When We’re As Game As Ned Kelly


Ned KellyThis is such a good time of year. Particularly when summer arrives early. The country starts to heave a sigh of relief as another frantic year ends and holidays are in sight. We catch up with friends and family at social events and wonder, again, why we wait until the end of the year to enjoy such human activities. And Christmas shopping is a breeze as with good second hand book shops nearby all presents can be sorted in a leisurely Saturday morning’s browsing.

Then there are the thoughtful people who give you a present early and the wrapping comes off in jiff so it can be enjoyed instantly. Such was the fate of Peter Fitzsimons’ new book on Ned Kelly given by a close friend who had overheard my admiration for our Ned. And having devoured the 727 pages within the week, interrupted only by the need to earn my daily bread, my thoughts turned naturally to the New Zealand Labour Party. I will explain below.

When I was growing up the greatest praise that could be given was to be told that you were as “game as Ned Kelly” or “just like our Ned”. Unlike children on the other side of the river who were taught that Ned was a murdering brigand, the adults in our world stressed that Ned was striking out at the forbears of the Liberal and Country Parties. These said forbears (when very young I thought the reference was to koala bears) being the powers in the land who were the second and third sons of the English bourgeoisie and aristocracy and the Irish Protestant ascendancy oppressed the Irish Catholic and English workers who were seeking a better and just life in the new land- new to them that is and not the original inhabitants. So to be fearless like Ned against all who would stand over you was praise indeed and actively sought.

And the connection with the NZLP? Australian poet and songwriter John Manifold while lauding Ned warned that Ned’s way would not bring about the defeat of an unjust system:

    And no man singlehanded can hope to break the bars;
    It’s a thousand like Ned Kelly who will hoist the flag of stars.

So when a friend recently sought my advice as to whether he should consider joining Labour’s list after being asked to put his name in by eminent Labour officials, the verse cited came into my mind. And with the elevation of David Cunliffe to the leadership in a tumultuous year for Labour this end of year period is just the time for summing up as to where Labour could be going and what efforts should be made to make sure it goes there.

I told my friend, we’ll call him Ned, that the invitation should be given serious consideration. He was not going to change the world simply through his own meritorious pursuits, noble and as worthwhile as his endeavours are. Although his day to day activities won’t end up in a deadly siege with the police as with Ned Kelly (at least it is to be hope not!), to hoist the flag of stars he needs to be part of a progressive movement. Those were my first words of advice.

But of course my reply begged his question: And the NZLP is such a progressive movement?

That led us to the next stage of the discussion: Once in the Parliament as part of a parliamentary caucus how did he survive? Being as game as Ned was not enough .Nor was going down in either a hail of bullets (usually fired by your own “colleagues”) or more likely with a whimper rather than a bang.

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Ned’s view of the membership was that it wanted a strong and coherent social democratic party with a firm programme that moved taxation towards a progressive tax structure, and away from indirect taxation. The membership did not just want Labour to retain state assets but to expand the public role in the economy, institute a vigorous state housing building programme and to put the emphasis back into “development” in a resuscitated Ministry of Regional and Economic Development.

From this base Labour could build an economy that can fund a just and equitable society. Labour could then afford the smaller classrooms to drive the educational revolution that is so needed and end the shameful figures we have on child poverty and all the problems that flow from those appalling statistics.

And of course at last Labour would firmly anchor us with a genuine independent foreign policy that would see us withdrawing from Echelon (thank you Edward Snowden and Julian Assange), reinstitute an independent development aid agency, oppose the dangerous US containment policy of China, take effective action on nuclear disarmament (the policy is for export) and become leaders in action on climate change. It will insist on transparency for all trade negotiations.

A lot to do. You will need allies I said to Ned. Identify them now. Form a left caucus with them that means business and won’t be swayed by offers of select committee chairs and ministerial roles to forego the path charted. Learn from the 1984-90 Labour government whose members, largely, were bought for such baubles. David Lange was to call his cabinet “a terrible lot”. Stay clear of those whose sole reason for being a Labour MP are the airpoints, lounge memberships and the desire to be a Minister, come what may.

And this progressive caucus, structured and meeting regularly and grounded in principle and clearly defined polices, should aim to keep the strongest links with the membership.

Ned has taken this prescription away to think about during the Christmas break. Along with my book on Ned Kelly.


  1. “….take effective action on nuclear disarmament (the policy is for export) and become leaders in action on climate change.”
    Matt Robson

    Thank you Matt

    It’s a relief to see someone actually suggesting that a Labour MP should take the lead on climate change.

    As you wisely point out Matt, anyone who takes up this fight inside the Labour caucus without allies, will rapidly become isolated and silenced, by the entrenched: careerists, BAU crowd, don’t rock the boat toadies, of the types that are attracted to every successful parliamentary party, and who are practiced experts at inner party conspiring.

