IN 1984 the smartest and most ideologically driven members of the New Zealand ruling class were willing Labour to win. In the upper echelons of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank that preference was already being translated into action. Likewise in the news media, where New Zealand’s leading journalists were already in open and eloquent revolt against “Muldoonism”. In Labour itself, nearly all of the party’s most effective politicians had been similarly converted to the “free market” ideology. Like all the other players, however, they knew that before the new free market era could be ushered-in, Muldoon’s old order had to be brought down.
Thirty-three years on, are we witnessing the stirrings of a similar top-down revolution? Is there an equivalent determination among a frustrated fraction of the ruling class to do something about the present National Government’s all-too-obvious inadequacies?
New Zealand capitalism is in urgent need of a reboot. The agricultural sector is offering nothing more imaginative than more (and more!) of the same: more cows, more milk powder, more massive irrigation schemes, more befouled waterways. The road transport industry is swallowing a disproportionately large amount of New Zealand’s limited investment capital. Our civil service is not only displaying alarming levels of inefficiency but also outright corruption. The health and education sectors have been deliberately run down to the point where they are now holding back the entire economy.
The question is: has the level of dissatisfaction with the current National government’s performance reached the critical mass attained by the enemies of Muldoonism in 1984? Is there rebellion in the ranks of the Reserve Bank and Treasury? Are the leading newspapers full of ideologically-driven critiques of the incumbents’ economic and social policies? Is there a crucial bloc of Labour MPs just aching for the chance to put these new ideas into practice?
Certainly, there has been a great deal of “policy work” undertaken by the Labour caucus over the past nine years. What’s lacking, however, is any sense that the leading lights of Labour’s 2017 caucus are as confident as their 1984 predecessors that their policies will be implemented without resistance from the Powers-That-Be. Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett knew that Treasury would do everything within its power to facilitate Labour’s blitzkrieg of “reform”. There is simply no sense that Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford or David Parker expect their programme to be received with equal enthusiasm by today’s bureaucrats and businessmen.
In summary, the current balance of political and ideological forces is very different from that which prevailed in 1984. Thirty-three years ago, the great neoliberal wave was still gathering momentum. Its inherent contradictions and manifold inequities were not yet apparent to its ideological cheerleaders in the bureaucracy, the business community, the news media and, of course, the NZ Labour Party. Even thirty-three years later, with the inadequacies of neoliberalism laid bare by the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, there is no broadly accepted alternative to our entrenched free-market system.
Jacinda Ardern cannot, therefore, rely upon the overt and covert assistance of a strategically located ruling-class faction convinced that they have seen the future – and that it works. If she is to be swept into power on a mighty wave of change, its energy will not be drawn from those who scheme and plot upon the heights, but from the anger of those no longer willing to suffer silently in free-market capitalism’s abysmal depths.