm going to start by doing something unusual, possibly unique, for me - namely, praising a politician. Perhaps I'm going soft in my old age but I think Jacinda is just what it says on the tin. She exudes genuine warmth and humanity. She's a fresh face, a breath of fresh air, and any other cliché including the word 'fresh'".

"She's young and has the confidence of youth. I admire her promise of 'relentless positivity' and I am pleased to see a national leader bring some different values, ones such as kindness, into the political arena. God knows we need something different, because the other ones certainly haven't been working. Labour won this election solely on her personality...".

Between 2017 and 2020 Jacinda's mana only continued to grow, both nationally and globally. For all the reasons that have been well canvassed, ranging from having a baby while in office to her superb leadership after the 2019 Christchurch mosques' massacre and throughout the 2020 coronavirus pandemic crisis. She came across as human, not a politician. She had a whole different style of leadership and people right across the political spectrum responded very well to that. Hence, Jacindamania.

But It Didn't Last

Her Government certainly talked a good game but didn't actually deliver very much. Her greatest strengths were in responding to events that neither she nor the Government initiated - the mosques' massacre, the pandemic. And she was subjected to the most vile, misogynist and outright insane threats and criticism due to growing resentment about lockdowns and vaccine mandates, culminating in the tragicomic 2022 "siege of Parliament", which climaxed in a good old fashioned riot.

So, she got sick of it, as John Key did before her. Neither lasted the distance and both gave the same reasons for quitting. Frankly, I think both of them could see the writing on the wall, that their respective Governments were going to lose the upcoming election, and neither wanted to go out of politics as losers (as Helen Clark did, in 2008).

Jacinda Ardern and Frodo Baggins would be the only two New Zealanders that the rest of the world could name, and the global public was shocked that New Zealanders had turned our back on Jacinda. The same thing happened with David Lange - the global public saw "nuclear free"; New Zealanders saw "Rogernomics" (another example of this, from another country, was Mikhail Gorbachev. The global public loved him because "he destroyed the Soviet Union". The Russian people hated him because "he destroyed the Soviet Union").

Jacinda Ardern went off to a life as a global celebrity, a world in which she is very well known and very comfortable. And left poor old Chris Hipkins to try to sort out the mess. He promptly dumped everything remotely progressive and distinctive that he inherited from Jacinda's legacy ("the bonfire of the policies", as it was dubbed). He said that his Government would be a "bread and butter" one - he ended up left with a few crumbs, and no butter.

His sole purpose seemed to be to get re-elected for the sake of it, to stay in power for power's sake. More damningly, his Government's policies were so similar to those of National that those hundreds of thousands of fickle Tory voters who swapped to Labour in 2020 decided that they might as well go back to the real Tories, rather than dally any further with the imitation ones.

And what a boring bloody election campaign it was. Hipkins with his curious young fogey persona, trying to be a man of the people (if sausage rolls could vote, he'd have won by a landslide), versus Christopher Luxon, the personification of the old adage that a black man with a shaven head looks cool, but a white man with a shaven head just looks like a thumb. I knew that Labour was doomed when its campaign concentrated on a heavily negative focus on Luxon personally. It did exactly the same thing in 2008, the last election it lost while in Government, with that campaign's negative focus on John Key.

What Exactly Did 2017-23 Government Achieve?

Rather than go over all that again, you can read my analysis of Labour's first term in Watchdog 155, December 2020 ("Let's Start Moving. Labour Must Govern For The Many, Not The Few"). That first term included everything it intended to do on the issue of foreign control, primarily via changes to the Overseas investment Act.

You can read about that in that same Watchdog 155 article and in a whole series of other Watchdog articles on Labour's foreign investment policy in the 2017-20 term. It is not coincidental that the Minister in charge of the Overseas Investment Office in that first term was not a Labour MP but a Green, Eugenie Sage. She remains the only Minister (and she was outside Cabinet) to have asked to meet CAFCA and solicited our opinion on the overseas investment law.

