Future Lefts – Fundies, Trains, and Labour

Published: Tue 22 Jul 2003 08:17 AM
Future Lefts – Fundies, Trains, and Labour
Editorial – "The Other `L' Word" Article – "Different Directions" Article - "The NZLP and changing Party Systems" Website of the Week
Editorial – The Other "L" Word
Welcome back to Future Left's, Young Labour's generally irregular rant at the world. After a period of hibernation, Future Lefts will again be published fortnightly, except in those weeks in which there are public holidays, exams, O-Week festivals, TV programming conjunctions that bring together "The Office" and "The Soprano's" within 3 days of each other, Maurice Williamson outbursts, and natural disasters anywhere in the Eastern Hemisphere. So enjoy this one.
The other thing that sceptics would have us savour as the last of it's kind for a while in New Zealand is good socially liberal legislation passing through Parliament. With Tim Barnett's Prostitution Reform Bill getting across the line by a mere nose, serious concerns have arisen that the reactionary right has gained enough political traction to seriously stymie progressive legislation. Now for that to be the case during a period of Conservative government would be one thing, for it to happen under the nose of a Labour leadership with impeccable liberal credentials really does set the progressive heart on full Graham Capill alert .
The final furious weeks of lobbying from the reactionary right in the lead up to the third reading of the Prostitution Reform Bill revealed organisational prowess and a grasp of public relations not previously seen from a group more known for hot sweaty necks and bad cardigans than slick, well drilled media campaigning. The professionalisation of religious right groups comes through a couple of channels, one being the rise of US styled evangelical Churches, the focus of which is often a strong, savvy central figure leading the flock through/against an outside world of sin and danger. That great self parody of a figure Brian Tamaki preaching about crackwhores, deviancy, easy temptation, Barry Manilow records, and worst of all, women in power on every street corner is the ultimate manifestation of this phenomena, and his formal entry into politics is as predictable as it is nauseating.
Bringing together and giving an acceptable public profile to that pool of intolerance and anger are organisations such as the Maxim Institute. Dressed up as an independent think tank, Maxim throws huge resources into pushing a socially conservative and economically neo-liberal agenda. Operating from what I am told is the old Keith Hay Family Homestead in Hillsborough, Maxim directed the considerable energies and time of it's eight researchers and lobbyists into needling and cajoling MP's wavering in support for the Bill. Showing their true colours, several National MP's, including John Key cracked under the threat of a conservative backlash and switched his vote to oppose the Bill in the final week after backing it at all previous stages.
As an aside, have a look at Maxim's website ( It's an astounding site - from the advice from the San Diego Libertarian's on how to write a letter to the editor (and easily send it to 658 community newspapers), to the predictable line up of 38 page "books" depicting Western Civilisation on it's knees (something about gays in the military), a string of anti-government articles, the travelling Maxim road show, and best of all an essay competition for budding young Jerry Fallwells, make no mistake about these guys – they are a political movement.
So in the face of the depressing return of religious fundamentalism to politics, this time dressed in Armani, what's a good liberal to do? The first thing is to reclaim the term. Too often we are forced to cringe as the right proclaim themselves as the ones with the liberal pedigree. In reality of course, modern political thought has been an ongoing struggle between the left and right about who rightfully wears the tag, about who's ideology is actually more compatible with true freedom.
Labour's philosophy marries the best of the Nineteenth Century New Liberal tradition, which in very simple terms argues that to be truly free, you need not only rights from things (think arbitrary arrest, assault…), but rights to things (education, housing…), with a broadly socially liberal school of thought that says that once those conditions are met, you should be basically free to interact with other human beings provided you are not harming a third Party.
Those are my values, and that's why I proudly call myself a liberal. The hypocrisy of "liberal" political figures such as Stephen Franks who will obsessively promote market freedom, quietly accepting the human misery and waste that this entails, but then make judgments about what people choose to do in their bedrooms as if it is his business, beggars belief.
