2017 11 – Letter From New Zealand

A Letter From Our New Zealand Correspondent

Feargus O’Raghallaigh

“New Zealand is set for a centre-left coalition government led by Labour head Jacinda Ardern.

“Ms Ardern has been opposition leader for the last three months. At 37, she is set to be the country’s youngest prime minister since 1856.

“Her Labour Party came second in September’s election, where no party was able to secure a majority.

“They are now tipped for power after the small New Zealand First party agreed to join them in government.

“The new coalition will also be supported by the Green Party…

“New Zealand First head Winston Peters on Thursday announced his party’s decision to ally itself with Labour, after 26 days of negotiations.

“His party holds the balance of power with nine seats, while the Labour-Green bloc has 54 seats and the National Party 56 seats.

“He said his party was faced with a decision between ‘modified status quo or change’ and decided to go for change.”  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-41675801)

The result finally, of the general election here has inevitably prompted comments on the continuing power of ‘populism’ around the world. Winston Peters (‘Winnie’) and his New Zealand First (NZF) party have ended up holding the balance of power between the National Party and Labour and choosing to go with Labour. So Labour is back in power for the first time in nine years with again, Winnie in the driving seat.

I am not too sure that Winnie and New Zealand First are ‘populist’ – or rather I really do not know what the word means, if anything actually in current political discourse. Trundling the term around the world and sticking it as a label on anyone who in any way deviates from some kind of (usually externally) imposed imagery of an imagined British-style left/right model throws little to no light on the particular political events that might be in focus – for example Winnie’s decision to back Labour, the Trump presidency, the Austrian situation and so on.

I am more inclined to try and read runes from a perspective of local particularities rather than externally imposed political-theoretical models. Life is more complicated and nuanced than hacks and university lecturers imagine. Is China capitalist? Are the US Democrats leftist socialists? What is Fianna Fail (or indeed Fine Gael)? Is Corbyn’s Labour ‘ultra’?

Peters and NZF have been around a very long time – and been and are a considerable force in the politics of this country over that time. Peters personally has been a powerful figure, predating his creation of the Party in 1993. He split from the National Party at that point where he was a leading figure under Bob Muldoon (some thought him prospectively next leader). Instead Muldoon’s National imploded, Winston went solo, Labour (under David Lange) came to power and with Roger Douglas as finance minister, privatised everything (including the labour market) leading to a series of crises in the economy (including a banking collapse) and the society.

If Winston is anything he is a ‘Haughey-type’ figure, though I hesitate to say this. It is the application of a label and image that relates to Ireland and not New Zealand. Howsomever, it is a somewhat useful categorisation.

Peters is Maori (mixed race but Maori). He loathes Maori politics and hates the Maori Party with its quasi-separatism and its application of this ideology to the Waitangi Tribunal treaty settlement processes. He sees it as almost a form of inverted apartheid. He is in this sense a one-nationist, a “New Zealander’ as one might say. He is at best agnostic on the separate (homeland-type tribally based) Maori electoral roll and Maori seats in parliament.

During the election he very briefly campaigned for a referendum on the continuation of the Maori seats arrangement. However he abandoned the proposal pretty quickly when Labour (for its own historical reasons and its campaign strategy to win all of the Maori seats in the election) came out against the idea.

I actually think Winnie has a point: at least there should be a very serious debate about it all. The majority of Maori actually are not on the Maori roll, are urban dwellers and not in their tribal homelands and have fully entered the Pakeha society, if mainly in the lower socio-economic strata with all the problems this entails. In a sense Winnie fully represents this – thus ‘New Zealand First’.

In this regard he actually believes in government-directed and led economic development actions toward provinces like Northland, which are home to very big Maori populations (and Winnie’s home territory). The policy is one of national development – which bourgeois (usually Pakeha) townies from Auckland sneer at as tax-funded, public spending and waste. It is racism.

Winnie is also a consummate democratic politician in a real social-democratic mold and tradition. He is a ‘welfare-state’ man in for example his policy toward older people and pensioners. He invented what is called here the Gold Card which gives pensioners free travel and they love it and him for doing it many years ago. He plays to the grey vote – although ‘play’ is maybe not the right word. Similarly his ideas on regional development and natural resources.

