Thursday, 12 October 2017

On the 2017 New Zealand Election

Another election is finally over and counted, although it was perhaps closer than many would have liked. The ridiculousness of commentators readying their microphones before over 400,000 of the votes had even been counted was noted, however unexpected and completely within their character. Only one percent separates National and the Labour-Green bloc. The minor parties were generally crushed underfoot by Labour’s rising tide. But big questions still remain, even after the votes had finally been released by the Electoral Commission. What does this election actually mean for the Left? What would it mean to have a new Labour government, likely supported by the Greens and New Zealand First, in power? Alternatively, what would a fourth term for National mean? What does the lack of support for minor parties mean for the credibility of our electoral system, which was installed to produce diverse parliaments?

Some of these questions bear easier answers than others. On the electoral system, I have never understood the argument that modifications should be made when one does not get the result one wants. We do not live in a place where fascistic elements of politics threaten to enter the House of Representatives, which is odd because our electoral system is designed to reflect a place that indeed was. The destruction of small parties was wrought for no other reason than voters’ will. Quite simply, Labour was more appetising to an increasing number than, say, the Opportunities party or the Māori Party. The more indolent of mind have suggested regressing to the ridiculously unfair First Past the Post system. Yet others, such as Bryce Edwards, have raised sensible questions about the 5% entrance threshold, another German electoral influence. Perhaps this is an area that could be looked at. The Netherlands lower house of parliament, for example, has no threshold, and has thirteen parties occupying its 150 seats in the house. To put that into perspective, the Australian lower house, with the same number of seats, has just five parties and two independents, and only two parties (the Liberal-National coalition and Labor) have more than one seat. It simply does not compare. If such a logic were to be applied to our election results, TOP and the Māori Party would definitely receive seat apportionments, and it would be likely that the Legalise Cannabis Party at least scored one seat too on its notably resilient 0.3% performance.

Some comment has been made on the Labour Party’s result – including by me – and the disparity between their performance in Auckland as compared to the rest of the country. I had a little tiff with Branko Marcetic, whose writing I like a lot, on Twitter recently about the immigration issue and whether it hurt Labour in Auckland. With respect I think he is wrong about this. His claim that Labour did badly in Auckland rests on a number of factors which are laid out in his Spinoff piece. Now, in the hindsight provided by the special vote results being available, a number of them must be re-evaluated. Labour has now won the party in New Lynn and Te Atatu, came extraordinarily close in Mt Roskill and Auckland Central, and reached the blissful heights of 70% once again in Mangere, its most reliable stronghold. The other seats Marcetic lists are safe National seats, which I am sure did not escape him, but it really was something to see the results in East Coast Bays and Pakuranga held up as arguments to support the claim that Labour is finding it hard in Auckland. It does not elude Marcetic that Pacific Islanders vote overwhelmingly for Labour, but his claim that North East Asians failed to turn out for Labour is immediately contradicted in the next point – Labour seemed to do better in places with higher numbers of Asian immigrants.

Notwithstanding the fact that most of this amounted to augury, as the special votes had not yet been released, the argument is simply not very credible. It may, of course, nonetheless be true, but the likelihood, based on the direction of factors, suggests it isn’t. And we certainly know it is less true since the release of the special votes count. Although Marcetic sensibly qualifies his statements, I find it difficult to accept even the central premise – that voters who have migrated to this country would turn away from a party because of its immigration stance. As my partner, an Indian migrant, said to me – it’s a non sequitur to suggest that we care once we’re in! And he pointed me to the number of Hispanic voters in the United States who ticked the Trump box at their last election. This may sound unfair, but it’s not incorrect. In fact, I would argue that the central premise is merely an extension of the fallacious identity politics arguments Hillary Clinton relied on, to her detriment – that she would pick up the ‘woman vote’ and the ‘black vote’ because those particular demographics couldn’t possibly vote for her racist, misogynist opponent.

A particularly annoying facet of commentary – especially from international media – was the inevitable comparisons of Winston Peters with Donald Trump. I know that the election of Trump had the media collectively slapping their own backsides for not calling it, and that almost the entire world burst into tears on inauguration day, but these comparisons are lazy and, frankly, stupid. Trump is not a lever upon which things have to be compared. The Guardian pulled a similar stunt with the comparison of New Zealand First, Peters’ party, to right-wing populist European parties. Peters does engage in racist dogwhistling from time to time, but comes nowhere near the level of the Front National, UKIP or the Freedom Party of Austria on any objective scale of racist policy or vitriol, and his policies are much like those of Labour prior to 1980 – or perhaps more accurately, Muldoonite National. Despite all that, I don’t think anything could beat the racist and undignified comment from Gareth Morgan, that Winston Peters was an ‘Uncle Tom’. I would have almost clapped for the loud denunciations from left-liberals had some of them not already suggested something similar about Peters themselves. And yes, that includes those who said Peters had inculcated too much of the ‘Western mindset’.

