Wisdom’s Mirror: Can Grant Robertson Slay the Neoliberal Gorgon?


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HOW TO ELIMINATE one’s rival without getting one’s hands dirty? It’s a problem with a prodigious political pedigree. King David’s lust for Bathsheba drove him to order Uriah, her unfortunate husband, placed in the front line of battle – where he was promptly and conveniently slain. King Henry II, thwarted in his ambition to dominate the English Church by his old friend, Thomas Becket (whom he’d foolishly made Archbishop of Canterbury) cried out: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” Whereupon six of his knights immediately took it upon themselves to terminate the Archbishop’s turbulence with extreme prejudice. In neither case, however, did matters end well for these errant kings. God was watching David, and Henry had a Pope to placate.

Then again, there’s the legend of Perseus. If they’d had opinion polls on the Greek island of Serifos back in the days of King Polydectes, then the hero, Perseus, would have been the people’s preferred monarch. To protect his throne (and get his lustful paws on Perseus’ beautiful mother, Danae) Polydectes tricked the hero into promising to bring him any gift he cared to name. Without missing a beat, the King ordered Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa – the monstrous Gorgon who had only to look upon a man and he was instantly turned to stone.

Now in the ordinary run of things, Perseus would have been a goner. But, of course, as Zeus’s son, he had friends in the highest of places. And so, with the help of the gods Hermes and Athena, he was able to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. Returning to Serifos, Perseus bore the monster’s head to Polydectes who was, predictably, petrified.

Now, it strikes me that Andrew Little was born too late to have been enthralled (as I was) by the Children’s Record Guild of New Zealand’s magnificent version of the legend of Perseus and Medusa. [It’s how middle-class Kiwi parents entertained their children in the years before television!] Nevertheless, there is more than a hint of Polydectes deadly errand in Mr Little’s decision to confer the Finance Spokesperson role upon his most formidable political rival, Grant Robertson.

The confident predictions of right-wing political commentators notwithstanding, Mr Little is expecting a great deal more from his Finance Spokesperson than yet another recitation of the neoliberal catechism. Mr Robertson has been given twelve months to come up with something new in the way of economic policy. Something that moves the Labour Party on from its 30 year infatuation with neoliberal dogma and introduces it to a practical and progressive set of economic alternatives.

Polydectes would be proud. Because Mr Robertson’s quest is full of perils. If ever there was a menagerie of solid rock, it is that vast collection of economic ideas upon which the neoliberal Gorgon has cast her petrifying gaze. Mr Robertson would not be the first social democrat to have his career turned to stone for the capital crime of embracing heterodox political economy. Just consider the fates of the US Democratic Party’s Walter Mondale, or the German SPD’s Oskar Lafontaine.

But perhaps the very myth that exemplifies Mr Robertson’s predicament also points the way to its solution.

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According to story, Perseus was gifted with several crucial items by Hermes and Athena. From the god he received winged sandals, upon which he could fly; Zeus’s sword, that cut through brass and iron; and Hades’ helmet, which made him invisible. From the goddess he received a mighty shield in whose polished surface he could safely view Medusa’s harmless reflection. It was Athena’s – the Goddess of Wisdom’s – gift that guided his sword-arm at the critical moment.

What, then, is the mirror image of neoliberalism? To learn the answer, Mr Robertson need look no further than this morning’s (12/12/14) NZ Herald editorial. Responding to the recent OECD report in which New Zealand is singled out for the size of the gulf separating its richest and poorest citizens, the leader writer wrote:

“In one sense this is not a surprise. New Zealand was a highly protected economy until the mid-1980s with a strongly unionised labour force, high taxation and universal benefits. It had removed these arrangements rapidly by the mid-1990s, conscious that it was opening itself to world markets later than most and with trade disadvantages of distance and scale.”

It would seem that Mr Robertson’s search for an alternative to the iniquitous neoliberal prescription should begin with the things that neoliberalism was intended to replace: policies that enable New Zealand-based businesses to grow and prosper; laws that ensure the rights of employees are protected and that their remuneration is both fair and adequate; and finally, the overarching determination that (as the OECD’s report itself recommends) the nation’s wealth be redistributed in ways that permit all of its citizens to aspire to full, productive and happy lives.

An economic policy elaborating these three themes would, indeed, be a mighty sword in the hands of a Labour Finance Minister – especially one who had taught himself to see, in Wisdom’s mirror, exactly where to strike.

