THE WINTER OF DISCONTENT was an astonishingly successful bluff executed by the business community against Helen Clark’s government in May 2000. The bluff itself came in three parts. Part One was an all-out effort to undermine international confidence in the strength of the New Zealand dollar. Part Two called for the business community’s leading media allies to begin undermining middle-class confidence in the Clark-Anderton Government. Part Three required New Zealand’s leading businesses to issue Prime Minister Clark and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, with an “Investment Strike” notice. If the radical elements of the Labour-Alliance Government’s legislative programme weren’t shelved immediately, then business leaders would simply “put away their cheque-books” and the economy would stall.
Clark and Cullen, unwilling to call the business community’s bluff, capitulated almost immediately. Anderton was required to break the bad news to the Alliance caucus. Its plans to extract some of the neoliberal order’s sharpest teeth would have to be put on hold … indefinitely. Clark publicly declared that the paid parental leave provisions put forward by the Alliance’s Laila Harré would be enacted “over her dead body”. On 23 May 2000, Cullen told the Wellington Chamber of Commerce: “I am mindful that the previous government allowed itself to become disconnected from the electorate and out of touch with public opinion. It stopped listening and paid the political price for that at the last elections. I am determined that we shall not make the same mistake.”
The questions which Cullen either did not want (or never thought) to ask were: from which part of the electorate did Jenny Shipley’s turncoat government become disconnected; and whose opinions did they disregard?
The National-led government was not voted out of office in 1999 by New Zealand’s business elites. It lost power after nine years of vicious assaults upon trade unionists, beneficiaries, state house tenants, university students and just about every other sector group unlucky enough to be in a client relationship with the state. These were the New Zealanders who voted for Labour, the Alliance and the Greens in 1999. Tragically, they were also the Kiwis who Clark and Cullen abandoned just six months laterwhen confronted with the business community’s bold political bluff: its point-blank refusal to accept the policy consequences of the Right’s electoral defeat.
Eighteen years later, a Labour-led government filled with friends, admirers and proteges of the Clark-Cullen era have gone one better than their easily-overawed political mentors by capitulating pre-emptively to the business community. The Budget Responsibility Rules, formulated by Labour’s Grant Robertson and signed-up to by the Greens’ James Shaw in March 2017, sent a strong signal to New Zealand’s business elites that no matter how much stardust got thrown about during the general election campaign, no repeat of the Winter of Discontent would be necessary. Grant Robertson’s dutiful and fiscally timid first budget has furnished New Zealand business leaders with all the proof they could possibly need that neoliberalism’s sharpest teeth are all perfectly safe.
The most effective bluff in politics isn’t the one your opponents are too gutless to call, it’s the one you no longer even have to make.