Labour makes no apology for stepping in to fix problems in the electricity sector. But this is not a signal that Labour is going to intervene elsewhere in the economy. As we said on the day we launched NZ Power, we have no plans to intervene in any other markets.
– Grant Robertson, Deputy-Leader of the Labour Opposition, 24 April 2013.
WELL, THAT DIDN’T TAKE LONG, did it? Exactly one week after jolting thousands of New Zealanders into reconsidering a vote for Labour, Grant Robertson, the acting Leader of the Opposition, issued the above statement – unforgivably surrendering all the gains his party had made.
That Grant Robertson turned out to be the author of this despicable document surprises me not at all. For as long as I’ve known him (which goes all the way back to his days as the President of the Otago University Students Association in the early 1990s) he has been a preternaturally cautious politician whose dearest wish is to be liked.
When he failed to lead a militant response to the unprovoked Police assault on his own members following an anti-fees protest in 1993, I dubbed him (rather kindly, I thought) “the reluctant radical”. Nothing he has done since has convinced me to alter that assessment.
Grant is the sort of politician you get when “governance” replaces “government”. Not for him the sort of big changes that help to move societies forward. Like his equally cautious mentor, Helen Clark, Grant’s political modus operandi is to offer non-threatening, incremental changes, all safely within the ideological boundaries set by more courageous, conviction-driven political leaders.
Grant’s most daring political gambit: persuading Helen Clark to make student loans interest-free while the recipients are resident in New Zealand; is a useful demonstration of the Robertson MO. A genuine Labour politician would have abolished the loans scheme altogether as an unforgiveable act of generational selfishness. But, not Grant. The loans scheme remained, albeit with Labour’s indisputably welcome (and electorally expedient!) modifications.
Grant’s willingness to rule out any further anti-market forays by Labour shows how peripheral Energising New Zealand always was to the key power-brokers within Labour’s caucus. According to the National Business Review, the party’s self-denying ordinance had been tucked away in the detail of Labour’s policy announcement from Day One.
David Shearer’s refusal to postpone his trip to London so that he could be on the spot to defend Energising New Zealand is now explained. The policy wasn’t his initiative, he had no personal stake in its success or failure, and he was happy to leave the explanations to the actual man-with-the-plan, Labour’s Finance Spokesperson, David Parker.
Parker, himself, would probably have preferred to wait, but the imminent release of the Greens’ almost identical energy policy forced Labour’s hand. Rather than see their Green rivals steal yet another march on them, Labour’s strategists acquiesced to a joint announcement.
Unfortunately for Labour’s conservative leadership, the package which they obviously regarded as just another example of David Parker’s policy-wonkery hit the placid waters of New Zealand’s neoliberal polity like a chunk of ideological potassium.
Alarmed at the Right’s equally explosive response, and dismayed by Labour’s left-wing supporters’ rapturous reception of Energising New Zealand, the cautious caucus conservatives were momentarily thrown off balance. Without intending to, they had changed the political game. Suddenly, it was Labour and the Greens who were setting the pace. And, with the Roy Morgan and Colmar Brunton polls both pointing to a Labour-Green victory in 2014, Grant and his colleagues found themselves unexpectedly gulping down the rarefied air of politics’ commanding heights.
It was too rich a mixture for the still-reluctant radical. Grant’s vision of politics is one of well-meaning men and women gliding effortlessly from one node of the state apparatus to the next, confident that moderation and professionalism will secure them a warm welcome everywhere. The very idea of being viewed as someone belonging to the “far left”; someone subscribing to “North Korean economics” or, even worse, “the Soviet Socialist Republic of New Zealand” made Grant squirm with embarrassment.
“Hey Julian – we are NOT pleased!”
And so, just as he did all those years ago in the Otago Student Union Hall, Grant has taken a pin to the inflated expectations of his followers. With a little help from his spin-doctor, Julian Robbins, Labour’s Deputy-Leader composed and issued a media release that effectively runs up the white flag on Labour’s all-too-brief foray into heady world of radical policy-making.
I say ‘white flag’ because Grant’s statement is not just a deferential promise not to play the wicked socialist larrikin in any more of New Zealand’s industrial sectors, but a sotto voce reassurance that even Labour’s energy policy is unlikely to survive the process of lifting certain key Labour bottoms from the Opposition to the Treasury benches.
In military terms, Grant’s behaviour is akin to that of the General who orders a whole regiment of his troops into a vulnerable forward position, only to inform the enemy that he will be sending no further troops forward in support. The unfortunate soldiers in the now dangerously exposed salient are thus presented with two stark choices: retreat in good order to a more defensible position, or, risk being surrounded by the enemy and wiped out.
A Labour Party can no more be “a little bit” socialist than a woman can be “a little bit” pregnant. If you’re willing to defy the market in one sector, you must be willing to defy it in every sector.
How should Labour voters now assess their party’s willingness to challenge the status quo? What reason have those on the receiving-end of National’s health, education, labour relations and welfare policies to believe that Labour will risk right-wing hostility by unravelling them? What hope have young, working-class families that Labour will dismantle the market mechanisms that have driven home ownership beyond the reach of all but the wealthy middle class?
High power prices aren’t the only thing hurting New Zealand families, Grant. By ruling out intervention “elsewhere in the economy”, you have betrayed not only your party and its supporters, but the electoral victory which, thanks to the political energy unleashed by Energising New Zealand, had been yours for the taking.