“Hey, Julian! – We Are NOT Pleased!” Grant Robertson Calls Off Labour’s Assault On Neoliberalism

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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.

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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.

30 COMMENTS

  1. OH Effing soding unprintable reaction! Just when I had vague hopes that the pseudo-left MIGHT have got its head out of its butt they manage to screw themselves, AND so many of their supporters, over. Didn’t the utterly hysterical rightist reaction show these people ANYTHING! Such a reaction indicates decent policy. Guess what? Joyce and Key were rattled. Thus….DO MORE OF IT! BUT NO! Lets NOT! SOB! Clearly they either secretly don’t want to be the government or are actually too politically inept and stupid to be granted the privilege.

    • When people are freaking out that a perfectly moderate policy is JUST LIKE STALIN (and then making fun of someone’s pro-Pussy Riot stance for extra lols, thanks Tau) you know you’re doing something right. Labour needs to understand that there is a growing demographic waiting for them to be worth voting for. They’re not hovering on a far left radical ledge with no support, there is a giant fucking safety net below them.

  2. Grow some balls Grant or get off the hockey pitch… By the way good work Grant on the GCSB affair… You got that one right up Johns key hole…

  3. I wondered how long it would take before we heard this sort of snivelling rubbish from the neolibs in Labour. The caucus instinct toward cowardice as a first option (and disc degeneration) are the reasons why I wasn’t prepared to jump for joy at Shearer’s somewhat weak announcement.
    These guys are so far to the right that we only need to find a way to use the spinning of the corpses of every politician to the left of Bolger to produce electricity and we’d have it for free.
    Kia kaha Mana! Go Greens! Labour, those of you who believe in anything worthwhile at all, stand up! Speak out!

  4. I must admit feeling disappointment regarding this statement by Grant. Although, I would have preferred the renationalisation of any shares in the power companies (Genesis Energy, Mighty River etc) sold by National, I nonetheless thought that the release of the new power strategy by the party signalled its return to a more traditionally social democratic position. Such a position would have seen a future Labour led administration more willing to directly intervene in the economy in order to fulfil various economic, social, environmental and political objectives. However, it appears that aside from the populist power strategy the Party remains wedded to third way neo-liberalism.

  5. How can you call yourself a Labour Party if you cling to everything National holds dear? I began to believe that I could vote Labour again as a wobbly image of a serious opposition started to appear, but nope it was a mirage.

  6. Goodness….I read the article and I’m sorry but I must have had a different take on it than you. I read that they wouldn’t interfere in other markets…not that they were going to keep the status quo on everything National has put in place. I didn’t read anywhere they wouldn’t change things that aren’t right. I didn’t think anyone wanted them to step in and take over any other markets…to me that is exactly what Key/Joyce are trying to scaremonger with by inferring that’s what Labour will do. I think you have done Mr Robertson a bit of a disservice and may have been a bit quick to let rip with what you have. But then, maybe I read all of it in a different way to you…

    • How do you think they’re going to make needed changes without intervening in any other markets? They need regulating. That’s the whole problem with neo-liberalism.

    • Was there any reason not to laud the policy? Nothing wrong with trying to turn things around. Wasn’t Chris Trotter showing support for the people announcing the policy the thing that you were more surprised with? If “da Left” don’t show some solidarity and backbone, and it looks like we’re stuck with the what’s presently leading Labour, then we’re fucked, not for just another 3 years because the path the country is being prodded down will have us shafted for a very long time. Here’s a thought, let’s stop worrying about left and right and just vote Green which are neither but won’t sell us out, won’t marginalise the poor and have a long term vision for our country that doesn’t involve destroying our environment for a quick buck. Or what about Mana because you know they’ll always be honest and they’ll fight tooth and nail for those that need an advocate.

  7. You may be correct Chris but you’re vacillated from anti-Labour to pro-Labour and back to anti-Labour within the space of a few days and I think that weakens your position.

    I (think) I get your thinking though. We’ve had light blue from Labour for years and then finally they look like they’re going back to their roots. So you and all the rest of us deprived socialists get really excited that, finally, the long awaited waking up of the Labour party is happening. Which makes the disappointment that much more bitter when the lame-duck members of caucus pour cold water on it.

    I don’t think the social problems of NZ are going to improve until we fix the Labour party.