Peters also regrets a passing – the industrial economy of the Muldoon years in particular, destroyed and wrecked by the capitalist class first unleashed by Labour governments of the 1980s and continued since under National. ‘Muldoonism’ to coin a term, was of course based on protection and there may have been excesses. However the free trade and privatisation policies of Labour (‘Rogernomics’ as it was called) and under National, the Jenny Shipley government, ruined entire towns and swathes of country, communities and indeed Maori and dismantled the welfare state.

There is no going back to be sure. On the other hand the rampant speculation on land and property that now prevails here is a real problem for ordinary New Zealanders. Also the role of simply serving China: to see the convoys of logging trucks and huge freight trains all full of raw logs heading for ports and then to China and ultimately presumably to Ikea in Dublin and elsewhere is a bit much to put it mildly. I don’t know how many Kiwis I have met and conversed with who explode with anger on one thing: the logging operations and the trucks heading to a local port (you have to see a felling operation and the logging trucks to begin to understand). Peters has an idea of regional economic development, a renewal of regional and provincial life and economy, which seems to me to be fair enough when you look at the desolation of today in former thriving communities, the results of free trade, de-industrialization and the rationalisation of the dairy and meat processing industries.

There is also the issue of immigration. Again Peters will be cast by commentators as ‘populist’ and ‘anti’. On the other hand New Zealand is experiencing explosive population growth including to a considerable degree through immigration. I think that would be fine and dandy – if government was directed about this. Instead governments in this country have not spent a penny on infrastructure, schools anything since the 1930s and 40s (apart from laying waste to Auckland and a bit of Wellington through covering them with motorways. Infrastructure, housing, schools and so on are disintegrating and the earthquakes of recent years have exposed this neglect. It is amazing for me to be in this country from the point of view of electricity – brown outs and black outs all the time, all the result of having a market for electricity, including creating a series of state companies all competing with each other – the market model. This country cannot at present cope with the influx of immigrants – ironically including thousands of Kiwis returning home from an increasingly viciously racist and anti-foreigner Australia. ‘The Lucky Country’ is today an awful place.

Part of the problem with immigration is the failure to invest in education and training thus creating ‘skills shortages’ – the old English system and problem to this day lives also in New Zealand. This is hugely ironic as the working class in this country has within it a huge ‘tradie’ element, skilled artisans and so on, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, agricultural contractors, all kinds of skills and skill groups and reflective of an enormously rich skills-based past destroyed by de-industrialisation. It is the ‘Polish plumber’ problem in another country.

Part of the problem also is the foreign money – Chinese, American, Indian, especially, all pouring into a country the borders of which were as far as foreign capital is concerned, in the private sphere finally completely dismantled by John Key as prime minister. He is an ex-Wall Street money flipper: what more need one say.

Again I think lots of New Zealanders see problems but also are two-minded about it all. On the one hand they can see problems every day and see the need for some kind of significant controls and state intervention. On the other there is the joy of becoming a paper millionaire because of property valuations – and the further joy of seeing Yanks and Chinese at your gate wanting to buy your dairy farm or vineyard or simply your house and garden. Again Peters sees all of this – and in particular, the situation in Auckland, which is now approaching something like an Indian city, homelessness on a gigantic scale, people literally living in cars and under bridges, teachers and others fleeing the city because of living costs – a kind of miniature London in the southern hemisphere.

Winston hates it all. It is a little more complex than Winston sees it, some of the inflow has been invigorating in some little but important sectors – the wine and viticulture industry in particular. Having said that, the big thing that immigration has highlighted is how bad the state has become in its provision of basic public services and how much the privatisation of everything and opening up to the market has rotted physical and social fabric and corrupted politics and public administration. Europe to my mind is intent on going the same way – but that is an aside.

I could go on (and on) but my point simply is ‘populism’ does not do justice to Winston or indeed to any of the others to whom it has been applied, including The Donald.

Winston is real and in a real, substantive middle ground dealing with local circumstances from a point of view. He is not a socialist or anything like that. But he is someone who can see the wreckage wrought by a rampant market-based capitalism particularly when it takes the state and its politics prisoner – as it is intent on doing in Europe today, in my view.

Is Peters a stone-age fool? A primitive and harking to Hitler? I think not – even I suggest Corbyn might just read up on things here as might everyone, which brings me back to my starting point: current political labels and constructs make no sense at all