This election was not so good for the minor parties. It would have been very interesting indeed had Andrew Little carried on as leader of Labour – my prediction was that Labour and New Zealand First would have been locked for a second-place photo finish; that was how badly Labour would have done. It may have been that Labour failed to surpass 20%, doing worse than (ironically) Bill English as National Party leader in 2002 against the undeniably popular Helen Clark. The Greens were also badly hurt by Labour’s recovery, even if much of it was self-inflicted. They begrudgingly received my party vote – it was in spite of how they treated Metiria Turei, as when she went off the list, this signalled to many that their party vote wouldn’t bring her back. She should be proud of her second-place finish in Te Tai Tonga, a Labour stronghold. It was also sad that Mojo Mathers, the nation’s first deaf MP, was shunted down the list away from a viable spot to be re-elected, for younger alternatives. Of those two, Chloe Swarbrick – a fantastic debater and interviewer – did well during the campaign. Golriz Ghahraman, frankly, has yet to prove herself as a newcomer. She was practically invisible in the campaign. It is nice that she is New Zealand’s first refugee MP, but she is no ordinary refugee; having studied at Oxford University and was formerly a lawyer for the United Nations. Her legal background, domestically, however, is formidable, having campaigned for the rights of children, disabled persons, and indeed refugees.

The two casualties of the election were United Future and the Māori Party. The exit of United Future brings an end of an era to small-party Christian politics, having finally been exiled from parliament. Those who know their party history well will recall that the name ‘United Future’ is a synthesis of the United party – a liberal centrist entity made up of Labour and National defectors – and the ‘Future NZ’ party, a Christian-based party made up of bits and pieces of Christian Heritage and other such outfits. United Future suffered a split between the more liberal Peter Dunne-aligned faction, and the Gordon Copeland-led conservative faction. Copeland left to form the Kiwi Party which was unsuccessful at getting into parliament. In 2011, the Kiwi Party joined Colin Craig’s Conservatives, which eventually – as we all know – was sunk by scandal after ridiculous scandal. Dunne, however, a former Labour MP, hung on, through Labour coalition governments and National coalition governments. He resigned when it eventuated that he would be unlikely to retake his seat of Ōhariu, based in western Wellington City. The new leader to take over was the admittedly handsome and intelligent Damian Light; a wonderful choice, I thought, but this had no effect, with the party receiving one-fifth of its 2014 votes. In all honesty Light should abandon ship and attempt to become a Labour MP or an electorate independent. I think he’d be quite good. He made some noise about ‘having a social conscience’ and how this put him at odds with National, and filled his campaign appearances with gestures to the Left. It’s quite obvious that he has broadly left-wing views. Without him there, effectively the lights have gone out on Christian politics, for better or worse. (Most of the Christian parties were filled to the brim with appalling opportunists, and for more on that, google Graham Capill.)

The other, more prominent casualty was that of the Māori Party, which came as a shock to almost everyone except me, it seems. I had predicted this before Winston Peters had said anything ominous about the matter, in any case. In my piece on the class divide in Māori politics, I said that the Māori Party had increasingly become the party of an emerging iwi elite, with many of its high-ranking officials being members of the Iwi Chairs Forum, and it now represents in the majority of the Māori electorate elite atrophy that will be thrown out. Of course, I attracted derision from self-assured feel-good liberal types who thought I was being disingenuous. I had more than enough evidence for this. The Māori Party, despite championing themselves during the election as having “whanau at the heart” and being an “independent Māori voice in parliament”, did their best to avoid any of the real problems that Māori were facing both nationally and regionally. They openly supported gentrification in Glen Innes and Point England, chastising Labour for not joining them in that support. They did absolutely nothing to lobby the NZTA or any other influence to seal the dangerous, toxic dust clouds whipped up by logging trucks driving on rural roads in inland Māori communities in the Far North. More Māori are in prison than ever before, under their watch! So when Marama Fox had the audacity to say that Māori had voted for a return to the “age of colonisation” by overwhelmingly supporting Labour over her party, her words rang hollow. In fact, I think she knows that her party has contributed little that is positive or meaningful for the majority of Māori people. I liked Fox when she first entered parliament; she was frank yet willing to support elements of the Left on various causes. I stopped liking her when her good qualities verged into twin evils: she became both embittered and entitled; and her unthinking conservatism seeped in along with her lack of willingness to devote even just a passing thought or insight to extremely important issues. Her most foolish and inept exhibition was when she told me at a university debate that her party did not care about tax evasion, because (according to her) Māori did not care about what was revealed in the Panama Papers leaks. Instead, she would rather focus on suicide prevention initiatives – having failed to make the elementary link that more tax dollars from multinationals would equal more money to spend on such social programmes.