Reviewing the tasks Mr Little has set Mr Robertson, it is possible that I have done him a disservice in comparing him to the evil King Polydectes. If the Labour leader’s true purpose had been to send his rival upon a quest he could not complete, would he have put him in charge of Labour’s broad-ranging inquiry into the future of work? Is it not more likely that, by giving Mr Robertson this responsibility, Mr Little has indicated the direction in which he wishes Labour and its finance spokesperson to march? To a New Zealand where the rights of citizens and their prosperity are inextricably bound together, and where the true purpose of political economy is to ensure the continuance of both.

Sometimes the best way to eliminate a rival is not to turn him to stone, but to allow him to blossom and bear fruit. The Gods, they say, help those who help themselves – and each other.



  1. Thanks for the Classics lesson Chris. An interesting comparison between Andrew Little, King Polydectes, Grant Robertson and Perseus.

    Having given his shadow ministers twelve months to shape up, prove their worth and loyalty, perhaps Little has read something of King Polydectes and has placed a task in front of Robertson, of which if he doesn’t deliver next year, the Labour leader will stand him down.

    Could be something in it to test Robertson. Maybe he will surprise, do a Perseus and come up with the economic goods to put NZ on the road back to prosperity and fairness. Only time will tell.

    There’s a very thin connection linking the parallel worlds of the ancient Classics and contemporary politics.

    It’s all a game of flushing out the weak and the untrustworthy and playing with the strongest more capable players, to enable the best team to move ahead and thrash opponents, taking power.

    And this one is Andrew Little’s game.

  2. “It would seem that Mr Robertson’s search for an alternative to the iniquitous neoliberal prescription should begin with the things that neoliberalism was intended to replace: policies that enable New Zealand-based businesses to grow and prosper; laws that ensure the rights of employees are protected and that their remuneration is both fair and adequate; and finally, the overarching determination that (as the OECD’s report itself recommends) the nation’s wealth be redistributed in ways that permit all of its citizens to aspire to full, productive and happy lives. ”

    Heresy! Heresy! Burn the witch! Burn the witch!!

    It’ll be a cold day in Hades before the Labour Party embraces any of those policies, Chris.

    Mana tried it.

    Look what happened to them.

    And Cunliffe’s career.

  3. From where I stand, I don’t think that Andrew Little and Grant Robertson have got cojones big enough to hack the neo-liberal genes that were introduced into Labour DNA by that incomparable voodoo doctor Roger Douglas 30 years ago. I do desperately want to be wrong though. They could well benefit from a 6 months internship with Angela Merkel in Berlin.

  4. 3 policies labour could adopt. 1.Provide a govt. guaranteed job to all willing and able to work at living wage .The unemployed could start their own worker self directed enterprises with govt. assistance.2.reform the tax system that reflects a fairer distribution.3.Explain to the public how taxation really works.The function of taxation is create unemployment, control aggregate demand,and so the govt.can deficit spend without causing inflation.

  5. Heracles+Augean stables – if we’ve got any rivers clean enough. 🙁

    PS: Chris, you might have enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys’. (From long before the days of records…)

  6. Its so surreal nowadays but the awful situation of “zero hour contracts”, the ones used by big multi national corporations in the fast food, supermarket and service station industries to name a few, barely raise an eyebrow in 2014 NZ. Its the wild west of employment standards, the best if not the most exploitive example of “flexibility” at work and all the poor bastards who are stuck with this appalling lack of government protection can do is grin and bear it.

    I truly hope Robertson and Labour can find the way to kick the habit of this present economic junky like dependency, its killing us.

  7. Chris,

    Appreciate the history as we must look back to see where we are going too.

    “HOW TO ELIMINATE one’s rival without getting one’s hands dirty?”

    Just copy Cancer/Crime P.M. Key, as he has made a living doing this akin to Al Capone.

  8. Ha! Great observation & beautifully written as always.

    ( but I don’t think Labour can afford a gift from Hermes)

  9. Exellent allegory. Enjoyed that.

    And it is quite true,….in glaringly obvious terms, …that the antithesis of all this neo liberal destruction is the economic system we had previously. It worked.

    As it does in the Scandinavian country’s currently , as they are still the most wealthiest per capita nations on earth.

    It would be very easy to develop a task force to study , liaise, and learn the best of what those country’s do and appropriate it to our situation. And it wasn’t that long ago that we operated along similar lines.

    It can act as a framework for the present and be developed for today’s circumstances.

    The very fact neo liberalism consumes, and then after resources /wealth in a society is used up,…it actually cannibalizes on itself.

    Simply put , – impoverish the population , then those same people you’ve spent the last 30 years impoverishing….can no longer have the discretionary incomes to buy your goods.

