Losing Labour’s Mills-Tone


MEMO TO THE Prime Minister’s Office: Please tell Stephen Mills to stay off the radio. When the boss of Labour’s polling agency, UMR, comes across on RNZ’s Nine to Noon “Politics” slot (14/10/19) as considerably further to the right than both Kathryn Ryan and Matthew Hooton then, believe me, it’s time to tell your pollster, very politely, to stick to his stats.

Listening to Mills in the aftermath of Justin Lester’s shocking loss to Andy Forster in the Wellington mayoralty election provided depressing confirmation of Labour’s current malaise. The party has no use for new thinking – about anything. It remains swaddled-up in the comforting myths of the 1980s. As if the experience of Roger Douglas’s genuinely radical post-Muldoon policy agenda was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thing – as much as the party could possibly absorb for at least the next 50 years.

Mills confirmed this quite unconsciously, when Matthew Hooton noted the irony of Muldoon’s massive energy projects taking on a prescient quality in light of the massive infrastructure challenges currently facing New Zealand. All Mill’s could offer by way of reply was a reflexive jibe about Hooton coming out in favour of “Think Big”. The man showed no inclination to step outside the dusty orthodoxy of the past 30 years. It’s as if Mills’ watch stopped in 1984 and he’s never felt the slightest inclination to re-wind it.

These jibes are a not uncommon feature of Mills’ commentary repertoire. A little while ago he derided a critic of government policy as “one of the last seven Marxists living in New Zealand”. At least that little joke raised a smile, but only if one was willing to ignore its unpleasant, red-baiting subtext.

Because, as the sorry fate of David Cunliffe testifies, open hostility towards anything further to the left than Tony Blair’s bland Third Way has long been de rigueur in Labour’s senior ranks. It’s why you will never hear Jacinda Ardern (who worked for a time in Blair’s administration) or Grant Robertson (who remains Michael Cullen’s prize protégé) offer a word of support or praise for Jeremy Corbyn. This hostility to any hint of socialism (even the “democratic socialism” enshrined in the NZ Labour Party’s constitution) is even stronger among those of Jacinda’s political advisers who learned their trade from the Clinton/Obama Democratic Party in the United States.

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The kind of politics such rigidly orthodox and pathologically risk-averse conduct produces leaves most voters cold. It’s grey practitioners accept as gospel the fundamental neoliberal proposition that the last people who should be allowed within a mile of important policy decisions are politicians. These latter, say the neolibs, are best left to senior bureaucrats – preferably those with a background in the private sector. It explains why, in ordinary people eyes, today’s politicians appear more interested in addressing the priorities of business leaders and bureaucrats than those of the broader electorate. It also explains why the priorities of the voters are addressed so selectively.

The fate of Wellington’s Justin Lester illustrates the learned helplessness of modern political leaders to perfection. Faced with the utter failure of the Regional Council’s public transport re-vamp, Lester responded that, as Wellington’s Mayor, it was not, actually, his responsibility to fix the bus service. Ditto with the proposed, highly controversial, property development at Shelly Bay. That was a private sector initiative. All of these excuses were grounded in administrative fact. But, it is very poor politics to keep telling people that there is nothing you can do to help them – especially in an election year!

Which is why, with Lester’s fate firmly in their minds, Jacinda advisers in the PM’s Office should urge Mills to get off the air. As the supposed voice of the “Left” his only contribution to the progressive cause is to rubbish every idea that doesn’t come straight out of The Big Blairite Book of Conventional Wisdom. The notion that democratic politics was once, and could be again, about something more than securing the narrow interests of big business – as interpreted by its bureaucratic and media enablers – is conspicuous by its absence from Mill’s Monday morning political discourse. Astonishingly, RNZ’s listeners are more likely to hear that sort of talk from Hooton, speaking for the Right, than from the Left’s supposed spokesperson.

