NATIONAL’S MANDATE to partially privatise the State’s energy assets is strongly contested by the Government’s left-wing opponents. As a political strategy this is not only misguided but risky.
The groups behind the Citizens Initiated Referendum (Labour, Greens, CTU, Greypower) do not appear to have considered the possibility that as many people may end up registering their interest in acquiring shares in Mighty River Power as have already signed their CIR petition. With more than 200,000 Kiwis expressing an interest in the first ten days of the three-week registration period, the enthusiasm for buying shares in the people’s assets would appear to be at least as strong as the people’s opposition to their sale.
The larger danger in contesting National’s mandate is that it forces the Left to second-guess the electorate’s intentions.
Citing the actual policies of the political parties and the level of voter support those policies received doesn’t work for the Left because in 2011 National’s clearly signalled programme of partial privatisation attracted more electoral support (47.31 percent) than the combined support of its anti-privatisation Opposition. (46.21 percent)
Rather than rely on what the parties actually said and how the voters actually voted, the Left is reduced to offering essentially unprovable arguments based on its assessment of the electorate’s state of mind.
This throws up all sorts of speculative excuses for the 2011 election outcome. People were voting purely on the basis of the Prime Minister’s ebullient personality. Voters were troubled by the gloomy economic prospects and voted for National as the most competent economic manager. The electorate wasn’t convinced by Phil Goff. Thoughtless electors were backing the party that all the polls told them would win.
But this simply will not do. In ascribing a mandate to any political party – Left or Right – the only legitimate methodology is to assess the content of its black-letter policy commitments and then compute the level of popular support they attracted.
It was Queen Elizabeth I who said that she “would not make windows into men’s souls”. To retain their political credibility, left-wing opponents of privatisation should do likewise.
Curiously, the one lesson the Left has steadfastly refused to draw from the 2011 election result is the political potency of positive rather than negative policy commitments.
Rather than saying “No” to asset sales, why aren’t the parties of the Left saying “Yes” to public ownership.
What is it that makes so many New Zealanders tell pollsters that they prefer to keep key infrastructure and vital public services in public hands? The explanation surely lies in the public’s vestigial political memories of the old Left’s arguments for public ownership.
Nationalisation remained a viable political alternative for Labour parties around the world right up until the mid-1980s. It is worth rehearsing the four key justifications which, for more than three-quarters of a century, the Left advanced in favour of nationalising the industries and services crucial to creating a just society:
-One: Entrusting healthcare, education, housing, energy, communications, transportation and the provision of key financial services exclusively to private individuals and corporations gives them an unwarranted and potentially hazardous degree of economic, social (and, therefore, political) power. Nationalisation disperses that power.
-Two: Nationalisation redirects the vast revenues of natural monopolies from private to public stewardship.
-Three: Nationalisation permits the redistribution of these formerly private revenue streams across the whole of society. Resources thus become available for maximising such public goods as the elimination of poverty, cultural development and the protection of the natural environment.
-Four: Nationalisation both establishes and extends the rights of employees to play a significant role in the development and management of large enterprises – public and private.
Privatisation, by reversing the direction of these progressive objectives, can only augment the wealth and power of private owners, diminish the public treasury, impede the public good, and suppress the rights of working people. It is risible to claim that such objectives can be pursued “partially”. Once private interests are recognised in the administration of state assets, the power to assert the public good vanishes.
These are the sort of arguments the Left should be advancing.
That nationalisation remains off the agenda of nearly all the Opposition parties suggests a general left-wing posture of defensiveness and negativity. These are not the qualities that inspire voters to give politicians a mandate for progressive economic and social change. Indeed, they speak of a Left that prefers to simply “wait its turn” to manage the existing neoliberal regime under which New Zealanders have been systematically stripped of just about every instrument for making a good life generally accessible.
The ballot box remains one of the few places in which a mandate for progressive change can still be forged. A political party earns that mandate by telling voters what it is for – not what it is against – and why.