Exactly how much forethought went into the timing of the joint announcement? Dropping a major policy bombshell on the eve of David Shearer’s departure for London hardly suggests a great deal of leader-to-leader co-ordination. Indeed, the whole release smacks of ad hockery and raises worrying questions about the quality of both parties’ strategic (as opposed to merely tactical) thinking.
In the face of the firestorm their energy policy’s release has ignited, both parties appear stunned, and there’s obvious uncertainty about how to proceed. Green energy spokesperson, Gareth Hughes’, plaintive query to his staffer: “Clint – are we pleased?”, neatly summarises the Labour-Green predicament.
Whether by accident or design, Labour and the Greens have succeeded in framing the next election. Over the next eighteen months, the National-led Government, backed-up by virtually the entire news media, and most of corporate New Zealand, will be painting two, very different, pictures for the voters.
The first, a self-portrait, will present a conservative, responsible, competent and remarkably successful (when compared to other members of the OECD) National Government. The second will be a wildly expressionistic portrait of the challengers. In it, Labour and the Greens will be depicted as radical, irresponsible, incompetent and extremely dangerous saboteurs of New Zealand’s future.
It will be John Key: the trusted steward. Versus David Shearer and Russel Norman: the mad bombers.
IN ONE OF MACBETH’S most pivotal scenes, Shakespeare has his hero say: “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
This is precisely the position in which Labour and the Greens now find themselves. Having stepped off the banks of neoliberal orthodoxy and into the currents of radicalism, they cannot, now, simply decide to turn around and wade back to shore.
Right-wing commentator, Fran O’Sullivan, has expressed the hope that “cooler heads” might prevail in both parties. But, if they did, and Energising New Zealand was repudiated, then Labour’s and the Greens’ credibility would be shredded beyond repair.
Nope. Having covered themselves in the blood of so many sacred cows, Labour and the Greens have no choice except to strike out for the opposite shore. Returning to the neoliberal fold is no longer an option.
Which means that both parties cannot afford to be anything other than “happy warriors” in the battle for radical economic and social change. The “Median Voter Model”, so beloved by right-wing political scientists, must be abandoned for what Bobby Kennedy called “the politics of addition”.
Rather than subtracting voters from National’s 2011 tally, Labour and the Greens must augment their own by adding to it as many of the votes of those who sat out the last election as they can attract.
Radicalism is the key to making “the politics of addition” work. Rather than be frightened by the hostile reaction to Energising New Zealand, Labour and the Greens should learn from it. Radical policy announcements appear to have an effect very similar to those machines paramedics use to resuscitate heart attack victims. With a series of radical jolts, the twenty percent of New Zealand voters whose political hearts temporarily stopped beating in 2011, can be brought back to life in 2014.
Nor should the Labour-Green Opposition be afraid of the criticism that will inevitably be heaped upon them. Instead, they should take a leaf out of Franklin Roosevelt’s political playbook. In announcing his “Second New Deal”, in October 1936, Roosevelt surveyed the ranks of his enemies and roared his defiance:
“For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.
“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
“They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.
“I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”
It just basic political Jiu-jitsu: turn your enemies’ strengths into weaknesses; use his own weight to unbalance him. In other words, don’t run from the Right’s condemnation – welcome it with open arms.
In refusing to run, however, Labour and the Greens will set in motion the sort of resistance that caused Helen Clark and Michael Cullen to abandon the radical agenda of the Labour-Alliance Government.
Thirteen years ago, in the so-called “Winter of Discontent”, New Zealand’s Labour Prime Minister was faced with what the CTU president, Ross Wilson, described as an “investment strike”. If the Labour-Alliance Government persisted with its plans to roll back the neoliberal reform of the labour market, Helen Clark was informed, New Zealand employers and foreign investors would simply “put away their cheque-books”.
Labour had seen something similar in 1938 when the National Party and its allies attempted to trigger a run on the banks. Back then, like Roosevelt, Mickey Savage, John A. Lee and Peter Fraser had faced them down. In 2000, Helen and Michael decided discretion was the better part of valour.
In the eighteen months remaining before the next election, Labour and the Greens must prepare for a repetition of what can only be described as genuine acts of economic sabotage. David Parker and David Cunliffe should scour the Government’s accounts for funds large enough to break any threatened investment strike and/or corporate-inspired attack on the New Zealand currency. (Although, a massive fall in the value of the Kiwi Dollar would likely be welcomed by Labour’s allies in the manufacturing sector!)
It would also be wise for David Shearer and Russel Norman to use the next eighteen months to get all of their legislative ducks in a row. The idea that reforming the energy sector is something that even its sponsors expect to take four or more years is not one to inspire confidence in the Labour-Green Opposition’s supporters. The Right would use every minute of those four years to attack and undermine public confidence in the proposed reforms – just as they did with Labour’s attempt to reform the electoral laws.
The Energising New Zealand legislation should be ready to go the moment the writs are returned. Energy generators should be told that they either sign on the dotted line of their contracts with NZ Power – or face outright re-nationalisation.
In November 2014, the enemies of the Labour-Green Government have got to know that they have not only met their match – they’ve met their master.