Quite why RNZ continues to offer-up the likes of Mills (and his stand-in, the former Labour Party boss, Mike Williams) as representatives of the Left is a mystery. There was a time when genuine left-wingers like Laila Harré were given the job. Back then, listeners could be assured of hearing ideas that most assuredly did not fit the description of “conventional wisdom”. Nor was it the practice of the Left’s champion to tell her audience what they couldn’t have, because what they were asking of their elected representatives were things they couldn’t do.

It is difficult to imagine an approach to political debate more likely to foster voter disengagement than the one currently in evidence on RNZ. Kathryn Ryan and her producer are certainly not doing the Left in general, nor Labour and the Greens in particular, any favours by allowing them to be represented by a person so strongly wedded to the notion that his clients will always be better served following public opinion than leading it. Or, that the art of politics consists in persuading the voters that their political leaders are making new mistakes – rather than repeating old ones. Indeed, the real question that is left hanging in the air after half-an-hour listening to Stephen Mills is not why anyone wanting real change would vote for the parties of the Left, but why they would bother voting at all.




  1. Thank you for an insightful commentary!

    Heading into 2020, we so desperately need clearer vision, unimpaired by the dark shadows of the past.

  2. Thankyou Chris I highly respect you for calling a spade a spade.

    We at CEAC have sent this offering to the press today about Government not taking the bull by the horn and using faceless bureaucrats to make all our decisions over us all now.

    “Government policy in 2019 stalled by bureaucrats”.
    Part three;
    Tuesday 15th October 2019.
    Press Release: Citizens Environmental Advocacy Centre.
    Since the beginning of this Government’s “year of delivery“2019 we have sadly seen a ‘slow snail pace’ on policy occur, so why?
    • CEAC saw where the ‘log jam was’ in February with our findings released on February 15, 2019 “Government is being stymied by bureaucrats” http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1902/S00113/government-is-being-stymied-by-bureaucrats.htm (see full press release below)
    • Then CEAC found by 5th September (seven months later) we reported on 5th September 2019; (see full press release below)
    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1909/S00065/our-government-is-stymied-by-bureaucrats-on-policies.htm Quote; “it appears over-reach by bureaucratic control is still slowing our Government function and role in completing policies”.
    • So now by mid-October 2019 what we term “Part three” still Government’s key policies are again being stalled by policy bureaucrats that we are reporting today.
    We carefully watched PM Jacinda Ardern talking to Duncan Garner on the AM show 15th October around issues that Government is facing and Jacinda made a strong point in answer to several policy issues questions fielded to by Duncan ranging from ‘Electric vehicles to Cannabis’, and PM Jacinda answered clearly her preference was that (my words) “Jacinda; – “will not offer her opinion for policies because she will not wish to “influence anyone from making their own choice, as she said she upholds “democracy” above all other influences” in our lives.
    On the face of her argument this is a very admirable point to make on the surface; but we consider that if she and her Government ‘sheds any leadership/directives’, and only relies on faceless un-elected un-known bureaucrats to decide our future; – then we are really in trouble here, as bureaucrats have no binding responsibility to the citizens of our country, only elected politicians have that responsibility.
    So we see clearly now it is these so called “committees” that Government has heavily relied upon to make their decisions has been failing them, and are now responsible for stalling making “the year of delivery” a reality so Government needs to make 2020 the ‘year of delivery’ otherwise they will not be re-elected it appears on the surface of the latest poll results.
    Our Government is stymied by bureaucrats on policies
    Thursday, 5 September 2019, 8:41 am
    Press Release: Citizens Environmental Advocacy Centre
    5th September 2019
    Earlier this year on February 2019 we posted this article;
    “Government is being stymied by bureaucrats”
    February 15, 2019
    Press Release – Citizens Environmental Advocacy Centre
    This week we saw salvation army releasing their state of the nation report that showed that Jacindas vision of a Kinder gentler caring Government is not being nurtured by the bureaucrats who still have an iron grip on government …Citizens Environmental Advocacy Centre In’c.
    “Government is being stymied by bureaucrats over health care, transport, and trades training”.
    Seven months later it appears over-reach by bureaucratic control is still slowing our Government function and role in completing policies to improve our ‘health and wellbeing’.
    So far this week, – two issues arose;
    • 1/ it was announced in a report that the ‘health services for disabled’ is not reaching ‘adequate services’ to ensure the health and wellbeing of all citizens’.