It is the biggest betrayal that the liberal Left allowed this racket to carry on in such an undignified manner without even a hint of meaningful criticism, and it is pathetic that many (who I know would not have even voted for it) expressed sadness and lament upon realising it would not be back in. The liberal Left was virtually silent – perhaps with quiet embarrassment – when the Māori Party announced an immigration work sponsorship policy that can be described as nothing other than state-sponsored, state-encouraged slave labour. And yet, it is abundantly clear that this party should never have been supported by anyone calling themselves Left in the first place. The Māori Party was always at home with National because it suited what it ended up becoming: a revanchist class enemy that had nothing but petty resentment for Labour over the admittedly awful foreshore and seabed saga, and a clear direction to secure and place under private ownership key natural resources for a growing iwi corporation asset base. The people I feel truly sorry for is the activists, the party’s rank-and-file, most of whom I know were obviously committed to causes beyond this. If you’re not prepared to take my word for it on any of this, why don’t you ask Māori lawyer, activist, and – most tellingly – former Māori Party candidate herself on the Left faction, Annette Sykes, who said in 2010:

[The 1980s] saw the rise of a Māori elite within the process of litigating, negotiating and then implementing Treaty settlements, many of whom have become active sycophants of the broader neoliberal agenda which transfers a limited subset of publicly owned assets and resources into the private ownership of corporations to settle the injustices that have been inflicted upon hapu and iwi Māori. An aura has built up around those iwi leaders who, in tandem with the Māori Party, are now treated as the authorised voices of all Māori.

So ‘authorised’ in fact that commentators in the media, including the most obvious sycophantic cheerleaders, referred unironically to their loss as the farewell to parliament’s “independent Māori voice”, as if Labour’s (or for that matter National’s, the Greens’ or New Zealand First’s) Māori MP’s in fact did not have a voice of their own. New Zealand First even has a Māori leader, and the Greens formerly a Māori co-leader (and hopefully still will, as they would be stupid not to elect Marama Davidson as the next one). It is almost a parody that the new hopefuls to revive the Māori Party that I have seen touted around are Lance O’Sullivan and Carrie Stoddart-Smith. The former, a respected GP, made his feelings known when he claimed he would partially defund the health system if elected (clearly experience can sometimes be a virtue), while the latter spent more time denying the existence of a Māori elite and making odious, inexcusable comments that analysing Māori along class lines was racist and colonising, than she did in contributing anything positive to the Māori Party campaign. Frankly, Tariana Turia’s recent appalling interview should be a symbolic death rattle.

Now, on the subject of the Labour Party. Labour spent nine years criticising the government in opposition, some of which was very effective, but when the election campaign came along – especially after Jacinda Ardern was elected leader – they seemed to renounce doing anything about those points of criticism. Key issues are obviously National’s truly atrocious record on education, housing and healthcare – literally all three of them. Housing prices in Auckland have followed global trends in ‘primate’ urban agglomerations or ‘world cities’ – becoming drastically unaffordable, with Auckland now reportedly more so than any other city in the world. This is starting to have a spillover on house prices in the Far North, Tauranga and the Coromandel, all popular retirement destinations for Aucklanders; and Hamilton, now easily within the Auckland commuter belt. The problem, obviously, is the catch-22 of home-owning capitalism: as much as one would like prices to go down, home-owners depend on prices rising if they want a significant return on their investment. This is built into the structure of the housing market and is not going to disappear through piecemeal reform. This is why a broad coalition of the ruling elites, the landowning class and the aspirational middle-class and nouveaux riches militate against any reasonable reformist measures to bring house prices down. Labour will do virtually nothing. In education, National has effectively trashed the system at all levels with its charter school pet project a complete failure, and performance-based pay and league tables that have now caused a crisis of confidence in the national assessment systems and in the teaching profession. Teachers are quitting en masse in frustration at the government’s emphatic inability to do anything about it, and it is well known that the sector is in unprecedented crisis. Auckland has a massive problem with over half of all schools operating on a shortage of four or more teachers. Universities have undertaken massive job cuts and extreme programme contractions to prevent hauling in debt caused by regularised underfunding. What will Labour do about it? Likely zilch, short of stopping Nikki Kaye doing anything to make the problem worse.