Undoubtedly the same double standards will come to light as MP's line up on either side of the Civil Union debate. The CU issue will in this writer's humble opinion get nastier than Prostitution Reform, because if there's one thing that the conservative right just cannot move on from, it's the fact that some boys and some girls prefer to have sex amongst themselves. Expect to hear their opposition dressed up in all sorts of transparent technical talk about what "marriage" can actually constitute, but know that you're listening to the same hateful and judgmental crowd who marched on Parliament in 1986 telling MP's that they would burn in hell for not persecuting legally consenting gay people.
They lost then, and despite their increasing sophistication, I believe that they will continue to lose. The basic fair mindedness of New Zealanders will continue to mean that there is a broad mandate for liberal legislation - as long as we have the courage of our convictions.
Future Lefts this week has contributions from of couple of Young Labour Executive members: Peter Wilson, with an article about goings- on at Transrail and how the whole sordid mess serves as a microcosm for economic and social reform in New Zealand, and Jeremy Greenbrook, on Labour's adaptation to MMP. All good meaty stuff.
We encourage contributions from anyone with a broadly social democratic viewpoint and basic literacy skills – so if you've got something to get off your chest, just get in contact.
Cheers, Editor
Different Directions – Peter Wilson
At the time that this is written, it looks as if for the first time in more than twenty years, that rail transport has a future in New Zealand. The deal between Toll Holdings and the Crown which secures the tracks in public ownership for $1 is probably the best outcome which can be expected, given that the government has limited funds. However, while the future for rail transport looks much more certain, the question is related to the past.
Justifiably many people are now asking the hard questions of how and why was rail allowed to get into the state that it is currently in? Well, anyone who is abreast of current affairs will have observed the fundamental flaws in Tranz Rail's strategy and management since privatisation. While most business commentators choose to stop there (possibly out of a fear that they might expose the flaws in their own economic reasoning), there are bigger forces at work. In many regards the situation at Tranz Rail is analogous to the New Zealand economy of the 1990s. The strategy that Tranz Rail management adopted under managing director Michael Beard is the same simplistic, short-term focused model that sought to destroy (by way of selling) rather than to create. There are similar parallels in other former state entities, but what makes the railways so interesting is their social structure, which closely parallels that of New Zealand society - in essence a microcosm. Any attempt to research economics without reference to the society in which the economy is embedded is flawed. It is for this reason that I start this discussion with a description of the "place", or the society of the railways.
It was an egalitarian place, characterised by good-natured humour and classless camaraderie. In fact the people who operate it in some ways represent the best of what we consider to be the New Zealand culture - a deep seated humanitarian instinct, a broad education and knowledge, intelligence without arrogance, and above all, that certain positive low key belief in progress that typifies us as a people. The network itself is a tribute to the skills of working people - the engineers and tradesmen of years gone by. It's built on kiwi ingenuity - RG Holmes designed the Rarimu Spiral, one of the world's greatest examples of railway engineering, using a billy-lid as a design template. But the railway network is not the antiquated museum piece that some would believe it to be. Far from it, if there has been anywhere that has been at the forefront of technology over the years, it has been the railways (but not so today). Take the installation in the 1980s of what was at the time the world's longest fibre optic cable beside the North Island Main Trunk. The success of this project persuaded telecommunications engineers worldwide to embark on similar projects, which led eventually to the Internet.
Why, one may ask, is all this important. Well, the evolution of railways in New Zealand is an example of nation-building, of economic development and social progress in Aotearoa. Social security is another. The policies and spirit of nation-building were forged during a period in the mid twentieth century, when key politicians, business leaders, and public servants had an aversion to the foreign control of New Zealand and sought economic and political independence. The economic side of nation-building is well-known, with partnerships such as that between Fletchers and various governments, which directly led to the post war economic boom, when New Zealand enjoyed one of the highest living standards in the world. What are not so well-known are the cultural policies, which can be mostly attributed to Peter Fraser, Norman Kirk and the Labour Party. The creation of the NZ Literary Fund and other similar moves led to a revival in the creative arts, and in turn, to the development of purely New Zealand art and literature. When combined with our economic prosperity, the New Zealand identity was created.