  8. I find your reference to Gareth Hughes’ rookie gaffe, transposed onto Grant Robertson (in quotation marks no less) very telling.

  9. Yep: no surprises there. The Labour Party remain as it has been since 1984, a snivelling bollockless sludge with a backbone the consistency of custard. So nearly indistinguishable from National that it wouldn’t matter which of the two you voted for the same old Party, the same well fed faces, will occupy the Treasury benches.

    And that is why since at least 1990 I for one have felt disenfranchised – seeing no real purpose in voting. ‘The government’ always gets in. You do your civic duty and show up to the polling place, in this is the tripe they offer you. I wasn’t the first to suspect that if democracy really did do any good they’d abolish it.

  10. Oh well. I guess I’ll be abstaining next election… again. I wish I could sell my vote. At least I’d get something out of it.

    Looks like Mr Robertson has his eye firmly on his post political employment prospects.

  11. Well, I thought all along that it was really the Greens setting the pace and leading the agenda on the electricity regulation policies. Having seen the announcement by Norman and Shearer on the TV news it was so clear, that it was Norman, who pushed for this to be announced. I saw Shearer stand there, turn left and right, glance over to Norman, and otherwise display a composure that betrayed a degree of half halfheartedness.

    Yes, Labour were forced to join with the Greens, so they would not lose face yet again, standing there with the undies down below their knees, while the Greens were announcing another, somehow smart-sounding, new policy.

    And Chris Trotter swiftly pulled his white flag out and announced “sorry” and that Shearer could stay now. It all seemed a bit unreal to me.

    Now we have got the true picture back. Robertson was the one jumping to the sides of the Greens, not Shearer. And Robertson is naturally a cautions middle of the road politician, not daring and leading the push for policy revolution.

    I would not want to criticise and rubbish him all that much though, as it is a bit too much expected, to have Labour be courageous and announce daring new policies, while virtually ALL media out there are still firmly supportive and sympathetic to Key and the Nat led government.

    They will not give Labour or the Greens a fair chance, no matter how good and sensible they may be. It is time to actually take on and use this damned biased, commercially focused, misinforming MSM, to expose their manipulations and to hold them to account.

    I am afraid, we live no longer in a true democracy, as that requires properly and objectively informed citizens to shape their own independent views and opinions. We just do not get informed in a balanced and objective manner anymore.

    There is the challenge and responsibility The Daily Blog and other social media have!

    • Enough time has been spent waiting for MSM to put forward the truth.

      If alternative media can start pointing out all the lies perhaps the MSM will become less confident in their bigotry.

      Where are the 50,000 jobs you’ve created, John?
      How much of your salary did you say you gave to charity, John?
      What did you actually mean by “ambitious for New Zealand”, John?

  12. ” 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. ”

    Were you a bit too quick off the mark, Chris, in giving acceptance to David Shearer’s leadership the other day ?

  13. All political analysis and predictions has to take one fact into account. Labour will never, ever be in government without the Greens again. The Greens have taken too many Labour votes for good. If Labour thinks it can be National Lite and be in a coalition with the Greens it is dreaming. The Greens will compromise to some degree but never on core issues. That’s not the culture of the party. Hence Labour has not choice but to move back to the left a bit more, or National will be in power for pretty much the foreseeable future. It may, unfortunately, take another lost election before Labour finally recognises fact, and in the process removes for good its old guard. The time for sitting in the middle is over. The middle ground doesn’t exist any more.

  14. […] Since midday on Wednesday there have been no more posts on power. There has been a little comment on Chris Trotter’s post at The Daily Blog criticisng Robertson – “Hey, Julian! – We Are NOT Pleased!” Grant Robertson Calls Off Labour’s Assault On Neolibera… […]

  15. I don’t know Grant Robertson well enough to judge his motives, and you may well be right; I was fifteen in 1993, and my time at OUSA didn’t quite overlap with his. That means, if you do the arithmetic, that I was born in the Muldoon era; I was a small child when neoliberalism came in. And perhaps for that reason, I have a slightly different perspective.
    I can see why people older than me are all about getting the old Welfare State back the way it used to be. But what I’ve seen, all my life, is that anything the government holds on behalf of the people, it will either pull the guts out of in the name of saving money, or else sell off. Don’t get me wrong, I have no confidence in the corporations to deliver essential services. It’s just that I don’t see the government as a pair of safe hands either.
    That being the case, Robertson not planning to intervene elsewhere doesn’t feel like a very big betrayal to me. Pusillanimous and disappointing, but not a big betrayal. It’s not like I was a Labour voter in the first place.
    Personally, I’d like to see social services delivered by partnerships — no, not between government and corporates, but between government and NGOs. (Just for one example: unions connect people who, between them, must know about job openings and skill shortages all over the country. Why shouldn’t they put that knowledge to use in helping people into work? And then anyone who got a job through a particular union’s help would be signed up as a member — a win-win all round.)

