Former MPs get given the keys to the kingdom when they leave. Well, not exactly, but they get an ID card on a lanyard that can be used to open a wide range of doors inside the complex. The philosophy is that parliament is a ‘home for life’ for MPs who have served. One wouldn’t want to test it too far and bring one’s sleeping bag, however.
It is a testament to the high trust nature of our institutions that I can escort, on my own cognisance, any number of people into the building. It is easier for an ex-MP to get their friends into parliament than to get through the doors of Work and Income. Such is the world today.
On Tuesday I was meeting a friend there and going to visit a Minister, in this case Kelvin Davies, to discuss with him the possibilities in developing models of family-friendly prisons, an approach supported by the Charity Pillars. Thanks, yes, the meeting went well and he engaged with us on some of the issues.
I ran into a Minister I know at Copperfields (the coffee bar on the first floor). She was on a bit of a high and asked me whether I agreed with her that this was “the best job in the world”. I thought about it for a bit, and replied that yes, I thought it was, while one had a fair wind following.
Which is the nub for this government. These are exciting times, with the smell of much-needed social and economic reforms in the air across many areas of life. At the same time, there are many crocodiles snapping at the heels of the government, and these can be ignored for only so long. The two biggest of these are the 30% government spending threshold that has been self-imposed, and the decision to ruffle powerful business interests with labour sector reform.
The 30% threshold is the shadow of neo-liberalism and goes back to the debates over what should be private and what should be public. Radical neo-libs believe that only the police, army, justice and land registration systems should be paid for by the collective. Everything else, including roads, infrastructure, education, health and so on (everything else) should be funded by individuals or small groups formed to promote their own interests. So taxation might be 5% under this model.
Rogernomics wanted about 20% of income to be tax, and used privatisation, marketisation and competition as mechanisms to reduce public spending. At the beginning of the Rogernomics era, over 40% of national spending was public and, in 2017, Steven Joyce announced that government share of GDP was now under 30% and her was aiming for 25%.
But the trouble – the crocodile – is that the 30% figure is too low to meet the spending goals of the current government. You can’t have an expansive welfare state on 30%. I think the current aim should be for 35%, and then see how that works. But the government is terrified of scaring the neo-liberal horses, who are munching away happily (in most cases except Fletcher Building) on the golden oats of large profits, and are well used to such a diet.
Which brings us to crocodile two. The Employment Contracts Act and its successor led to weaker unions and weaker workers, and therefore the labour market has not shared equitably in the wealth of the nation in recent years. The business sector is getting very upset that it may have to share some of its profits with the workers, including full page ads in newspapers and lots of other pressures.
The upshot is that the government will not be getting the resources it needs but anyway may mobilise powerful interests against it. A lose/lose scenario.
National’s performance in opposition has been abysmal. Simon Bridges has something about him that, despite his pretty face, is not attractive. He whines a lot. He has a lot to learn about opposition. It should not be about launching daily diatribes at the government but developing constructive alternatives. National has essentially run on three tracks since the election: it was stolen from us; we didn’t know about [whatever they ignored that Labour now highlights] and the government is wrong, wrong, wrong.
I think he may make it through to the next election, though, because there is little sign of an emerging alternative leadership. Amy Adams is still there in the wind, but the endless population of the National caucus with youngish pākeha men who look like vacuum cleaner salesmen means that, whatever her talents, she is facing an uphill battle. While the party has made big strides in improving diversity in recent years, men still outnumber women in the caucus by 2:1.
The worry for the government is that the fair winds, which already have the odd squall in them, may turn foul. My friend in cabinet will find things are less pleasant then. The expectation of people like me, and you, will not be met. Things will turn to custard.
I keep saying, and will say again, that the government must face the crocodiles and beat them. They will find that if they side with the people of Aotearoa for education, health, good services, fair wages, poverty reduction and so on, they can gain the kind of popularity they need to govern in a post-neolib world. But has Labour forever forgotten how to do this? We will see, I guess.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).