    Quote; New Zealand’s health and disability system is fragmented, overly complicated, and lacking in leadership.
    That’s the finding of an interim report of the government’s review of the system. It doesn’t have any specific recommendations, but highlights some key areas where change is needed, including raising questions about the roles and number of District Health Boards.
    • 2/ Also in the second report is showing that there was an unacceptable slow release of funding from the (PGF) “Provincial Growth Fund” unit, and the report said that only a fraction of the “committed” funding had actually been distributed so far although Quote “over half of the $3 billion has been committed’.

    This was the Coalition Government promise made to us all in HB/Gisborne on February 2018 for rail in HB/Gisborne.
    QUOTE; “The government will give $5m to KiwiRail to reopen the Wairoa-to-Napier train line, which it says will take more than 5000 trucks off the road each year.”
    Our CEAC response; to Shane; No trains are yet running – where are they?
    We’re boosting tourism and forestry opportunities in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay.
    • Investing in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay to immediately boost tourism and forestry opportunities.
    • Redeveloping Gisborne Inner Harbour.
    • Funding a programme to commemorate the first encounters between Māori and Europeans.
    • Kick-starting the creation of a $20 million Wood Processing Centre of Excellence in Gisborne, which will create 167 jobs.
    • Backing KiwiRail to reopen the Wairoa-Napier line for logging trains.
    Our CEAC response; to Shane; “we want some funding to be earmarked for the restoration of all rail services provided, especially all the way back to Gisborne not just half way along the rail line, Gisborne needs a full rail “service between both Provinces, and cutting off one province from rail to the next province is a foolish idea.
    Both these stalled policies graphically show what we highlighted last February, that a slow almost stalled pace of change is still present today, and we blame bureaucrats as being responsible for disrupting in delivering Government policy.
    Our centre was shocked that to see that the Government has yet to ‘call time on these bureaucratic mishandlings’ and dismiss these who are not doing their job to assist in our provincial projects that our communities are seeking action on.
    ‘Public servants’ of which these bureaucrats are means that they should do the job of what their employer (the public) expects of them.
    This is the ‘year of delivery’ stated the Government so please get the RGF sorted out as our East Coast HB/Gisborne provincial rail system now needs to be restored to services after seven years of being mothballed by an errant national Government under the mistakes made that caused flooding and damage to our rail by ‘redirecting’ the funding to Auckland so we lost track maintenance staff funding in 2011 by then Minister of Transport Steven Joyce.
    A note to the Auditor general John Ryan;
    • In our bullet point 2/ Quote “over half of the $3 billion has been committed’.

    We want to make it clear to the Auditor General John Ryan (see link above) who ordered a review of the Provincial Development Unit and MBIE officials who were told to improve the management of the fund auditing the PGF to understand the following here;
    • That was the last National Government in 2011 through their “Minister of Transport” Steven Joyce, who was responsible for the multimillion dollar damage to our rail washout who should be blamed for the cost and resulting loss of our economic fortunes and decline to have caused the closure of our rail line.
    • So we want Auditor general John Ryan to also review National Government operations in 2011/12 who caused the resulting loss of our Gisborne/HB Provincial rail.
    • Auditor general John Ryan to carry out an ‘environmental impact assessment report’ with an audit of the ‘loss/cost’ of the economic opportunities so the Provincial Development Unit and MBIE officials must now put the rail service back in operation to improve the HB/Gisborne management of both our transport and economy, after national destroyed our future prospects without rail.
    These are the driving force why our HB/Gisborne community strongly requests this Government needs to restore our Rail in Napier to Gisborne to make our economy flourish again after years of stagnation, and lower truck damage and dangers on our regional roads.