But since 1984, the partnership between central government, business, and society that was twentieth-century nation-building has ended. The political and business leaders that owed their education and personal well-being to the national ideals of the welfare state and free education sought to destroy the very institutions that had given them a place in life, choosing to impose an as yet untested and utopian theory of the self-regulating market, where social relationships were replaced by economic relationships. Polanyi's simple observation that markets can never be totally removed from society was ignored, and the outcome was as we all know it to be, social dysfunction and economic decline. In many ways, New Zealand is back where it started from, in foreign control. Concepts such as nation-building and the national good are now met with cynicism in many circles. In one of his memorable statements, Bruce Jesson claims that this is no accident: 'History has to be cancelled out because the New Right is waging a political battle on behalf of the global marketplace against the nation and the state, and history is of the essence of nationhood'. The 1990s was not about foreign debt reduction or improving economic performance (both failed miserably), it was more about a surreptitious assault on democracy.
Well, given this rather negative background, what is to be done. The answer will not be found by looking backwards, as the Alliance sought to do. The original programme of nation-building failed in part because it did not take into account the emergence of new interests and ideals, such as feminism, environmentalism, and the Maori cultural renaissance.
In fact, while social and economic progress over the past fifteen years (from 1999) has been backward, the outlook for Maori and women has certainly improved. The outlook for the environment as also improved, but there is never room for complacency. But as important as these advances are, they should not blind us from the bigger task at hand, which is rebuilding a national identity, because if there is one thing that New Zealand will need to survive in the new globalising world then that is a national spirit and identity. Not the highly parochial national spirit so evident in the United States which turns history into propaganda, and policy into dogma, but a nationalism based on self-belief, collective confidence, and a long term vision. It doesn't involve flag waving or anthem singing, but it does involve an understanding of what makes us unique as a people, and a belief that a better world is possible - that low key belief in progress that once typified us as a people. We need to take pride in aspects of our history, like I do with the development of the railways, but at the same time not let this prevent us from facing the future with new solutions.
Jesson claimed that New Zealand was a hollow society, unable to resist the reforms of the 80s and 90s, but this is not entirely true. Ask most New Zealanders, and their aspirations will still be surprisingly similar. That old belief in progress still lives on in the hearts and minds of New Zealanders. And that is an encouraging thing, because in a democratic nation, it is ultimately the people who decide. Maybe that is why Labour receives consistently high poll ratings four years (and many scandals) into office. It is still early days, but the new nation-building project has started, and as long as it continues, New Zealand can face the future with a renewed sense of confidence.
The NZLP and the Changing Party System.
Often termed the 'natural party of opposition' the New Zealand Labour Party has a somewhat mixed record both in government and in opposition since losing the 1975 election. Originally established as the political wing of the West Coast trade unions, Labour has gone through a period of Neo-Liberalism, broken with its traditional union affiliates, and spawned breakaway parties as diverse as the Alliance and ACT. In the meantime, the change of the electoral system from First Past the Post (FPP) to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system has severely altered New Zealand's political landscape, effecting significant changes on the New Zealand Labour Party
Commentators such as Jonathon Boston claimed that New Zealand's move to a proportional representation system would be to the detriment of Labour and National, as a first-past-the-post election paves the way for a two party system. Indeed, between 1945 and 1996 all but 9 seats were won by either of the major parties. While Social Credit, and Bob Jones' New Zealand Party challenged this two party dominance, they did so with only limited electoral success.
MMP has seen the formation of numerous smaller 'third' parties. Political Scientist Raymond Miller refers to this as the 'flaking process', where by, a number of current MP's, concerned with their position under MMP, left their parties to form, or join existing smaller parties. This is certainly the situation relating to the formation of most of the parties in the current Parliament, namely New Zealand First, United (now United Future), and Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition Party.
A survey of Labour's election hoardings in the 1999 and 2002 elections show how Labour has adapted to the MMP electoral system. In 1999 Labour issued two differing types of hoarding: a generic Labour party hoarding featuring Helen Clark, and, in anticipation of victory, stating "THE FUTURE IS WITH LABOUR"; and a second electorate-specific hoarding, promoting the local electorate candidate, either with or without a photograph of the candidate, and, to a lesser extent, promoting the Labour party. Neither made any specific reference to the party vote, until an attachment was nailed to the hoardings late in the campaign, when the party realised that many voters were going to split their vote.
