What the left can learn from Lusk


Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 7.37.24 AMThe battle for the National Party is public. Leaked documents (document 1, 2, 3) reveal disturbing plans to shift New Zealand politics to the right. Authored by Simon Lusk, the documents expose plans to “[reduce] the size of government, [weaken] the power of those who believe in big government and invest for at least 20 years to ensure these changes are permanent”. It’s the neoliberal project taken to its natural conclusion: creating a society where market forces are more powerful than government forces.

The plan was rejected. Michael Woodhouse informed the National Party board that he had a “disturbing discussion” with Lusk that highlighted his “negative agenda for the party”. Thank heavens there are moderates left in the National Party.

For the left the documents themselves are not so interesting, but rather that the right is thinking in grand terms. The neoliberal consensus is durable because it’s supported by structural changes in society, like decreased union density, but there is one structural change that remains: government itself.

The New Zealand government plays a comparatively large role in our society. We live in the most legislated country in the world, apparently,* and Geoffrey Palmer acknowledges that “power in New Zealand needs to be broken up and redistributed”.** However, Palmer’s solution is to transfer more power to the judiciary, the extreme right’s solution is to transfer more power to the market.

That’s not new. Colour me ignorant, but I don’t know of anyone on the left who is formulating plans to deconstruct the neoliberal consensus. The only Labour MP with enough daring to mention the word neoliberal is David Cunliffe. We all know how that went.

The right is prepared to think in grand terms. Part of Lusk’s plan was “taking over the public service”. Public service neutrality is the cornerstone of Westminster democracy and an engrained part of our political culture. Public service neutrality is, with the glorious exception of the blinkered Treasury, a check on extremist governments. Free and frank advice is a greater control than you’d think. However, a politicised public service replaces “free and frank” advice with “Yes Minister”.

The left can expect to keep losing if its MPs are not prepared to think in grand terms – holistically and in a principled fashion. Our MPs appear prepared to do anything to win power, but what are we going to do with it when we have it? Manage neoliberalism rather than destroy it? The left can learn a valuable lessons from Lusk – think big.***


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* Kenneth Keith writes that New Zealand had “a very extensive legislative output in… the early years” (see K J Keith “The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 – An Account of Its Preparation” (2013) NZJPIL) while Chief Justice Sian Elias writes that “our early reliance on statute law has continued” to today (see Sian Elias “Interweavers – Contribution of the Judiciary to New Zealand Law in Geoffrey Palmer (ed) Reflections on the New Zealand Law Commission: Papers from the Twentieth Anniversy Seminar (LexisNexis, Wellington, 2007) at 55). Generally speaking, we’ve legislated heavily. Although I’m skeptical of when people do say we’re the most legislated country in the world. It sounds very similar to the claims that we’re the most “over-regulated” country in the world which is demonstrbaly untrue.   

**Geoffrey Palmer New Zealand’s Constitution in Crisis: Reforming our Political System (John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1992) at page 80

***I think much of Lusk’s strategy won’t work. He’s trying to bring movement conservatism to New Zealand and I doubt that that will gel with New Zealand’s political culture. He’s thinking big picture, but when you examine how his strategies would work in practice it seems flimsy (at best).


  1. Manage neoliberalism rather than destroy it?

    We need to drop neo-liberalism and, IMO, the way to do that is to start talking about the purpose of the economy and that purpose needs to be:
    To ensure that no one lives in poverty while existing within the hard physical limits of our environment.

    Continuing the growth meme is unsustainable and will leave us without the resources that we need to develop our society.

  2. notes that us over here in New Zealand First are “formulating plans to deconstruct the neoliberal consensus”

    Why’d you think we were putting all that effort into Winston’s Reserve Bank Amendment Bill? It strikes at one of the core theoretical/economic underpinnings of said consensus 😀

    • The actual core that needs to be addressed is the fact that it’s the private banks that have control and creation of our money. That control and creation needs to be brought back into government hands.

      • There you go Cyrwen. If you really want to reconstruct neo-liberalism you will have to advocate the nationalisation of the NZ banking sector. Can’t wait to see .NZ first push that policy.

