FOR THOSE WHO THINK Labour and the Greens are being too cautious, economically-speaking, I have only one word: “Venezuela”. Andrew Little may not resemble Hugo Chavez in the slightest. Nor are Labour and the Greens, by any stretch of the imagination, Bolivarian revolutionaries. But, to hear the Right tell the story, New Zealanders are being courted by dangerously left-wing political parties. Given half a chance, we are told, Little and his Green sidekicks, James Shaw and Metiria Turei, will happily transform New Zealand into the Venezuela of the South Seas.
The reasoning behind this outlandish charge is simple:
The Right argues that, because the Left has never seen a problem that could not be fixed by throwing more money at it, all left-wing governments end up spending themselves into a fiscal crisis. Afraid of taking the harsh economic measures required to balance the country’s books, these leftists then decide to maintain the living-standards of their followers by taxing the rich ferociously and borrowing like there’s no tomorrow. Very soon the country’s international lines of credit are exhausted. At this point, the clueless government decides to crank up the state’s printing presses – flooding the country with paper money. When the overseas suppliers of vitally important imported goods refuse to accept this increasingly worthless currency, the government responds with rationing and harsh import and price controls. In the face of widespread protests, the now desperate government resorts to increasingly authoritarian methods of political control. Pretexts are found for shutting down the oppositions’ media outlets. Government supporters confront government opponents in the streets. Violent clashes ensue. As the next scheduled general election draws near, the embattled left-wing government must choose between pushing forward into full-scale dictatorship (thereby risking a military coup d’état) or submitting itself to the judgement of an outraged and/or disillusioned electorate. Either way, their own – and the country’s – prospects are bleak.
Unfortunately, the historical record offers more than a little confirmation of this alarming right-wing narrative. Even here, in Australasia, the precedents are not all that encouraging. In the case of both the government of the Australian Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, and that of our own Norman Kirk, there are disturbing echoes of the above scenario. It certainly describes the sequence of political events in the Chavistas’ Venezuela.
Indeed, it is possible to argue that the grim fortunes of the social-democratic governments of the 1970s – especially the fate of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile – lay heavily on the minds of New Zealand and Australian labour leaders in the 1980s. Also before them was the abject failure of the French President’s, Francois Mitterand’s, socialist-communist government. Elected in 1981 on an avowedly left-wing programme, it was forced, within months, to execute a humiliating U-turn. The scale of French capital flight was economically unsustainable.
That the Right was in large measure responsible for the economic and political difficulties which brought these social-democratic governments to their knees, in no way invalidates its critique. The Right knows that a left-wing government genuinely committed to the uplift of its marginalised and exploited supporters has little choice except to adopt the “tax and spend” policies outlined above. They also know how, in the chilling language of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, to “make the economy scream”.
So don’t be too quick to condemn Labour and the Greens for cautioning their supporters against building-up unrealistic expectations of an incoming centre-left government. Both parties know how important it is to inoculate themselves against the Right’s accusations of economic ignorance and irresponsibility.
To a confirmed leftist, the Labour Finance Spokesperson’s, Grant Robertson’s, and the Green Co-Leader’s, James Shaw’s, statement that: “New Zealanders rightly demand of their government that they carefully and effectively manage public finances”, will undoubtedly sound a rather dull ideological note. So, too, will the “Budget Responsibility Rules” to which Little, Robertson and Shaw have pledged themselves.
Delivering “a sustainable operating surplus across an economic cycle”; reducing “the level of Net Crown Core Debt to 20 percent of GDP within five years of taking office”; and promising to “maintain [Government] expenditure within the recent historical range of spending to GDP ratio”: these are hardly the sort of slogans to summon the proletarian masses to the barricades!
What they just might do, however, is spike the rhetorical guns of Labour’s and the Greens’ political opponents – making it much easier for the swing voter to believe that voting Labour/Green to change the government, is not at all the same as voting for 1,000 per cent inflation and blood in the streets.