Category: public education

The difference between Green and Labour: a tale of two Finance Ministers

Photo source: Newshub

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.

I don’t fully know how to feel so here’s some graphs

The day after the election I said “I’d be extremely surprised if it doesn’t turn out to be National-NZ First.” Well, I have the pleasure (I think?) of being able to say again: I was wrong.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel yet.
(I guess I’m happy? We’ll have to wait and see the content of the agreement and what the govt actually does. I hope the Greens demanded a lot and got it (this looks promising but we don’t have details or confirmation yet), and that Winston emphasised the 1/3 of him that’s like Sanders rather than the 2/3 of him that’s like Trump. There is real hope of climate action, more paid parental leave, faster minimum wage increases, reversal of the step-backwards pay equity law, adequate funding for health especially mental health, more support for students and some free education, repeal of national standards and charter schools, more affordable housing even if limited crackdown on speculation, adequately funding a full superannuation system in the future with the taxes future retirees are paying now, less poverty in families where adults are in paid work, and maybe even some benefit rises/humanisation.)

So instead of reactions or analysis I thought I’d do what I do best and make a couple of graphs.

Here’s the first one. It compares the votes received by the parties that ended up making up the government with the votes received by other parties who (a) managed to make it into Government and (b) plausibly might have banded together to form a government.1

votes for govt bloc vs alternative blocs

The takeaway from this is:

  • The 2017 government represents a majority of votes as well as a majority of seats. Under FPP, the government hadn’t represented the majority of votes since 1951. And even under MMP, governments don’t represent a majority of party votes every time (five times out of eight so far).
  • The alternative bloc (National & NZ First) would have been an even bigger majority: it got 1.29% more party votes than the bloc that formed the government. But this isn’t new. In 1996, the alternative bloc (Labour & NZ First & Alliance) got 4.42% more party votes than the bloc that formed the government. Both times NZ First chose what they thought was the best government bloc, not the biggest government bloc.
  • As I argued in my last blog, MMP creates monarch-maker situations more often than FPP because it more accurately reflects how people vote. As Winston pointed out in his reveal speech, neither National nor the Labour-Green MOU succeeded in winning a majority and king/queenmaking themselves. This left NZF able to make up a majority with either side. A lot of people don’t like kingmakers—especially when they’re people we don’t like, and especially when they don’t choose how we’d like. And I get it. But First Past the Post was worse. It artificially advantaged major parties and leads to disproportionate situations like 1978, 1981, 1984, and 1993 where the opposition bloc won more votes (often substantially more votes) than the government bloc but didn’t get the all-important majority of seats.

Here’s the second graph:

govt gender makeup

The takeaway from this one is pretty obvious.


  1. This means I’ve excluded other parties who might have liked to be part of a government bloc but they didn’t make it into Parliament (TOP, Conservatives, Christian Coalition, Legalise Cannabis, Values, sometimes Social Credit, sometimes NZ First, etc.). I’ve also excluded parties where it’s not plausible that they might have worked together: e.g. ACT with National and NZ First this time (they wouldn’t have been needed or wanted). I dunno if it’s plausible that Social Credit might have gone with Labour in 1978 and 1981 and National in 1984 because I don’t really know anything about Social Credit, but I’ve erred on the side of “who knows—maybe”. If we removed Social Credit from the numbers, the opposition blocs would be reduced. But still, in ’78 and ’81, Labour won the popular vote but National won a majority of seats. 

Steven Joyce ate all the universities


You might think tough economic times are a good time to do some study, but that hasn’t been true under this government. This week my union showed clearly and simply the damage Steven Joyce and National have done to tertiary education since 2009:

Step 1) They’ve made tertiary institutions “fund[] more people for less money while costs rise,” and there’s no sign of funding keeping up with inflation, let alone increasing student numbers, any time soon.

Step 2) Therefore, staff:student ratios have worsened at all our universities.

Step 3) All our universities have decreased their world ranking scores, and these drops are “closely related” to the worsening staff:student ratios.

Steven Joyce supposedly has a master plan for tertiary education – but it’s basically just funding cuts, along with shipping in more international students to make up the funding, more postgrads (but no more student allowance for postgrads), making governance corporate rather than democratic and making tertiary study less a critic and conscience of society, more a skills factory for the economy. The above stats clearly show it’s not working. Lincoln University has followed Joyce’s formula more closely than any other university in NZ. They’re not included in the above data because there’s not enough information available – but they’re in deep trouble economically at least.

The national students’ union, NZUSA, suggests a very different approach – funding full fee scholarships and support services for the first in any immediate family to get a degree. It would cost $50 million a year, surely a bargain in terms of the benefits it would bring: obviously it’d be great for the students and their families, and for building a fair and socially mobile society, but it’d also reap huge dividends for the economy by utilising people and talents that usually fall through the cracks. What Steven Joyce claims to want – tertiary education to benefit the economy – would be better achieved by this than by his exactly opposite approach.

PS: The obvious objection is “but money has to come from somewhere! If they didn’t cut tertiary education funding, something else would have lost out!” To which I say: correct… Perhaps anti-democratic irrigation schemes or anti-environmental motorways or anti-poor tax adjustments should have lost out.

PPS: I wrote the title of this blog before I found the above picture on Surely there’s something wrong with your tertiary education policy when it leads at least two people to independently describe you as chowing down on universities.