In contrast, generic National hoardings featured a photograph of leader Jenny Shipley, and were specifically aimed at the party votes, clearly asking voters to give National their party vote, while in key electorates, such as Wellington Central, the Alliance asked voters to split their vote with Labour's candidate, Marian Hobbs (to unseat ACT MP Richard Prebble), a precursor to the imminent Labour - Alliance. In his post election analysis of the 1999 campaign, Labour's campaign manager Mike Williams stated that many centre-left voters tend to ignore mainstream media, tending not to watch televised news, listen to news radio, or read any of the major daily newspapers that "they have to pay for". This effectively made the local candidate the centre of the party vote campaign, hence the late realisation of the importance of the Party vote in Labour's 1999 campaign.
By 2002, Labour had changed its tact somewhat, and, as a general strategy specifically campaigned for the party vote ahead of the electorate vote. Once again, two differing hoardings were issued, however, unlike in 1999, both made reference to the party vote over the electorate vote. The generic Labour hoarding stated clearly: "Party Vote Labour [Tick]", with a photo of Helen Clark, while the electorate hoardings simply said "[Tick] Labour", and below in smaller writing the same with the candidates family name. Late into the campaign, Labour employed a similar tactic as 1999, this time however, emphasising Labour's stability in government with "VOTE: Stable Government" plastered across hoardings.
Labour's Rakaia candidate in 2002, Tony Milne, points out that campaigning in Canterbury had a two-way regional approach to it. Rakaia activists contributed to the region's party vote (which included both safe Labour seats, such as Christchurch Central, and safe National seats, like Rakaia and Ilam), while activists from around Canterbury were recruited to campaign for party votes in un- winnable seats like Rakaia. A similar approach was taken in the Wellington region, with Wellington Central's abundant supply of young activists recruited to help raise the party vote in opposition held seats of Ohariu-Belmont and Rangitikei.
Looking into the performance of Labour candidates during the last 3 elections, one could come to the conclusion that Labour was relatively slow with the transition across to MMP. In the 1996 campaign, Labour experienced first hand the rough end of MMP, when Winston Peters and New Zealand First held the balance of power, and subsequently formed an ill-fated government with National. During the election campaign, other parties (particularly National and ACT) showed that they had a better - although some would argue, badly executed - grasp of MMP than Labour did, exhibited with Jim Bolger's support for Richard Prebble in Wellington Central, at a time when ACT was hovering just below the 5% threshold, much to the publicly displayed annoyance of local National candidate, Mark Thomas. This effectively gave National a guaranteed coalition partner in ACT, at a time when New Zealand First looked unlikely to join with National.
Ten years after New Zealand voted for MMP, election results suggest that Labour has been the least adaptive to the change of the new electoral system. Labour is the only party represented in parliament that has never won a greater percentage of party votes than electorate votes, and this is reflected in the proportionately low number of list MPs Labour gets, in comparison with other parties. David Benson-Pope regards this as a trust issue: rather than give both votes to Labour, voters preferred to find "us a coalition partner". I personally will never forget being told by a middle aged women in Karori during the 2002 campaign, that she will "vote for Marian, but I'll never trust Labour after '84" (something to that effect). The painful reform period of the fourth Labour government still gives the party an unwelcome stigma, which it is finding very difficult to shake.
However, it would seem that Labour is in a much better position under MMP than National, due to the electoral system's lack of favouritism towards the traditional National-voting elites. Under first-past-the-post, unless you voted for the winning electorate candidate, your vote was effectively worth nothing. Also, the smaller rural seats (which were predominantly Labour held) were worth as much when it came to forming a government, as larger urban seats. However, under MMP, voters in rural electorates, with little real chance of having a Labour MP, do have an incentive to give at least one of their votes to Labour.
While parts of the electorate still hold a grudge against the Labour Party for the reformist period of the Fourth Labour Government, the election results of 1999 and 2002 indicate that the Labour Party is no longer the natural government of opposition, instead, it is the 'long term party of government'. Under Helen Clark's leadership, and a more favourable electoral system, the New Zealand Party system is falling into a Norwegian model, with a dominant leftwing party (Labour), and a largely fragmented rightwing.
Website of the Week
This man is insane. If as I suspect, he is actually running the National Party, it explains a great deal.
Editor: Michael Wood
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