Labour and the Greens have hamstrung themselves by committing to passionless ‘fiscal responsibility constraints’ designed to please Treasury and business elites, and probably little else. Jacinda Ardern’s party, if indeed it finds itself forming a coalition government in the eventuating days, will not eliminate child poverty or homelessness as claimed if it isn’t willing to make deep structural changes to organisations like Housing New Zealand and Work and Income; reversing their peripheralisation will take enormous amounts of effort, time and very likely money. However, the fiscal rules Labour signed up to mean that it will spend zero extra budgetary dollars on any initiatives to do anything about those problems, aside from complementary austerity cuts in other areas in order to do it. Labour will also not make any tax changes in its first term. Ardern was backed into a corner on any taxes that would have an effect, and her ‘tax working group’ idea – something she retained from Andrew Little’s monotonous time as leader – raised worrying alarms more than jingle bells, especially when she said Treasury officials would likely play a major role on it. Perhaps we all need to read Bruce Jesson’s Fragments of Labour book for the story on what happened the last time Labour let the ‘Treasury experts’ do the hard work on finance policy for them.

The politics around immigration has been particularly vile on all sides. The Left took a stance against it this time, with Labour and New Zealand First frankly transcending the boundaries on racism, inexcusably. The Mana Party, which to be honest was not a left-wing party in this election, or ever really since the leftists ditched it after the failure of Internet-Mana (now it’s merely a bizarre nationalist soapbox for Hone Harawira), was the worst offender. But on the other side, the alliance of starry-eyed liberals who had no patience for explanations of why immigration became a hot potato while busy militating against a non-existent and totally fictitious surge in white identity politics in Aotearoa, along with the opportunistic and hypocritical National (who had recently cut family reunification migrant numbers prior to the election) and the floundering Māori Party’s immigrant slave labour policy, was honestly equally execrable. Not a single commentator was able to give an appropriate class analysis of the situation. Winston Peters, despite his racism, is actually right when he says a high volume of easily exploitable immigrant labour will drive down domestic wages. He isn’t just saying that. This is clearly an inconvenient truth. But the emphasis on workers pales in comparison to the totally unnecessary and brain-dead identification of National with “Chinese interests”, most vocally heard when Jian Yang’s possible links to the Chinese Communist Party’s spy training programme were unearthed. National is the party of ruling elites regardless of what country they are from, and they are to be opposed by socialists in the very same way.

As David Harvey perceptively concluded more than ten years ago, the deep cuts and seismic shift of power from states to corporations that is often described as ‘neoliberalism’ has led social democracy into a corner. The difference in New Zealand, as in Australia, was that such an agenda was undertaken by the social democratic party itself. Many unionists and socialists who abandoned the Labour Party may yet have returned this time, but it is still a shadow of its former self, seemingly attracting more middle-class than working-class voters. It is a thoroughly unappealing party for much of its former core constituency. But one disconcerting coterie that has apparently flocked in to show its support for this ‘refreshed’ Labour Party are the pseudo-Trotskyist groups, Socialist Aotearoa and the International Socialist Organisation. The Socialist Equality Group’s statement on the election put it pithily and wonderfully succinctly, that SA and the ISO are simply “in lockstep with Labour and the unions.” That is, if Labour sways to the right, you should expect SA and the ISO to sway with them. The ISO formerly supported Mana in all its nationalist tirades and ironic concessions to Kim Dotcom. And the unions, as we know, have become nigh on useless and unreliable, and in the main should not be trusted to do anything positive for workers. The only strong unions left with any clout and actual sense exist in the dairy workers and education sectors.

As for who Winston Peters chooses to form a government: going with National will likely mean the ensuing administration does not survive the full term; sitting on the sidelines will likely mean a minority National administration with similar results; going with Labour and/or the Green Party will stir up dissent within the working classes at the inertia that will invariably result, which honestly must be seized upon by the Left with a viable, well-reasoned, truly socialist alternative. It is about time New Zealand had a socialist party ready to win the hearts and minds of the people, and commit them to a broader cause of social transformation.

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