    You’ve stolen their wealth. So how do you expect them to keep on paying.They cant.

    A form of Keynesian style economics, – with yes! – interventionism where necessary is NOT a bad thing. A minimal govt is NOT a good thing if its tantamount to negligence and being permanently AWOL and abdicating its civic responsibilities .

    Taken to its extreme – this ‘free market’ fable is nothing more than the cut throat, jacked up prices reminiscent of the most exploitative and greedy gold rushes.

    This is why we need laws regulating the propensity for such avarice and sheer piracy that some individuals possess (such as we’ve seen for the last 35 years with all the lies, double speak and sheer colossal gall of these corporations and their lackey politicians )

    It is precisely what we are seeing now and its fallout that we need a return to structure, a civilized economic plan that enhances all sectors.

    Enough of these self centered individuals who mask their greed and lust for power under such ‘noble’ terms as ‘individualistic’ , ‘freedom of choice’ etc.!!!!

    Yet all the while use it as a pretense and code for transferal of wealth through stealth and deceit. Knowing full well the consequences for others in society when their destructive guileful plans mature into reality.

    Lawless pirates , criminals and con men do the same !!!

    Privatization ! Restructuring ! Downsizing! Employment contracts ! Asset sales! ‘ Foreign investors ‘! – the list went on and on and on ! All the catch phrases and ideological craptrap they spouted year in and year bloody out through the 1980’s and 1990’s !

    And their still bloody doing it !!

    They purposely and UNDEMOCRATICALLY went against popular opinion in petition after petition , protest after protest ,report after report to bleed this country and its people dry !

    So yes,…it should not be that hard at all to develop an economic plan of integrity and equity. And put a stop to this piracy once and for all. I hope Robertson sees the light ,casts an eye back to how this country used to be not so long ago , – and takes on board those country’s that never left that path. And ended up being among the most wealthy nations on earth !

  10. The story of King David, along with that of Queen Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyard tells us more about economic jealousy than the whinges one hears from time to time from right wing thieves of New Zealand’s Common Weal. We know what Neo-Con means. But that’s by the by.

    If Mr Robertson does look to economic policies different from the Chicago School nonsense that has impoverished this country, all credit to him. The likes of Douglas and Richardson should have known, but obviously didn’t, and neither does the New Zealand Treasury, for heaven’s sake, that an economy as small as New Zealand’s could not survive in the global arena but from behind protective law and tariff walls. Compromises might have been effected in which reciprocal easements could have been made, they would have to be subject to rigorous due diligence – something to which the National Party is a complete stranger.

    Look out for this Government’s ‘due diligence’ in respect of the TPP agreement – you’ll need a bally big microscope and a vivid imagination to detect any such animal.

    Quite how $11,000,000,000 of profits taken by the likes of Bell-Atlantic et al from their ownership of (and failure to invest in) TELECOM completely passes me by. Quite how the profits that will disappear offshore from the ownership of so many enterprises in this country – nearly all the banks, so many large scale farms, food companies, large-scale retail outlets… aye, well.

    Good grief, John Key himself noted that this country produced too little product to absorb Kiwi-Saver investments. But at least the returns from those investments overseas return to this country. ‘Twere better for the economy an a higher proportion of those investments could be retained onshore, methinks.

    To be sure, investment in this country from offshore is a desirable thing – quality investment. Chinese buying up of well-established farms, property and enterprises is not ‘quality investment.’ Such might become so if from the basis of these buy-ups, something in addition is created – and as we are talking of the Chinese here, I would not rule out that possibility. Time will tell.

    But don’t expect anything from North American ‘investment, though: were have been burned. If this country continues to flog off mining and fracking rights for negligible return, then we will find, once the country has been mulcted dry, that all that activity has come at a net cost to the New Zealand economy.

    Guaranteed, 100%. Unfortunately, for some people, the stupidity of their acts become apparent only after they have committed them. Of course, if they personally profit – at the expense of everyone else – where was the folly? Check out the post-political careers of the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. ‘Nuff said.

    • Some good points , your Majesty.

      Particually in the second paragraph. Whereby easements can be made to accomodate subject to due diligence. Indeed this country is FAR TOO SMALL to engage in an open slather deregulation . And hence the need to protect our markets , industries , workers, indeed our economy.

      Interventionism … as in import tarriffs and laws protective of our produce , need not be so prohibitive that it disincentives exporters or importers. There can be balance.

      But none the less…need to be present to safeguard our national interests and prevent this country from becoming some kind of fruit ripe for the picking by ruthless oppertunist corporates , banks or foriegn nations.