The Greens weren't allowed anywhere near foreign investment policy in Labour's second term and Labour never raised the subject again. Ironically, the only party to raise anything to do with foreign control in the 2023 election campaign was National via their misleading pledge to cover income loss from tax cuts by imposing a 15% tax on foreign buyers of houses costing over $2 million. And, courtesy of Winston Peters, that was aborted before it was born as one of his conditions for going into coalition with National.

In Labour's second term I was among the multitudes who personally benefited from policies such as the winter energy payment and free prescriptions (National has promised to reverse the latter, going back to means testing - I've never forgotten, or forgiven, that it was the 1990s' National government that cranked up prescription charges to $20 per item at one point).

Labour was the first Government in years to respectfully engage with workers and unions. It significantly raised the minimum wage and brought in fair pay agreements (but, very, very, late in its second term and National plans to scrap them as soon as possible). It made life a bit harder for landlords but didn't make life a whole lot better for renters (and National, the party by, for and of landlords and property speculators - Luxon owns seven properties - will roll back those gains).

Labour took climate change seriously as the major threat facing the planet but that was only thanks to the Greens, specifically James Shaw, who held the Climate Change portfolio. And too much emphasis was given to the Emissions Trading Scheme, which is a market mechanism, and to middle class welfare, such as subsidies on electric car purchases. Not enough emphasis was placed on tackling the problem at source, namely by reducing or eliminating carbon emissions. It wouldn't touch agricultural emissions, the elephant in the room, with a barge pole.

It backed off really tackling the offshore oil industry and never delivered on its promise to end mining on conservation land. It certainly wouldn't go near the lifestyle changes needed to really tackle climate change. National, the party of tax cuts, building ever more roads and fixing pot holes, won't do anything about it, and certainly nothing that might frighten the "squeezed middle" (what is that? Sounds like a bad case of constipation). Labour already had monumental failures from its first term - Kiwibuild was the most notorious. It vowed to do big things to sort out child poverty and mental health, which is wholly admirable.

But its approach was top down, bureaucratic, and consisted of throwing money at those problems - which remain stubbornly unfixed. Its approach to health and tertiary education involved massive restructuring and centralisation, which did nothing to fix those sectors (I spent years working for the Railways, so I know all about centralisation, with the key words in those days being "Wellington", "head office" or, more colourfully, "bullshit castle"). It tried the same approach with water infrastructure and services, which spun off into an ugly racist fight about the real or imaginary issue of co-governance.

On foreign policy, defence and intelligence, Labour was abysmal. Ardern talked about having a "proudly independent foreign policy" but nothing could be further from the truth. One journalist approvingly described her as the most pro-US Prime Minister since Piggy Muldoon in the 1970s and 80s. Isn't that something to be proud of! Labour took NZ right back into the orbit of the American Empire, while trying to balance that against the reality of China being NZ's biggest trading partner (the 2008-17 National government tried to have 50 cents each way - US for defence, China for trade).

NZ sucked up to NATO, with Ardern, in 2022, being the first NZ PM ever invited to speak at its Leaders' Summit (Hipkins did likewise at the 2023 Summit). Under Labour, NZ got involved in the Ukraine War. The military and spies had no greater champion and benefactor than Andrew Little, who was Minister in charge of both at various times during the second term (now their Minister is Judith Collins).

"Transformational"? Yeah, Right

Labour had promised to be a transformational Government and, as a result of the 2020 election it had the absolute majority and the mandate to actually be one. But it ran a mile from tackling anything really structural. Here's what I wrote in my December 2020 Watchdog article: "I was among many whose ears pricked up when the triumphant Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, emphasised in her October 2020 election night victory speech that her second term Government will be for 'all New Zealanders', and she singled out those who had voted Labour for the first time".

"This was a less than subtle callout to the former National voters who had jumped aboard the juggernaut that was Labour's quite extraordinary electoral success: 'You can trust us, we'll look after your interests, we will administer capitalism better than your old Party, we won't rattle any cages or rock any boats, we are the Party of the status quo and stability'".

