Reclaiming The Dream: Labour’s annual conference lifts spirits and raises hopes

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IF ELECTIONS COULD BE WON with a single speech, Andrew Little would be a shoe-in for New Zealand’s next prime-minister. Sunday’s keynote address to the Labour Party faithful in Palmerston North has been acknowledged, even by Little’s critics, as an outstanding rhetorical success. Certainly, its astute combination of the personal, the political, the traditional and the inspirational had the 1,500-strong audience in the city’s Regent Theatre on their feet and cheering.

This rapturous reception of Little’s speech notwithstanding, most observers agree that the 500 delegates who turned up to Labour’s 99th Conference were a thoroughly chastened bunch. The open and bitter confrontations between ordinary members and MPs that had become such a feature of recent conferences were nowhere in evidence. Indeed, top-down appeals for unity, focus and discipline, and warnings against doing anything that might embarrass the party, found an unusually compliant audience. Between them, Labour’s President, Professor Nigel Haworth, and Little’s staffers, Matt McCarten, Neale Jones and Sarah Stuart, managed to create an atmosphere in which the professional politicians were heeded – not heckled.

This appeal for unity worked because, for the past twelve months, the parliamentary caucus has demonstrated its capacity for working together as a team. The unauthorised leaks to gallery journalists and bloggers; the secret briefings against colleagues; all the disloyalties that helped to destroy the prime-ministerial hopes of Phil Goff, David Shearer and David Cunliffe, have largely ceased. And what’s sauce for the caucus geese, Haworth told the delegates, must now become sauce for the activist ganders. It was time for Labour to decide what it was: “a jolly decent loose confederation of like-minded individuals and organisations”, or, “a united, disciplined party”. From The Daily Blog’s Martyn Bradbury, to POLITIKS’ Richard Harmon, the journalists in attendance agreed that the delegates had opted enthusiastically for the latter option.

Little’s task now is to use that united and disciplined party to sell Labour’s message to the wider electorate. And, unfortunately, it’s about here that the organisation and efficiency run out. Having set himself and his party some big, inspirational goals: “Jobs, jobs, jobs”; the elimination of child poverty; properly resourcing the health and education systems; Little has next to nothing in the way of credible answers to the questions that inevitably follow such bold political statements of intent.

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Rather than answer, simply, “Yes”, when RNZ’s Guyon Espiner asked whether it was now Labour’s policy to eradicate poverty, Little prevaricated. Labour’s policies will be rolled out over the next two years, he said. Not good enough. Intelligent voters know that eradicating poverty necessarily entails lifting the incomes of the poor. Does Labour intend to restore the purchasing power of welfare benefits to 1991 levels – thereby reversing Ruth Richardson’s 25-30 percent cuts in beneficiary incomes? If so, where will the money come from? Does Labour intend to increase the top tax rate? And if Labour has no plans to reverse Richardson’s benefit cuts, or raise taxes, how can it possibly be serious about eradicating poverty?

The general journalistic consensus is that Labour’s strategists are attempting to emulate the highly successful, Crosby-Textor-guided, National Party campaign of 2008. This entails shedding all the policies that the punters don’t like or can’t understand (Capital Gains Tax, raising the retirement age, NZ Power) and holding back on announcing any new policies until much closer to the General Election.

But this is a thoroughly inaccurate reading of National’s 2007-2008 strategy. What the voters feared most about National in 2006 was the radical and divisive agenda Dr Don Brash had persuaded it to adopt in 2005. John Key’s priority, therefore, was to allay the voters’ fears by ditching the Brash agenda and keeping in place most of Labour’s more important economic and social reforms (Working For Families, Interest-Free Student Loans, Kiwisaver). He also gave practical expression to this change of National’s heart by visiting McGeehan Close and promising to address the problems of the underclass, and by cutting adrift the far-right opponents of Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking legislation. Far from being a do-nothing Opposition leader, Key worked constantly to build-up the image of a new kind of National Party: one committed to giving New Zealand a “kinder, gentler” version of conservatism.

The most important piece of advice Lynton Crosby gives to his right-wing clients is: “When in doubt, stand for something!” The people around Little should be saying exactly the same thing. Indeed, they’ve already said it – in Sunday’s speech. Little has declared Labour’s intention of re-claiming the New Zealand Dream: the dream that past Labour leaders and governments fought to bring within the reach of every Kiwi family. His No. 1 priority over the next two years must be to show New Zealanders how he and his party intend to bring that dream into the twenty-first century; and to refute the inevitable arguments hurled against it by Labour’s political foes.

