ABOUT THE TIME the second of Britain’s battle cruisers exploded, Vice-Admiral Beatty famously remarked: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Trying to make sense of the political passivity of New Zealanders in the twenty-first century, I am often minded of Beatty’s words at the Battle of Jutland. Throughout the vicious class warfare of the past 35 years there does, indeed, seem to be something “wrong” with the progressive movement’s bloody ships!
God knows, it’s not as if there’s been a shortage of issues for people to mobilise against! Low wages; unaffordable housing; the appalling treatment of beneficiaries and state house tenants; the collapse of our mental health service; neoliberalism’s subjugation of the universities: the list is a long one.
The roll-call of resistance is, however, depressingly short. After 1991, protest activity on the streets fell away quite sharply. Campus-based protests against rising tuition fees flared in the early 1990s only to fade away almost completely by the turn of the century.
Environmental causes could still draw middle-class New Zealanders onto the streets in large numbers, however. The biggest of these protests: the anti-GE marches and the 50,000-strong Auckland protest against mining in national parks; were even able to persuade the government of the day to take action.
The most calamitous decline in popular resistance, however, occurred in the New Zealand working-class. Strike action, the most reliable measure of the willingness of working people to stand up and defend their interests, fell away almost completely. Prior to the passage of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, the number of strikes recorded in a single year plummeted from dozens to single figures. So punitive was the new industrial relations law that neither the unions’ paid officials, nor their members, were willing to test it.
That had not been the case in the period between the introduction of the Employment Contracts Bill in 1990 and the legislation being signed into law in May 1991. In April 1991 an estimated 100,000 workers marched against the Bill and mass rallies attended by thousands of rank-and-file unionists voted in favour of a general strike to “Kill the Bill”.
The blank refusal of the leaders of the largest unions to countenance a general strike struck the labour movement a mortal blow from which it has never recovered. Since 1991 the Council of Trade Unions and its affiliates have never been able to muster more than 5,000 unionists in one place. Workers had been ready to fight in 1991 but their so-called “leaders” had not.
The 2012 Ports of Auckland dispute, led by the late Helen Kelly, offered a glimpse of what working people might achieve if given half a chance – and courageous leadership. So, too, did Matt McCarten’s “Unite” union of low-paid security guards and fast-food workers. Sadly, these proved to be the exceptions – not the rule.
Then there were the great “one-offs”: protests that surged and exploded into genuine demonstrations of “people power” only to be sucked into the swamp of parliamentary politics and drowned.
The first of these was the hugely impressive 2004 hikoi against the controversial Foreshore and Seabed legislation. After setting forth from the Far North, the hikoi grew in strength until it arrived in the capital numbering somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 protesters. The Maori Party was born out of this impressive mobilisation of New Zealand’s indigenous people. Sadly, the huge hopes invested in the party ended up producing only the most meagre of political dividends.
The second big one-off protest was the February 2016 demonstration against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. It wasn’t just the number of protesters (somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000) but their palpable anger and energy that startled the political class. Alas, as happened with the hikoi, the anti-TPPA movement allowed itself to be skilfully finessed by the parliamentary opposition. The Labour Party, in particular, encouraged the protesters to believe that, once elected, it would keep New Zealand out of the TPPA’s trans-national corporate clutches.
The energy and anger of February 2016 soon dissipated and could not be reactivated when, 20 months later, the new Labour-NZF-Government proudly attached its signature to something called the “Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership”.
At the Battle of Jutland, the thing that was wrong with Beatty’s “bloody ships” was that the necessary precautions against enemy shells penetrating the battle cruisers’ magazines had not been taken. In effect, it was Beatty’s negligent approach to safety that sank his ships.
What, then, has gone wrong with New Zealand’s progressive ships?
In the simplest possible terms, the link between protest and political action has been broken.
For most of the post-war period, widespread protest activity almost always brought forth an answering political response. People marched and petitioned to “Save Manapouri!” – and Manapouri was saved. Thousands protested New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War – and NZ troops were withdrawn. For 56 days in 1981 the country was convulsed by the Springbok Tour – NZ’s sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa ceased. Most importantly, workers went on strike to improve their pay and conditions – and their pay and conditions were improved. Direct action worked.
It was one of the core objectives of the neoliberal counter-revolution that this relationship between popular agitation and the democratic political process be destroyed. Most especially in matters relating to the economy. The idea that ordinary people might influence the way in which wealth was created and distributed had to be discouraged.
The thing that’s gone wrong with our bloody ships is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that protest’s only value is as a means of expressing our purely personal discontent with the status quo. This is, of course, bullshit. The purpose of protest is to apply pressure in order to achieve change. To force the wielders of effective political power into making a favourable response.
If those with the power refuse to respond to our protests, then the correct reaction is not to give up and go quiet. It is to protest louder and harder and longer until the powers-that-be give up – and give in.