It was a gutless Government when it came to tackling (or even thinking about tackling) any of the central pillars of capitalism. For years there has been public clamour, including from within the capitalist class, for the profiteering Australian-owned banks to be reined in. Ardern suggested that that the banks might like to do some self-reflection! I bet that made them shake in their boots. It wasn't until after she'd gone, in 2023 (and very late in the Government's lifespan) that the Government told the Commerce Commission to have a look at the banks.

New Zealand has been described as a housing market with an economy attached to it. Labour had the chance to do something "transformational" about that. When it first came to office it set up the Tax Working Group, headed by former Labour Deputy PM and Minister of Finance, Michael Cullen (CAFCA founder Bill Rosenberg was a member, in his then-capacity as Economist and Policy Director of the Council of Trade Unions). It recommended a capital gains tax, among many other recommendations. But Ardern ruled out a capital gains tax as long as she was Labour's Leader.

In 2023 she wasn't, and the subject came up again. Hipkins unilaterally ruled it out or a wealth tax. This time there were divisions within Cabinet - Revenue Minister David Parker publicly expressed his opposition, and resigned the portfolio (one of a series of Ministerial resignations or sackings in 2023, which did not help Labour's electoral chances. Parker's resignation was the only one based on principle).

In November 2023 I was personally told by a former very senior Minister that Labour didn't do anything about tax because "we didn't have time". Yeah, right. As for National, its only policy on taxes is to cut them, "to give people more of their own money back" (so they can build their own roads, schools and hospitals, perhaps? Or buy a boat for when the country goes underwater due to climate change?).

Of course, there is a great irony in this. Labour shied away from doing anything that might frighten those skittish Tory supporters who had voted for it in 2020, and who they hoped would do so again in 2023. But it did actually do something utterly radical, unprecedented and transformational, namely shut the whole country down in 2020 (and to a lesser degree in both 2021 and 22). Initially, at least, it overwhelmingly took the people with it.

There were mistakes, which was only to be expected, but by and large, it handled it very well. As mentioned above, it saved 20,000 lives and, by pouring billions of dollars into the pockets of employers and, via them, to workers, it saved the capitalist economy. Without a hint of self-awareness or shame, that same business community spent the rest of Labour's term complaining about how hard done by it was by the "business unfriendly" Government. Thanks for the billions, and for keeping us alive, now we'll vote you out to make way for our traditional Tory mates. The pandemic response was the most radical thing to have been done by any peacetime Government in my lifetime (72 years). And it affected everyone.

John Key had declared a national state of emergency after the February 2011 killer Christchurch earthquake, but that only actually affected us in Christchurch. The 2020-22 pandemic response affected everyone (the novelty wore off the more times it happened, particularly in Auckland, and ultimately led to social unrest among a small minority). My point is that Labour was brave enough to do that, in stark contrast to so many other countries (who paid a terrible price in lives lost). That took a whole lot of guts. But it was singularly lacking in guts when it came to considering anything "transformational" in relation to tax (or any other number of issues).

That is why I've titled this article "Squandered". Labour had a unique chance to do something worthwhile as a result of its 2020 absolute majority, to truly be transformational. But, no, it sat on its hands, showing itself to be content to offer itself as a better administrator of capitalism than National, and certainly not one to question or change any of the structure of it. So, it will go back into Opposition for however many years until it can once again persuade voters that "it's time for a change" (the subtext of that is "it's our turn") and once again assure those with the money, property and power that "you don't need to worry, you can trust us to look after things just as you like them".

Time For Smaller Parties To Shine

The smaller parties to the Left of Labour did much better, which tells you all that you need to know about where the Leftwing vote went in the 2023 election. The Greens had their best ever result, returning their highest ever number of MPs. In the 2020-23 term, they both stuck to their knitting (James Shaw pretty much singlehandedly carried the burden of the Government's climate change policy) and branched out into areas such as poverty and housing policy.