Equivocation cannot do that. Inoculation cannot do that. Turning yourself into the smallest possible target for a hostile news media cannot do that. When Sid Holland declared, in 1937, that Labour’s Social Security Bill was “applied lunacy”, Mickey Savage responded by saying that he thought of it as “applied Christianity”. The nation cheered. More recently, when asked why he had made sure that half of his new cabinet were women, Canada’s Justin Trudeau replied: “Because it’s 2015.” A party of change must carry the country with it to defeat the forces of conservatism. Rather than rely upon the dark arts of Crosby-Textor, Andrew Little should put his faith in the sentiments that brought the Regent Theatre to its feet on Sunday afternoon.

Those who borrow the Devil’s weapons, end up fighting the Devil’s wars.

 

22 COMMENTS

  1. an excellent/well-argued piece..

    ..i was dismayed by the first sentence..and girding my loins for yet another bullshit-unpacking operation..

    ..but what follows makes perfect (political)-sense..

    ..and re little..i am dismayed by littles’ claims/dismissals that the successes/policies of corbyn/sanders/trudeau..

    ..are ‘different from here’..

    ..now that is complete and utter bullshit…

    • and does not the universal-cries of ‘joy! joy!’ from the likes of paul henry and the corporate media at the news of little ditching a capital gains tax/power-policy..

      ..and to this big bag of empty-wind speech..

      ..does this not give little/labour any pauses for fucken thought..?

  2. Chris: “Intelligent voters know that eradicating poverty necessarily entails lifting the incomes of the poor”

    Wrong: Intelligent voters know that when you subsidize poverty and failure, you get more of both.

    (The Kahui family were reportedly receiving over $2000 per week in welfare when they killed those twins)

  3. Little’s first speech was to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. That shows were his true colors lie. He’s economically ignorant,and therefore will fail in anything he proposes. The Labour party are doomed to austerity lite policies. the counter-revolution that they instigated in the 80’s has entombed them forever. Good riddance to the national reds.

    • Sad that so many voted this link down without engaging with the points!

      I don’t agree with bashing Labour simply because of what happened in in the fourth Labour Government. But we should bash Labour for not changing much.

      I’ve tried repeatedly to make this point about the limits and problems of Little’s ‘blame the foriengers for housing’ approach:

      “Of course, from the standpoint of the material interests of workers in this country, it is immaterial whether people from Canada, Australia, China or this country, own land and houses. Workers here wouldn’t be any better off if all the land and houses here were owned by ‘kiwi capitalists’. They would, indeed, be worse off because ‘kiwi nationalism’ would be stronger and class consciousness would be even weaker than it is now. The TPPA is a false debate in that how capitalists organise trade is always to their benefit, not ours. We have no stake in either free trade or protectionism; regardless of which is state policy at any time, we need to fight for our independent interests as a class.”

  4. That’s all very fine , Chris but this :

    ‘ If so, where will the money come from? Does Labour intend to increase the top tax rate? And if Labour has no plans to reverse Richardson’s benefit cuts, or raise taxes, how can it possibly be serious about eradicating poverty? ‘

    My question is this… why is it ok for the top income earners to have tax cuts – with Key borrowing around $ 250 , 000, 000 to $ 300,000,000 per week to subsidize them?

    And while I’m not particularly surprised by the Nats doing such a thing… why is it so ingrained in us now that its OK for the rich yet not those of lesser incomes?

    And certainly with all that borrowing for the comfort fund for the rich – this country’s track record under Key for those on working wages are abysmal.

    Jobs?…I distinctly recall Key saying the creation of 300,000 new jobs – so far all we got is a bicycle path that was supposed to employ 200 – and still isn’t finished after 7 years !!!

    Health and safety reforms and we get WORM FARMS – after the Pike River tragedy.

    And the LIVING WAGE is approximately calculated at $ 18.50 per hour – whats this garbage of a minimum wage of $ 14.75 per hour???

    A license to beg by the corporations or something???

    And then there’s this :

    ‘He also gave practical expression to this change of National’s heart by visiting McGeehan Close and promising to address the problems of the underclass, ‘

    Followed by this :

    ‘Far from being a do-nothing Opposition leader, Key worked constantly to build-up the image of a new kind of National Party: one committed to giving New Zealand a “kinder, gentler” version of conservatism. ‘

    Yes…it is true that he manicured an ‘ image ‘ – but that’s all it was.

    Aroha Ireland was featured in an article on a STUFF follow up on how shes gotten on in Australia – and here it is….

    ………………………………………………………………………………………..

    Once she was the poster girl of John Key’s rise to power. Now, the girl from McGehan Close says she would never vote for National and has no plans to return home from Australia.

    As a young woman in Auckland, she says, there were no houses, no jobs, no hope: “There was nothing left in New Zealand.”

    In 2007 Aroha Ireland, then aged 12, had become the face of what John Key, leader of the Opposition at the time, called New Zealand’s underclass.

