Wellington, NZ, 22 May – Speaking to a fully packed downtown conference centre in Wellington, on a cold, gloomy rainy afternoon, Labour-leader, Andrew Little launched into a fiery attack on the current National Government focusing on it’s inarguably lack-lustre track record for the past eight years.
With a heavy media presence, Rimutaka MP, and Labour spokesperson for Education, Chris Hipkins, was tasked with making the introduction;
“Certainly there is a mood for change around the country now and that mood for change is increasing. But the question that everybody has been asking us, is is Labour ready? And that’s a fair question to ask.”
“They say that being the leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in politics. Well I can tell to tell you that Andrew has taken to that tough job in politics like a duck to water.”
“In all of that time that he has been doing that job, and all the hours he has put in, he has never forgotten why is there; for people. And that is why the Labour Party is here.”
The short introduction over, the audience of committed Labour members clapped enthusiastically as Little mounted the podium;
To say that Little had plenty of material to work with would be an understatement as the growing crisis for both affordable housing; skyrocketing rentals; and shortage of state houses have been well publicised in the media and by bloggers.
From just one day in Wellington’s Dominion Post Monday 23 May edition;
Jane Bowron’s piece especially – Marae shows up Government with haere mai to homeless – is a must-read, head-on assault on the warped ‘values’ which currently afflict our government and some peoples’ thinking. Yet, the Dominion Post is hardly known as a bastion for marxist agitation.
Little wasted no time as he launched into a recitation of National’s failures after eight years in government;
“It’s becoming harder for many people to get ahead. Harder to find a good job or get a pay rise. Harder to find a home, put some savings aside, or get the health care you need. Parents are paying more for their childrens’ education, but our schools aren’t performing as well.
Look at the headlines from the last couple of weeks: Children sleeping in cars or forced to lives in houses that make them sick; plummeting home ownership; rising unemployment, [and] stalled wages for many people.
And while the few at the very top got to enjoy special rules that meant they didn’t have to pay their fair share – everyone else is paying the cost.
We’ve seen increases in unemployment. There are now 144,000 people out of work in New Zealand, 40,000 more than when National took office.”
Little is correct on those stats. According to the convenient graphs and data from US website, Trading Economics, the increase in unemployment in New Zealand has remained stubbornly high;
Little explained that the unemployment problem was worse than just sheer numbers;
“And it’s not just that more people are out of work – it’s that many more are out of work for longer. Under this government the number of people unemployed for more than a year has tripled – up over 11,000 since they took office.
The situation is especially tough for our young people. Under this government the number of young people who aren’t in work, education or training has risen by more than 26,000.
The truth is those are the young people this government has given up on – the ones they label as ‘pretty damn hopeless’.”
Little pointed out the numbers who had not gotten any wage increase in the last year, and more importantly that workers were missing out on the benefits of economic growth;
For those in work, getting a pay rise has become harder. 43% of New Zealanders saw no increase in their incomes at all in the last 12 months.
Under the last Labour government, the share of economic growth going to wage and salary earners was over 50%.
Today, it’s 37%.
The slice of the economy going to workers has fallen each year under National.
This year, that lost income works out to be fifty bucks a week for the average family.
His comments will most likely resonate with those workers who feel they are working harder and longer hours – and yet do not seem to be progressing. The back-stories of mega-rich tax-evaders hoarding their wealth in tax havens will fuel feelings of resentment by those who work and pay their taxes so we can have roads, hospitals, schools, etc;
Little then hit the big story of the last few weeks – growing homelessness in New Zealand. Coupled with a fall in home ownership rates since 1991 (from 74% in 1991 to 64% in 2015), and we get a clear picture how “free” market economics has impacted on our society.
National’s response was to deny that a problem existed in New Zealand at all. According to Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett;
Andrew Little’s response was less dismissive of the challenges facing 21st century New Zealand families;
“When kids are sleeping in cars. That’s a crisis.
When families are crowded into garages. That’s a crisis.
When an entire generation is locked out of ever owning their own home, that is a crisis.”
He firmly sheeted home blame for our current predicament, in no uncertain terms;
“Instead of owning up to that and fixing it, the government is siding with property speculators and land bankers, while everyone else misses out.
Every initiative our bumbling housing minister Nick Smith has tried on housing has failed. Rather than go after the causes of the problems, he’s flailed around with gimmicks.
Remember special housing areas? Fewer than 1000 homes actually built.
Remember his gimmick from the last Budget? Releasing crown land? It turned out to include substations, cemeteries and even the back yard of Government House.
While the government’s been tinkering, the problem’s gotten so much worse.
In March, the average house price in Auckland rose by over $2,200 a day.”
For maximum effect, Little repeated that startling factoid to the audience and media;
“Let me say that figure again. Over twenty two hundred dollars a day.”
