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.
“National and the Greens should work together” sentiment seems to have reached an all-time high. This is not because the two parties have moved closer together in policy or philosophy. It’s because after the election, this is the only way—short of a Nat-Lab grand coalition—to lock Winston Peters out of any role in government.1
I can’t be bothered to list examples because I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard people calling for a blue-green government arrangement (or “teal deal” if you will). Perhaps you’ve even suggested it yourself.2
What I want to talk about is the suggestion that usually comes after “National and the Greens should work together”. This is how former National PM Jim Bolger puts it:
“the Greens might be quietly reflecting on whether they, unique in the world of Green parties, should only link themselves to left-wing politics, whereas the environment is neither left wing or right wing, frankly. The environment is the environment; it’s Mother Earth we’re talking about.”
The idea is that the Greens would be more effective in pushing environmental policy if they stuck to that, and got rid of their insistence on left-wing socio-economic policy. This way, it is suggested, they would have a better chance of being able to find room for compromise and cooperation with National. Other Green parties in countries like Germany have been willing to form coalition governments with right-wing parties.
The Greens’ usual response is to give reasons why environmental justice and socio-economic justice (or environmental sustainability and socio-economic sustainability) are inextricably linked. Ever since they were the Values Party they’ve pushed both, and they don’t intend to stop now.
Another response could be to say that New Zealand is not Germany. Germany has a democratic socialist party called The Left which pushes left-wing policy even if the centre-left parties (the Greens and the SDP) don’t—even if they form grand coalitions with the centre-right. In New Zealand, the Alliance and Mana have disappeared as left voices in Parliament. Moreover, Labour kickstarted neo-liberalism and haven’t really repented from it. Until Labour make a significant change from Clark/Blair-esque compromise to Corbyn-esque social democracy, the Greens are the only party significantly trying to push New Zealand in a leftward direction.
However, both of these responses to the challenge accept the terms of the challenge (like Labour accepted the terms of National’s “dead cat” “fiscal hole” challenge). These responses accept the assumption that it’s the Greens’ left-wing socio-economic stance that blocks them from working with National, and that they’d be able to find common ground on the environment.
However, I don’t think this is correct. Certainly the Greens’ socio-economic stances—making welfare more of a livable UBI and less of a punitive control mechanism; raising tax on the rich and introducing it for property investors; returning the minimum wage to 2/3 of the average wage; reducing imprisonment—are all basically the opposite of what the Key-English government have done. However, I think Bill English is actually more likely to accept these policies than to accept Greens’ environmental policies. If Bill could be convinced these socio-economic policies are good “social investment”, he could get behind them. Of course, he won’t. (This is largely because National’s vision of “social investment” is so limited by a pathologically individualist mindset, and so tantamount to Minority Report in its instinct to control the risk factors rather than healing the determinants.) But it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
The Greens’ environmental policies, on the other hand, would require National to actually seriously challenge farm owners, drilling/mining companies, and other capitalists. Currently the costs of these capitalists’ activities are largely falling on the environment, and therefore on the present and future public. The Greens want to stop these business activities destroying our shared home by preventing and internalising these external costs. They’ll ban some unjustifiably polluting business activities, such as drilling or mining or exploring for more fossil fuels at a time when even burning the fossil fuels already dug up will make the Paris target impossible. They’ll tax other business activities for their pollution—making those who produce the costs pay the costs, instead of externalising them. And they’ll use the tax revenue to clean up the damage and to subsidise farmers and other businesses moving to more sustainable ways of doing business.
Do you really see National doing that? The party whose base is farm owners and other capitalists? The party that think climate change is only an issue for “elites”, and that it’s not a “pressing concern”, and that we should adapt to climate change rather than mitigating it? The party who scaremongered on a small water tax for some big farms that are currently destroying the quality of Aotearoa’s awa and wai?3
So how should the Greens respond to this “helpful suggestion” to the Greens—and this implicit congratulation of National for their supposed hypothetical willingness to “green up”?
Well, I wonder if they should make an offer to National this election: If you let us have our way with the environment, we’ll give you confidence and supply to do everything else you want to do as the Government for the next three years. We’d pass a zero carbon act and introduce the Greens’ policies for actually getting to zero carbon. We’d follow the Greens’ ideas to clean up our rivers instead of pretending National and the “hard-working farmers“4 already have the issue under control. We’d build sustainable transport instead of roads, roads, and more roads.
