THE BRIEFINGS TO INCOMING MINISTERS (BIMs) have laid bare the accumulated failures of nine years of National Party Government. In sector after sector senior civil servants paint a grim picture of incompetence and neglect. The clear message which emerges from this sorry record is that New Zealand has been the victim of a nine-year austerity programme that nobody – other than the poor – seems to have noticed. Taken together, the BIMs offer stark proof of just how deep the class divisions in this country now run.
The veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, puts it like this: “What the Government is confronting is two separate pressures on its spending – one deferred spending from the austerity imposed by the last Government as a response to the GFC in 2008 and a new force in the form of a rapidly growing, ethnically diverse population.”
One of the reasons the three parties making up the present government were able to secure the votes necessary to win power was because the National-led Government was no longer able to confine the effects of its austerity programme to the poorest – and brownest – working-class communities. The effects of prolonged underfunding were beginning to be felt in New Zealand’s leafy suburbs as well as in its meanest streets. More and more people shared in the common agreement that something must be done.
An understanding that a great deal more money would have to be raised and spent, should have been at the heart of that agreement – and Labour should have been the party that put it there, imbuing it with the moral and intellectual force required to overcome the Right’s inevitable resistance. This had been the strategy of the Labour Party in the early 1930s, and it succeeded brilliantly. Labour took power in 1935 with a comprehensive and progressive manifesto, backed by the irresistible weight of an informed and impatient public.
Sadly, this was not the case in 2017.
Rather than build a broad consensus around the need for a substantial increase in public expenditure, funded by an equally large increase in taxation, Labour set out to convince voters of the exact opposite. No increase in personal income tax contributions were necessary, they were told, not even from the very wealthy. Corporate taxation, similarly, would not need to rise. The rate of the Goods and Services Tax could remain fixed at 15 percent. There would be no Capital Gains Tax, Land Tax or Inheritance Tax. Labour was at pains to let people know that it intended to cleave faithfully to the broad fiscal and economic settings bequeathed to it by the outgoing National Government. Gusts of rhetorical stardust notwithstanding, the new Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, was determined to run a tight fiscal ship.
In essence, Robertson’s strategy was the same as Steven Joyce’s, his predecessor: keep the middle-classes happy. National had done it with rock-bottom interest-rates, and by allowing the value of their personal assets to soar. Labour hoped to keep them happy with promises of free tertiary education and affordable homes for their kids; decent pay raises for teachers, nurses, hospital doctors and civil servants; and the gradual upgrading of New Zealand’s ailing infrastructure as and when finances permitted. For the working-class and beneficiaries there would be lots of smiles and hugs – and bugger-all else.
But, as Harman puts it on Politik: “There is a subtle but strong message running through the Briefings to Incoming Ministers […] which comes near to putting a price that the Government is going to have to pay to implement its promises.”
Unsurprisingly, given the neoliberal predilections of senior Treasury officials, the price envisaged is a capitulation to the idea of opening-up the renovation of New Zealand’s public services and infrastructure to private investors. Robertson’s principal advisers are steering him, very quietly, in the direction of Public-Private-Partnerships. In this they will be greatly assisted by Robertson’s personal aversion to unorthodox economic ideas, and by his determination to stay within the bounds of his “Budget Responsibility Rules”.
No matter that New Zealand is short 75,000 houses, or that 700,000 Kiwis cannot be sure of the purity of their drinking water. Too bad that there aren’t enough beds for the mentally ill, and that the prisons are full-to-overflowing. Unfortunate that our courts are so under-resourced that justice is being denied by trial delays of up to 18 months. Labour will continue to resist the rising clamour for increased spending via the tax rises essential to the maintenance of a civilised society.
The grim picture painted in the BIMs is the consequence of National’s class-driven programme of austerity. Labour’s seeming helplessness in the face of the multiple crises they reveal, is the direct consequence of its refusal to accept that the wounds of austerity can only be healed by applying the sovereign remedy of substantial increases in state spending – facilitated by a radical expansion of the tax base.