    Key had labelled her community in Mt Albert’s McGehan Close a “dead end” and “the nation’s street of hopelessness” created by the Labour government.

    He has now had six years to turn things around, but Aroha is not convinced. She has no plans to come back to New Zealand, where she could find only part-time work on the minimum wage in a fast-food restaurant.

    In Australia, she has a full-time job working in warehousing for Coles supermarket. She married her new husband Stuart on Melbourne’s St Kilda beach, and has taken his name, Spashett. They are buying a house.

    Back in 2007, her mother Joan Nathan famously castigated Key for insulting their community.

    As an olive branch, Key took the young girl to celebrations at Waitangi that year and got Nathan a job at MP Jackie Blue’s office. Things briefly looked up for the family. But after the first term of Key’s government, Aroha moved to Australia and her mother was back on the benefit after being made redundant from her job with Blue.

    Three years later Aroha, now 20, feels she was used by Key – and the Prime Minister won’t be getting her vote.

    “The last time I spoke to him was when he took me to Waitangi Day. After that I have never heard from him again. I absolutely believe that I was used as a publicity stunt,” she says. “I wouldn’t vote for National.”

    In the past year, New Zealand had a net loss of 15,000 migrants to Australia, well down from 36,700 a year earlier, as job prospects worsened in Australia and improved in New Zealand.

    In the One News leaders’ debate, Key said only 80 New Zealanders left for Australia, 50 the month before.

    “I know their names,” he quipped.

    Well, he certainly knows Aroha’s name – since he last saw her in 2008, she has haunted him from afar.

    Now, she says, the opportunities she has in Australia just aren’t available here.

    “I have a full time job that pays good, $38 an hour,” she says. “I have a house, rent is cheap, about $265 a week for 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, double garage, me and my husband are close to buying our own house. Life couldn’t be any better. There was nothing left in New Zealand.

    “All this from someone who came from a ‘dead end’ street, right?”

    She recently returned home to visit her mother. She couldn’t believe how expensive the price of living in New Zealand was compared to Australia.

    “Petrol has shot up – $2 for petrol, really? I also brought about seven or eight items from one of the supermarkets and it came to a total of $78. No wonder people can’t fill their fridges. I’m glad I got out of New Zealand when I did.”

    Over the past four years she has seen her mother’s financial situation worsen. “My mum works full time and she is still struggling really bad,” she says. “It is like she is worse off.”

    “I have everything that I would never ever have in New Zealand. I would probably still be on the benefit if I lived in NZ right now.”

    ………………………………………………………………………………………..

    So much for John Key the ponytail puller.

    Cant even organize a bicycle path .

  5. John Key with his comments in the house has deflected attention from AL’s speech onto criminals held in detention and the Labour Party walked into the trap. All the good work of the conference has been undone and all the public will remember is the claim that the left supports murderers and rapists. It is of course grossly unfair but like a bunch of mugs the LP does exactly what JK what he wants it to do.

    However sad the plight of detainees you are all on a loser on this one.

  6. “Jobs, jobs, jobs”; the elimination of child poverty; properly resourcing the health and education systems; Little has next to nothing in the way of credible answers to the questions that inevitably follow such bold political statements of intent.

    Dreams are free. Everything else costs.

    In the post peak oil world, economic contraction, falling standards of living, declining services and burgeoning deficits are the only games in town in most locations, with NZ being somewhat exceptional in the short term, being temporarily propped up by mass migration. No mainstream politician is ever going to mention the truth about any of that.

    • Easy. Stop tax cuts to the already wealthy. It’s ridiculous. The wealthy were meant to create more jobs to increase tax revenue over all. That hasn happened. Tax revenue has been falling ever since Key took office.

      • SAM

        You don’t know what you’re talking about.

        After a hiccup during the 2008 GFC, revenue has been steadily climbing:

        http://www.treasury.govt.nz/budget/forecasts/befu2014/011.htm

        Also the wealthy now pay a greater share of the total tax burden now than they did during the previous Labour government. This is because National closed down various tax loopholes.

        Actually we need to reduce taxes again to take into account ‘bracket creep’.

    • No mainstream politician is going to speak the truth.
      They just say what their speech writer tell them to say.
      Lies, lies and more lies.

      In Canada when people were not going to participate in this fraud show by voting they were served up a “liberal” speaker of words too.
      Tell them what tell want to hear.
      Gullible people believe.

  7. Andrew Little certainly delivered a fine speech in Palmerston North. He delivered on my expectation by addressing three issues dear to my heart. They are the TPPA.,the ECA 1991 and our the current plight of our working and benefit dependant families in New Zealand.
    NOW I ask this question…… “will he and his members of the House turn out
    on Saturday to march and protest with the rest of the concerned kiwis against the TPPA?

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