So the Greens co-leader James Shaw recently made a mistake. In his role as Associate Finance Minister approving funding for “shovel-ready” projects, he fought hard for a private “Green school” to get funding to expand their buildings and, therefore, their student capacity. There are many problems with what he did: forgetting to oppose private schools as per Green policy; supporting an approach to environmentalism based on individual education of wealthy elites’ children, rather than systemic change; finally showing some spine around the cabinet table and for this; being so out of touch with his party’s kaupapa and membership that he actually thought his actions would be seen as a “win” for the Greens. It was a big mistake and it doesn’t say anything good about Shaw’s political judgment.
But here’s what happened next: the Greens’ membership, supporters, and former MPs flipped out. They rightly criticised what Shaw did, instead of sycophantically defending his actions because he’s the party leader. And Shaw called an emergency meeting with members, admitted it was a mistake, apologised unreservedly, and tried to do whatever he could do to reverse his actions.
Meanwhile, Grant Robertson, Shaw’s fellow Wellington Central-based MP and carpool buddy*, was working on an announcement of his own. Robertson is also effectively the second most important leader of his party, and he’s also a Finance Minister… and not just an associate one, but the proper one.
Robertson’s announcement was that his party, Labour, are finally going to increase tax on the rich. First, they’ve brought in a new top income tax rate of 39% on income above $180,000. And second… there is no second. That’s it. In this country of notoriously low taxes on the rich, in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, their revenue policy is: Bringing back the Helen Clark/Michael Cullen top income tax rate of 39c, but to qualify for that top tax rate you have to earn as much as someone working 183 hours and 10 minutes per week on the minimum wage. No wealth taxes, just a small income tax change that even right-wingers think is too low. Australia, the UK, and other OECD countries have higher income tax on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and of course capital gains taxes, even before the COVID recession… but Labour’s pathetic approach is literally lower taxes on the rich than what Don Brash proposed as National leader in 2005.
So what happened next after Robertson’s announcement? Well, there was dismay and anger from the left and from the centre (this example from No Right Turn is characteristically concise and well-reasoned: If not now, when?). But did Labour’s membership and supporters revolt? Did Robertson, like Shaw, call an emergency members’ meeting, apologise profusely for his massive misjudgment, and do everything in his power to rectify his mistake? Nope. None of that. The leader of the country’s biggest union, the PSA, even welcomed the announcement. The policy stands, and will probably become government policy after the election, unless polls change and the Greens get some leverage. Yet another opportunity for Ardern’s and Robertson’s promised “transformational change” has been wasted.
And therein lies the difference between the Green and Labour parties.
* “carpool buddy”: My partner saw Robertson giving someone a ride in his Labour car during the 2017 election campaign, and she’s like 76% sure it was Shaw.
My preferred candidate…
1. I’m hearing a narrative from a few friends about Shearer being a nice guy betrayed by his MPs. I think this has it partly right but is largely missing the point. Shearer was betrayed first and foremost by the faction in caucus who put him in power – commonly known as the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) clique. They knew the wider party membership and affiliated unions wanted to move the party back to the left, and overwhelmingly supported Cunliffe. But they rallied behind the obscure and inexperienced Shearer instead.
It would take a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision to win over a party when you’ve been made their leader as a big fat F-you to its members. And it would take the same qualities to be a real match for Key. Shearer may be a nice guy but he’s certainly not a charismatic political genius with a compelling vision. Whatever truth there is to media speculations about Cunliffe and/or Robertson undermining Shearer, I don’t blame Labour MPs for being frustrated as Shearer mumbled and stumbled and bumbled for the last 20 months.
Fortunately, at last year’s party conference the
grassroots members party successfully voted in a more democratic method of electing the leader – 40% current MPs, 40% party members, 20% affiliated union members (the ABC clique, not surprisingly, opposed this). It’s currently being implemented for the first time. So whoever the next leader is, he (they’re all hes) will have one major advantage over Shearer – the perception that he was chosen by the whole party. (This is also why Shearer should have called for an election on the new system directly after the conference… coming off his successful housing speech and showing courage and respect for the members, he just might have won his job back and a proper mandate to go with it).
2. The other narrative about Labour being crippled by infighting and struggling desperately in the polls is also quite misleading I think. Gordon Campbell and Frank Macskasy point out that division is normal for a major party in opposition and National’s in no position to judge. It’s worth comparing Labour now to National’s last era in opposition – note also election results and methods of changing leaders…
3. I support Cunliffe for the leadership. If Labour et al want to defeat Key in 2014, they’ll need to do exactly what Shearer couldn’t do: Articulate a coherent and attractive vision, clearly point out how the Key government is failing New Zealand, and offer a genuine and compelling alternative. While Robertson, Jones and Cunliffe are all more charismatic and articulate than Shearer (and probably have better music taste), Cunliffe has the edge on coherent vision and genuine alternative. Of the three, Cunliffe has been the most clear about returning the party to its Labour roots, and opposing the shameful slide to inequality that all our governments since the 80s have tolerated (Clark) or actively promoted (Lange, Bolger, Key).
But I’m not getting my hopes too high. Cunliffe’s not the messiah, and sometimes he’s a naughty boy. He’s still only centre-left (if that) while Key is hard right. Plus, if he’s leader he still has to deal with a caucus full of dead wood, many of whom seem happy with the neo-liberal consensus, even though it’s crippling NZ’s health and their party’s credibility. And he’d have to find a finance minister who’s competent and on the same page (preferably Russell Norman).
I’ll still probably vote Mana as I want to support more radical critiques of the capitalist status quo. But if the next Labour government can end this National one, shift the centre slightly back towards equality, and do something about our horrendous child poverty problem, I think that’s a good thing.
PS: Best source of info and the range of opinion about all of this: Bryce Edwards’ political round-ups.