    • Daniel Copeland – I understand your sentiment and position, and to some degree I would agree with you. I am totally distrusting towards corporates, but having lived in NZ for a few decades now, I have seen the failures and abuse by government and there fore the state also.

      It is the government of the day that sets the agenda in the country and runs also the executive here. Whether National or Labour run, that is how it has been and is now.

      Hence we get welfare reforms that are abusive, draconian, illegal and will not deliver at all any improvements to the ones affected and dependent.

      Problem with NZ is that once a government gets a majority, it has control of the legislative, that is Parliament. They can pass any law they want, roll over the opposition, submitters to Select Committees and so forth. There is NO controlling state or factor, like a second house, like a special council, like citizen initiated referendums that may be binding by law.

      So once they have the majority, by one vote or whatever, they can push through even illegal laws. It will be up to the courts to control that, but when you have government cut and restrict acces to legal aid and therefore justice, then you are near a modern dictatorship, working also nicely with an oligopoly in economic matters, that has nothing much to fear.

      That is exactly where NZ is now. Sadly the LEFT is almost dead, it has NO real leader, Shearer is a betrayal and useless, and the Greens are only “left” to a small degree and by fashion.

      The media and business run the show, alongside government, and they are now all predominantly right of centre and controlling. Try to bring change in that enviroment.

      I believe though, your idealistic thought of involving NGOs to run things, that will not work, as they will largely depend on government or private donors to pay the dosh. Nothing will change, and when Greenpeace runs out of donations, fear for environmental protection in NZ and elsewhere. We are getting close to that, as finance, capital, business and government control are being centred around certain political operators, who run the show and will NOT let loose now. NZ is close to being a DICTATORSHIP!

      • …and the Greens are only “left” to a small degree and by fashion.

        Well, what do you mean “left”? I think the Greens are mostly people who think instinctively like me — they’re strongly critical of the corporates (far more so than Labour) but they don’t see central bureaucracy as the leading paradigm for a solution. They’re about empowering community groups and involving people locally. I’m revealing my own political leaning here, obviously…

  16. If NZ Power had come with a leadership change, I might have pricked up my ears. But so long as right wingers continue to hold the reins of the Labour Party, I fully expect their “daring” policy initiatives to resemble Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit picture: seen from one side, the most left wing event since Marx, seen from the other side, business as usual with a few little adjustments. But you do not even have to look this closely – you only have to look at the way they have focussed their energy on keeping their leader in place while letting National ride rough shod over what used to be their constituency. Or the way their eyes light up like a pin ball machine whenever a politically neutral, technocratic chance for point-scoring arises. Or the way their welfare and employment spokespeople try to fight their corners while their leadership maintains its silence. I think that things can only change when NZers wake up to what is happening to them, and put such pressure on Labour as to make it an unattractive career trajectory for those of centre right persuasion.

  17. I don’t care how “nice” Shearer is, how wonderful his “back story” in trouble spots, he just hasn’t got the most important “back story” – a history of NZ political changes since 1984 and the effect on the NZ people and our treasured health, education, social housing and whatever else you want to throw into the ring. Being Tony BLIAR lite is not going to do it, after all Thatcher called him her greatest success story as he turned himself into a Thatcher look-a-like. Until the leadership situation sorts itself out, hopefully by the end of the year, then Labour are dead ducks. I preferred Cunliffe but there is obviously something I don’t know that has caused him to be cast into the wilderness – any suggestions ? – Parker put up a good show on Q&A……where to now Labour ? Stuck in a pit of own making it would seem. Labour desperately needs new blood as well as new leadership…..talking myself into a bad mood here………but have to say agree with the disappointment Chris is expressing. Joined the Labour Party holding my nose, looking for answers and direction but am a one man band in the electorate being the only person who votes Labour/ Green out East !!! Talking to self aint going to do it 🙂 🙂

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