On Radio NZ’s political panel on Monday, 23 May, former Labour Party President, Mike Williams complimented Andrew Little’s speech, referring to it as “dangerous”;
“Middle New Zealand is concerned about health, education, housing, and the economy. And I think, as far as John Key is concerned, this is the most dangerous speech a Labour leader has given since Helen Clark resigned.”
Williams also made an interesting observation regarding how Middle New Zealand felt about their rising house values;
“I think there’s a bit of schizophrenia going on in Middle New Zealand which is showing up in the UMR numbers. If you own a house you are feeling pretty good because the value of your asset has been going through the roof. However, if you’ve got kids, you’re worried about their schooling; you’re worried about will they get a house; and you’re worried about will they get a job that pays enough to pay for a house. So I think, that, yes, home-owning New Zealanders [are] feeling ok, but parents are not.”
Little then addressed the growing under-funding of public healthcare;
According to Infometrics, we’ve had $1.7 billion dollars cut in real terms from our health budget over 6 years.
That’s meant that 160,000 people in the last 5 years have been unable to get the appointment they need with a specialist.”
Which seems to be a replay of National’s cuts to the Health budget in the late 1990s;
In response, Little promised;
“Under Labour, Kiwis will know that if they get sick, the public healthcare system will be there for them. That’s why we are committed to meeting the cost pressures that are depriving people of the care they need…
…Budgets are about priorities, and under Labour, health will be a priority again. We shouldn’t be spending money on $3 billion of unaffordable tax cuts when we could be fixing our health system instead.”
Which, if the previous Clark-led Labour government’s actions are anything to go by, can be counted as a solid committment;
Little was also scathing at National’s taxpayer subsidies being thrown at Charter Schools;
“At the same time as National has poured millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money into privately run charter schools, our public education system is struggling.
In the last year alone, National has cut funding for pupils by $150 each.
And so schools load more costs on to parents in order to fill the gaps.
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you the cost of uniforms, class activities, camps and of course ‘voluntary donations’ just keep on rising.”
For all of National’s much-vaunted “reforms” in our education system, the results are less than impressive. Little rattled off a list of stats that should raise concern with all New Zealanders;
But here’s the thing: while costs are rising, standards are falling.
In 2006, we were ranked 5th in the world for reading.
Now we’re 13th.
We were 7th in science.
And in maths? We’ve fallen from 11th to 23rd.
So much for National Standards. And so much for the neo-liberal ideology that has not only not delivered on promises of excellence in our education system – but has seemingly damaged it. Our fall in international rankings are stark evidence that National’s policies in education have failed spectacularly.
Little then offered what can only be described as Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 General Election;
- We’ll crack down on the offshore speculators who are driving up house prices and locking families out of the market.
- Labour will launch a mass home building programme to deliver new, affordable homes in Auckland and around the country.
- That’s why we are committed to three years’ free post-school education so that Kiwis can train and retrain across their working lives, without having to take on huge debt. That’s how we support our people and its how we tackle the challenge of the future of work.
- We’ll introduce a dole for apprenticeships scheme to give young people the opportunity to get into paid work.
- We’ll raise the number of hours people can work without having their benefit cut.
- We will feed hungry kids in schools…
In six, short, sentences, Andrew Little has put the boot into neo-liberal so-called “reforms”. If elected, and if Labour does not water-down it’s promises, we will be witnessing the dismantling of thirtythree years of the neo-liberal paradigm in New Zealand.
No wonder right-wing commentator, Matthew Hooton, seemed perturbed by Little’s speech during his regular ‘slot’ on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme on 23 May.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect to Little’s promises is that of “three years’ free post-school education“. This is, in effect, partially undoing user-pays in our tertiary institutions.
But the most clever aspect to Little’s speech is that it is “talking” to two different parts of New Zealand.
His reference to “that lost income works out to be fifty bucks a week for the average family” is a direct pitch to Middle New Zealand that feels it is not progressing whilst the mega-rich rort the tax system.
But his reference to abandoning part of user-pays in tertiary education is directed at the Left who are demanding that the Labour Party make a public commitment to renouncing it’s Rogernomics past.
The trick for Labour’s hierarchy and strategists is to achieve both – appealing to Middle New Zealand and the Left – but without spooking the former, or further alienating the latter.
In effect, Labour has taken a firm step-to-the-left – and the public have not noticed.
Mike Williams was right: this was a “dangerous” speech from Andrew Little.
And a damned clever one.
Full text of Andrew Little’s speech here.
Trading economics: New Zealand Unemployed Persons
Radio NZ: No housing crisis in NZ – Paula Bennett
Scoop media: Andrew Little: Pre-Budget Speech 2016
Pundit: Have We a Housing Policy?
Kiwipolitico: Not Quite But Getting There
No Right Turn: National should give us our $13,000 back
The Standard: Little’s $50 a week message getting through
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