    “A lot to do. You will need allies I said to Ned. Identify them now. Form a left caucus with them that means business and won’t be swayed by offers of select committee chairs and ministerial roles to forego the path charted.”
    Matt Robson

    Forming a left caucus is vital. I would even go further and suggest that Ned look for these allies wherever he can find them. (Not necessarily just in the Labour Caucus). Under MMP there are risks in such a strategy as the Party machine can demote any list MP that they feel is building a power base that is outside of their control. But Ned might find that if he is really committed to making a change, then his allies where ever he finds them, will be moved to help his cause, often in unexpected and surprising ways outside the normal accepted pathways.

    If all else fails appeal to the general population.

    Climate Change is the defining issue of our age, it is not too extreme to describe climate change as an existential issue, all the Mainstream politicians are doing their very best to avoid taking comprehensive action against it. Or even discussing it. This is because there is a generally accepted cross party consensus to not cross the fossil fuel lobby.

    Labour says views on mining close to Govt’s

    NZ Herald July 27, 2012

    Labour’s finance spokesman, David Parker, says his party’s policies on oil, gas and mineral extraction are close to those of the Government.

    “I don’t think we are much different from National,” Parker said. “They’ve continued on with the programme that we started in respect to oil and gas,”

    Sooner or later this cross party consensus has to be ripped up and trashed. And the real debate had.

    At present behind closed doors all the pressure has been going on the Greens to join the consensus.

    To resist this pressure the Greens need allies who will speak for them in the Labour caucus.

    Matt, I would tell your friend Ned, to take on this role, tell him it is the most important role you may ever take in your parliamentary career, or in your life.

    The need is urgent. The danger is clear and present.

    The most powerful storm ever recorded in human history to strike land

    Have no doubt, if nothing if nothing changes, this will happen here.

    No Deep Sea Oil Drilling

    No New Coal Mines

    No More Motorways

    More Public Transport

    No Compromise

    No Surrender

    Climate change is not inevitable it can be beaten. All that is missing is the political will to do so.

    If New Zealand parliamentarians start giving a lead, this will be the impetus for other legislators around the world to look too to take their lead from.

  2. This is what we need – this kind of representation within caucus – but it has to be connected to the members in the party and then they have to be connected to the rest of us outside. We need these links too otherwise we’ll end up with a situation like the last Labour government. Helen Clark neutered the party so she could keep it under her control and then she had no effective “mass” behind her when the business roundtable started leaning on her.

    We need an active population if our representatives are going to achieve anything.

  3. Oddly enough, I’d say education is the firmest plank of this progressive agenda. The current non-performing procedural democracy is only stable given the existence of an under-employed and divided community.

    When Korea and Japan were worse decimated by war even than NZ after thirty years of gross economic incompetence and corruption, they reversed their fortunes by investing in productive infrastructure, (in Korea, the Seoul/Busan Highway), education, and empowering communities (the Saemaul movement). Within a generation, in spite of a vigorous enemy at their door, they had greatly improved the situation of most or all citizens.

    The twentieth century model of public education is very much tied to institutional convenience. Hour-long classes are not tailored to human attention spans, and direct personal teaching can achieve better results: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= A community initiative that successfully harnessed the gains achievable from peer or near peer tutoring could secure the dramatic improvement in achievement without significantly different funding demands than the current model. It would be a Freirean revolution.

    • It may be that the infrastructure in which we need to invest is something different, now, from highways.

      Do you remember how Peter Brown (NZ First) used to bang on about coastal shipping? And others have reminded us of Vogel’s railways which can carry ‘way more freight than the overloaded road network.

      There’s is new technology available for both. I wonder why we’re not investing so we can get small crops from rural enterprises to town and city markets much quicker. Or away to distant markets.

      I agree with you about education – still stuck in the twentieth century pursuing the sort of Minions education better suited to countries attached to big continents. Competition for everyone instead of for the few who might thrive under it. Lots of kids seem to be doomed for years after as a consequence of being shown ‘how useless they are’ in some trivial pursuit that mattered at the time.

      As far as I’ve seen, peer teaching (with socially able kids) is a very good way to go, particularly for kids on the fringes and for ones who need patient tutoring.

      I’m not sure I fully agree with Matt on the matter of the inner party group. If there’s one thing we’ve seen this year it’s the need to directly connect with people who are outside parliament and the party – simply to get a wider perspective plus a view of tangential ideas starting into action. Play wider, ‘Ned Kelly’.

  4. Thanks Matt,
    I wonder whether the ‘party’ is a major part of the problem, almost as implied by some of the comments to your blog post. I have come to the conclusion that the party system, Nats and Labs, have successively given away power to the corporate / private sector. Such that any ‘social good’ issue gets ignored, and trumped by economic ideology, which is obviously failing. (for most people ). A major shake up is coming and I fear that Neds horse, with Ned, has bolted. We don’t even acknowledge, or see corruption in NZ! We are world leading, best practice, world class, 100% pure….. I suppose we must keep trying, but realistically, it’s probably too late for our grand children. Sorry about that. The truth shall set you free, but first it will really piss you off!

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