National would refuse this offer. And then maybe people would stop trying to make the teal deal happen. Or at least realise it’s not Green stubbornness stopping it happening. It’s National’s near-total lack of concern for the environment.
- Special votes are extremely unlikely to change the basic possibilities. ↑
- Someone who can always be bothered finding, listing and summarising examples is my hero Bryce Edwards who has subsequently done one of his legendary political round-ups on the teal deal. ↑
- These points I’m making are not new—here‘s basically the same point made three years ago on the No Right Turn blog. ↑
- It was shrewd of National to portray criticism of National’s record on rivers as criticism of farmers who are working hard to clean up rivers, because it’s deeply ingrained in the NZ psyche to pretend we’re really farmers at heart. We all lie about being the rural type. ↑
Generation Zero have just released an article suggesting “You can do Both … Vote Centre-Right [and] Care About Climate Change.”
They offer three ways this is supposedly possible… in reverse order:
2) Consider party voting United Future, Maori or New Zealand First (OK, those parties do/will prevent some of National’s most extreme policies, but you’re still actively blocking the possibility of a Prime Minister who’s actually sure he believes in climate change)
And worst of all:
1) Vote for National but make it clear that you care about climate change (Sorry, No.)
They seem to have forgotten their own previous release about how Bill English (deputy PM and the guy basically in charge of everything except selfies and smear campaigns) thinks climate change is “a non-issue at the moment, because there are more pressing concerns,” and wants to adapt to climate change after the effects are felt rather than mitigate against it now.
If you doubt their anecdotal account, English later confirmed in Parliament that he did say it, and does think it. Besides, it’s entirely consistent with National’s record. They provide little more than lip service to climate change – and often not even that: they don’t even answer questions about it, including Generation Zero’s!
The truth is: If you want to vote centre-right and care about climate change, vote Green. In global and historical context the Greens and Labour are centre-right. (National are hard right and ACT have no place being mentioned in a blog with the word “centre” in the title).
However, it’s doubtful whether a “climate voter” can vote for any party that supports sustaining the capitalist system, given that capitalism is based on an unavoidably anti-environmental premise: that we can have infinite growth in a finite world. Sorry, that’s not possible, and neither is prioritising both Creation and Mammon.
The two faces of National’s hitherto successful PR strategy
UPDATE (19 Aug, evening): Literally in the last few hours, National have unveiled some policy on their website. This renders the first two graphs and table out-of-date. But the second half is still relevant, and I reckon it’s worth leaving the first half online as a time capsule of what National’s campaign looked like until WhaleGate. Coincidence? What do you think?
Original blog (19 Aug, afternoon):
“the left have given up on the policy argument. They don’t think they can beat the National Government on the issues … so what they’ve decided is they’ll play the man, not the ball … but we’re going to keep talking about the ball.”
This is similar to his quip when Laila Harré announced she was running against Key in his local seat:
“we won’t be having much of a debate about policy – the only policy the Internet Party has is to make sure Dotcom isn’t extradited.”
In fact, I’ve been following and compiling the various parties’ policies, and the Internet Party have far more policy on their website than National do – even though the IP have only had a few months to formulate theirs. In fact, National have less policy on their (single) policy page than any other party – significantly less than most of them. On word count, they only provide literally 2.4% as much as Labour or 1.1% as much as NZ First:
It is true that some parties (notably Labour, the Greens and the Internet Party) provide fuller versions of their policies or additional documents, linked from their main policy pages. This is the main difference between National’s and the IP’s policy websites.
If we’re generous, we can include a couple of documents from January about their 2014 priorities in this category… the speech is largely not policy, but they do link to these documents at the bottom of their policy page. This time National manage to claw their way up to 2nd-to-last, because ACT only expand upon two of their policies – but they’re still left in the dust by the left-of-NZ-First parties he accuses of giving up on policy:
It’s also worth noting that Labour and the IP both state that even more policy is forthcoming, and the Greens are frequently updating theirs. I wonder if National’s are on the way, too? [update: I guess so! National also now say there’s more on the way]
Here’s the full data, if you’re interested:
While I spent an embarrassingly long time on this [update: now-obsolete! grrr…] number-crunching, we actually didn’t need these numbers to know that National try to run policy-free campaigns and policy-free politics wherever possible. They don’t engage with public questions like this, this or this. They don’t engage (openly) with blogs; certainly not opposition ones, and certainly not on policy questions.They don’t really put policy on their billboards – some people had to do it for them last election. Their flagship policies are generally pretty unpopular. They [update: still] have [basically] no policy about some of the biggest issues facing NZ (climate change, child poverty, inequality and the housing crisis) – in fact, they often deny that they’re issues.
Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics has provided some alarming insight into what kind of politics they do instead of policy politics. I haven’t read it, but Danyl McLaughlin helpfully summarises the basic thesis thus:
John Key’s National government uses a ‘two tier’ communications strategy; positive communications, which are focused around John Key, who is presented as ‘relaxed’ and decent, and negative/attack communications, which are conducted covertly by senior staffers in Key’s office and fed to the media mostly – but not exclusively – through Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil blog.
Obviously, the emphasis of the book is on the negative ‘tier’; the positive ‘tier’ was already quite obvious… but in fact both strategies involve “playing the man, not the ball” … positively, they focus on “the man” of John Key, his smiling face [update: which emblazons 12/18 of these and 4/4 of these plus a bonus] and perhaps some content-free feel-good generalities coming out of it. Negatively – well, you can read the book or the excerpts or the leaks or the blogs yourself.
Playing the man in these two ways has been a winning strategy so far, and has kept National riding high since Key took over (they’re currently polling well over double their 2002 election result). Will Dirty Politics and Whaledump change that? I hope so, but I can’t say with confidence.
What I can say with confidence, though, is that Key’s latest accusation is the most brazen hypocrisy I’ve witnessed since I’ve been following NZ politics.
Post-script (21 August):
Here’s the updated first graph now that National finally have some policy (5965 words of it, to be precise):
They’ve also deleted the two documents they previously linked to, but they’ve added a whole lot of links on each of their policy pages (mostly past news stories about what they’ve done while in government, which is kind of cheating… but also some fuller policy statements). I can’t be bothered counting that up at this stage. My guess is it’s still much less than Labour and probably less than the Greens and Internet Party too (definitely if we only include policy announcements proper).
“Should the nation’s wealth be redistributed? It has been and continues to be redistributed to a few people in a manner strikingly unhelpful.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997.
Just like every summer, the Remuneration Authority has announced a back-dated pay-rise for MPs, and just like last summer, they’re claiming that we should actually be feeling sorry for politicians, because their pay is rising slower than average wages, and certainly slower than inflation.
This spurious justification completely misses the point that in the worst financial times since (arguably) the Great Depression, those who are earning at a luxury level – and can live without some of their excess – should be asked to sacrifice more than those who are struggling to make ends meet. Still more so when they are so-called public servants whose pay is symbolically significant.
Unfortunately, it seems that the current government’s stance is pretty much the opposite of this principle – they’re willing to protect a tax system that’s “very generous” to the rich and an environmental policy that’s compassionate towards polluters, even if it means they have to claw an extra $2 from poor people’s prescriptions.
All pay should rise by the level of inflation by default, but as long as politicians are earning more than 99% of their people, they should willingly exempt themselves from the right to a pay-rise in these difficult times, as Hone Harawira has done the last two years.
Better yet, surely this economic climate is a pertinent time to rethink the ridiculous salaries and perks politicians, CEOs and other high-status personages receive? Underlying the Remuneration Authority’s crude proportionalist argument is the assumption that what everyone earns is what they deserve, but the numbers are making that assumption less and less plausible.
Un-elected public service executives’ salaries are even worse than those of elected politicians, and in the private sector, worse still. Over the past ten years we’ve had very healthy economic times and then we’ve had a recession, but one thing has remained consistent: CEO salaries have continued to grow and grow, and are getting more and more out of proportion to workers’ pay.
We all know this, so why do we tolerate it?
Bosses’ salaries and child poverty are two of the most extreme symptoms of inequality, which is at an all-time national high. In order to fix either poverty or excessive salaries, we’ll need a massive mindset shift: we’ll need to stop pretending inequality, poverty and excessive wealth aren’t problems, we’ll need to put to death the delusion that people automatically deserve whatever pittance or fortune they receive, and we’ll need to develop an of the causes and effects of inequality. And we’ll need to gain more control over our workplaces and government, so that we can attempt to halt the banal and relentless redistribution of our wealth into the hands of a few.