        • I didn’t mention any nationalisation of the banks. They’ll still be able to operate as private risk taking institutions.

  3. Go no further than the under-reported spring in Turkey. It has little to do with Islam and everything to do with corporate friendly, authoritarian neo-liberalism. If the representative left have nothing to offer from their politically sensitive lazy-boys, maybe the people will do their “big thinking” for them. It’s happening in commonwealth countries … watch Canada. A different kind of “union density” is forming of it’s own accord and shows surprising unity of intent. The awareness and groundswell of grass roots dissonance continues to gain momentum . . . don’t underestimate it, that’s what politicians do.

  4. Yes the so called left, well right of centre, labour government has done nothing to deconstruct the neo liberal delsuional mania, in fact labour, under rogernomics, made new zealand one of the most neo liberal economies in the world. Ironically Muldoon was more socially minded than the Lange government.
    The goal posts have been shifted and there isn’t a single real democratic socialist left in the labour party as far as I can see. Which has been nothing but an authoritarian, piss weak, lip service to social responsibility party for decades, with little or nothing to offer in terms freash ideas, let alone tackling the corporate banking strangle hold of the fake money printing banks… I dispair that anything will ever change when what passes for the left in this country is so lacking in spine.
    And lets face it, neo liberalism is absurd, has no logical integrity, is inspired by mis quotes of historical economists, a rabid bunch of chicago school nutters, a demsntrabloy flawed pseudo scientific ecnomic model, and an embittered ex russian aristocrat novelist of the most mediocre talent. I’ts pathetic and should be ripped to shreds with out much effort… not with a spineless brainless wonders though…. great work so called lefty politicians… feeble, pick up your game or throw in the towl in give someone with some actual nuts a go.

    • I personally am not the most acquainted with Labour internal party politics, but isn’t there a New Zealand section of the International Marxist Tendency in Labour, called Socialist Appeal, that is trying to make it a far-left party?

      I’m not sure how Socialist Appeal is within the party (my guess is that it would be miniscule amount at most), but given what they advocate compared to what David Shearer is advocating, it seems that they have had about as much impact on changing Labour policy as the Democratic Socialists of America have had on the Democratic Party i.e. zero.

  5. Not sure what the big story is here. Nicky Hagar pretty much covered all this stuff about National being taken over by ACT’s Big Money backers in the Hollow Men. The US right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation would be surprised to hear that we are a heavily legislated country, since they have been consistently rating us as one of the “freest” (behind Hong Kong and Singapore) since Rogernomics took effect (again Nicky Hagar covered this in his Bruce Jesson lecture). We are certainly a *centralized* country run by a mostly unaccountable parliamentary supremacy, with no upper house to vet its legislation against any kind of constitutional benchmark, and no regional autonomy that can’t be undone by an act of parliament, passed under urgency.

    Oh and Gosman, you don’t need to nationalize the banks to cancel their ability to issue money as loans, as exposed on Seven Sharp’s story on the Positive Money campaign. As Raf Manji is constantly trying to remind people, the government can spend money directly into the economy by, for example, paying for post-quake rebuild. There’s no reason they have to delegate that power to banks, who use it to effectively own every home and business in the country that isn’t free hold.

  6. the plan was not rejected these are all policies that are being, or have been, implemented

  7. ‘The neoliberal consensus is durable because it’s supported by structural changes in society’

    The neoliberal consensus is not at all durable. In fact it is the least durable set of arrangements one can think of.

    Nothing happens without energy. And the entire global economy is falling off the EROEI cliff, right now.

    On top of that, the money-printing experiments being conduced in Japan and the US are backfiring catastrophically. I see the Nikkei is down another 3.7% today. The bond market must implode some time in the next 6 to 18 months.

    In other words, Neoliberalism is dead in the water.

    Fascism, on the other hand, is alive and thriving throughout most of the world.

  8. The youth aren’t quite revolting but they’re getting pretty ugly eh.

    Can’t see there’s much of a contingency plan for that.

    On the face of it, thank God Pasifikans still hold essentially Christian values.

    Though the next generation may not and then it’ll be all hell breaking loose, and yes, there will be blood on the streets and tears a plenty.

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