      Foriegn investment is not inherently wrong either , – if a very hard bargain is driven subject to periodic renewal. If in the case of ANY extractive industry’s…vigourous and stringent safe practice would need to be complied with by any would be aspiring country or corporation that desires to operate within these shores.

      Not only that , – but a significant share of the profits would be mandatory to be returned directly to this country for the priveledge of coming here with the express purpose of using OUR resources.

      And not some token gesture of the profits either . Nice wee way to return a tax rebate to the people – a national dividend , if you will.

      This would sort out the wheat from the chaff. No fly by nighters or lax operators needed , thank you very much.

      And if it is land based , again , ….you dont own our land , – you lease it. And again , – subject to scutiny and subject to revising the terms of that lease and possible termination thereof if it contravenes strict guidlines.

      So if your a foriegn govt – you better make damn sure your nationals arent playing up over here and jeopardising your interests in NZ. And that includes foreign land speculators.

      Its simply not good enough that these characters come here , buy up land and housing and create conditions whereby we become renters in our own country. If your from another country and want to buy a house / houses or farms etc here?…then you become a citizen. And thats defined by the length of time you live here, gain citizenship and undergo a citizenship ceremony.

      Other than that? …if you want to set up a profit making business….the above paragraphs apply to you.

      All free trade deals have ever meant for the people of this country to date is the people of NZ get the raw end of the deal , get shafted, exploited and loose their national birthright. And the only characters who have made massive gains out of this system are these traitorous neo liberal thugs that have infected our parliament for the last 35 years.

      Its time we get a bit of mongrel again and learn to have some self respect as a nation and stand up for ourselves and assert our RIGHT to be here. And insist on having our terms that other country’s have to learn to respect – not just theirs.

    • NZ seems to have survived fine after liberalising our trade with much of the rest of the world. Our Exports have certainly increased dramatically over the past 20 odd years.

      • You left out these other “positives”, Gosman;

        * high unemployment

        * growing under-employment

        * worsening inequality

        * increasing child poverty

        * falling home ownership rates

        * stagnating wages

        Yeah, it’s been a bundle of laughs, mate.

      • Yep: biggest increased export in the last 20 years?

        1. Jobs. You got it. Like many another Western country, New Zealand has exported jobs. Check out the answering service when you have a problem with you lap-top or PC. You’re talking to someone in India. Telecom’s call centre is in Manila. If you want to get all bigoted about it, forringers don’t have to come to this country to ‘steal’ our jobs. Our economic ‘leaders’ (thugs and hired assassins) make them over direct to them in their own country. You don’t have to emigrate to New Zealand to get a New Zealand job. (Actually, I don’t look at it myself in precisely these terms, but I am surprised little is made of it by right-wing types…)

        2. New Zealand industry. When was the last time you heard the mantra ‘buy New Zealand’? Well, you won’t. A great many iconic New Zealand companies are foreign owned. According to a CAFCA report, “Transnational corporations (TNCs) make massive profits out of New Zealand. These can truly be called New Zealand’s biggest invisible export. In the year to March 2013 at $8.3 billion their profits were almost as much as the $8.5 billion earned by the combined exports of seafood and milk powder. In the decade 2004-2013, TNCs made $73.4 billion in profits from New Zealand. Only 27% was reinvested.” The likes of Fisher & Paykel and Canterbury are now subsidiaries of foreign (China and UK in these instances, though most went to Oz) parents, the bulk of their operations off these shores, and therefore we go back to job exports

        3. So you can see that money is also a growing export, some $53 billion being exported out of the NZ economy in the ten years 2004-2013. That’s net, in case you are wondering. Twenty-seven percent ($19.8 Billion) of the actual profit to foreign owners ($73.4 billion) was reinvested in this country.

        4. Talent. So great and long lasting has New Zealand’s brain drain become, that the Harvard Business Review used the New Zealand experience as a case study for what is admittedly a global phenomenon. But of course, shutting down the DSIR, cutting teacher jobs as a response to falling school rolls (I nearly said ‘roles’ but that ain’t so far off the mark, neither), cutting services from tertiary education and reducing its funding, insisting on retaining a shortage of active medical staff, leaving skilled immigrants to drive taxis, hasn’t helped national retention of talent, has it?

        HBR quoted a study that estimated that at least 1 in 3 tertiary qualified New Zealanders now live off-shore. Recall the days when New Zealand used to haemorrhage musical talent to Oz and points west? Now it’s across the board.

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