Wearing my Anti-Bases Campaign hat, the Greens are the party with whom I have worked the most, for decades. They have always provided an MP, sometimes even a Co-Leader, to speak at ABC's Waihopai spy base protests for as long as they have been in Parliament (i.e., since 1996). For most of their Parliamentary life, the Greens have been a list-only party or have held one electorate. They now hold three, all taken from Labour.

The party which has made the most spectacular inroads into Labour from the Left has been Te Pāti Māori (TPM). It was voted out of Parliament in 2017, punished by Māori electorate voters for having propped up the 2008-17 Key/English National government, in flagrant disregard of the wishes of Māori voters who consistently gave their party votes to Labour. TPM reinvented itself, came back into Parliament with two MPs in 2020; then raced back up to six MPs in 2023 (leaving Labour with only one of the seven Māori seats).

I was so impressed by TPM in 2023 that I devoted an article to them in the last Watchdog before the election (163, August 2023). I highlighted their foreign policy which stipulated that NZ quitting the Five Eyes international spy network would be a condition of TPM joining any post-election coalition with Labour.

No Labour MP, let alone Minister, would ever say anything like that. The Greens have a consistently progressive foreign policy but they've never made it a condition of their deals with Labour. TPM called for a capital gains tax (the Greens also had an excellent tax policy for the 2023 election). And TPM has both youth and flair - I'm a sucker for full face tattoos and top hats (they remind me of 70s' head banger bands). The 2023 election was all about the triumph of the small parties - the two I've just mentioned; the Third Coming of New Zealand First; and, of course, Act which seeks to be the tail that wags the National dog.

Act no longer depends on grace and favour deals with National re the Epsom electorate to stay in Parliament. It got above the 5% party vote margin needed to get in, and it now has two electorates, having won Tamaki from National (which is very symbolic, because that was Piggy Muldoon's seat when he was National's PM from 1975-84). Just how much of the vote went to the smaller parties in 2023 at the expense of Labour and National can be seen from the startling fact that, in 2017, National lost the election with 44% of the vote but it won it, in 2023, with 38% of the vote.

The Tory Bastards Are Back

So, now we have what has been called the most Rightwing Government since the 1990s. We know what to expect from National, the party of farmers, bosses, landlords, property speculators, money traders and beneficiary bashers. Act didn't do as well as it hoped and slipped in the polls a couple of weeks out from the election. It has been through many incarnations in its existence and this time will try to impose on the country its current nostrum of old school Rogernomics, with a side dish of racism.

Act intends to revert to the good old days, vis a vis the foreign investment regime. It got this in its Coalition Agreement: "Amend the Overseas Investment Act 2005 to limit ministerial decision making to national security concerns and make such decision making more-timely". Currently two Ministers or Associate Ministers sign off on decisions but this will put virtually all OIO Decisions back into the hands of the bureaucrats again. More-timely, eh. Hand me that rubber stamp.

As for New Zealand First, it will continue to follow the many and various zigs and zags of Winston Peters' mercurial personality. I have been writing about Winston Peters for decades in Watchdog, starting in the 1990s (when he'd only been on the political scene for a mere couple of decades). Like everyone else I wrote him off when New Zealand First was voted out of Parliament, first in 2008 and again in 2017.

His slogan should be "I'm Not Dead Yet". He was proud of having been a "handbrake" on the 2017-20 Labour/New Zealand First coalition government. What automobile analogy can we apply to his current political threesome? How about the sump. I'll leave any conclusions until his obituary (but I fear that he may outlive me).

Real Battle Is Outside Parliament

I wrote this after the 2002 election. It remains just as true today. "We (CAFCA) have never entertained any illusions about Parliamentarism nor have we put much stock in whatever party has been in power. Our concern is with who owns and operates New Zealand, not those whose job it is to wave them through the traffic lights. The real battle is, and always has been, outside Parliament and that is where we focus our attention. So, let's get on with it".


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