  3. Another brilliant and insightful article. The other side of this problem for the left – and something that provides a deep sense of personal disappointment – is the electorate – polling in NZ, the US, the UK and Australia’s recent election tell us that voters prefer the center right approach – lower taxation, demonizing the poor and the gradual de-funding of pubic services in deference to the private sector. Despite the trans-formative nature of left wing politics both in vision and in practice the majority of voters believe the very things that Mills is espousing – that the business sector has all the answers and an adherence to their demands is the only way to govern.
    In the US Bernie Sanders is unlikely to make it through the nomination process and Warren or Biden will be provide Obama type leadership if successful – fine words to cover a lack of fine deeds. In the UK the conservative party which has unleashed a sustained decade long economic war on the poor and working class will likely win the next election with full-throat-ed backing from many of those who’ve lost out. The genuine economic transformation offered by Corbyn and McDonnell will be relegated to the pages of the Guardian and the fevered minds of Labour Party activists. The return of a Liberal government in Australia was another indication of just how deeply ingrained center right mediocrity has become.
    And in the US a working class so entrenched in their belief that their rich bosses will look out for them (despite decades of evidence to the contrary) have elected Republican politicians across almost every level of government in massive numbers.
    Then we look at the latest polling in NZ and see the same thing – a center right party whose support has refused to subside by more then a few percentage points and a Labour party frozen in the headlights of an oncoming heavily financed Holden Ute.
    History tells us that things have to get really bad for a lot of people in the middle class before they start to let go of their driving ambition to become the millionaires and billionaires at whose feet they prostrate themselves.

      • They can’t vote for it because, as the article points out, there are no social democrats in office. Don’t worry though Ada, all this is doing is building the pressure for dramatic change, I’m not sure when it will happen but this is going to blow up in Labour’s face sooner or later

    • Well put Peter. 30 years of neo liberal psychology had to have an impact, and it has. As older people’s institutional memory fades, and successor generations know nothing else apart from user pays, Flybuys points, and ‘business knows best’.

      The hope for a wide change in the population’s thinking has to be linked now with the development of the climate strike movement. Effective Climate Change action must include–as the slogans say–System Change.

      • You’re right about shit memories. Look at all the seriously memory challenged dickheads who still vote for Labour and National after all hash they have made of NZ over the last 30 years.

        • Peter Barry: “Look at all the seriously memory challenged dickheads who still vote for Labour and National after all hash they have made of NZ over the last 30 years.”

          The triumph of hope over experience, as Samuel Johnson famously said (regarding second marriages).

  4. Fully agree with our esteemed columnist on this one. Mills is a bungler and poor presenter as well. At root he cannot take Hooton on because there is minimal difference in their political positions!

    It is frustrating indeed for us life long followers of politics to have a non National led Govt. in office that is squandering the opportunity to be re-elected and more importantly, retire the neo liberal consensus. Scrap the fiscal cap–borrow and spend big on infrastructure projects–is the way back to voter credibility and bringing Jacinda’s rhetoric to life.

    Adrian Orr at the Reserve Bank seems to have more bottle than the Labour Caucus. And he is getting the backlash for it.

    • Tiger Mountain: “At root he cannot take Hooton on because there is minimal difference in their political positions!”

      I haven’t listened to RNZ’s politics slot since not long after Hooton became a regular. It didn’t take long for me to tire, both of his political perspectives and his silly giggle.

      Things have come to a pretty pass if Hooton’s views are more left-wing than Mills’!

      “…retire the neo liberal consensus. Scrap the fiscal cap–borrow and spend big on infrastructure projects–is the way back to voter credibility….”

      This is what I was hoping for when I gave Labour my vote in 2017. I’ve been disappointed yet again. No more: I’ll not vote Labour again, possibly ever. What would be the point?

      “…Jacinda’s rhetoric….”

      Ardern is a show pony. I’ve thought that since she took over the leadership from Little. I’ve seen nothing since to change my mind. Words words…..talk is cheap.

      “Adrian Orr at the Reserve Bank seems to have more bottle than the Labour Caucus. And he is getting the backlash for it.”

      True. Orr is an exemplar of political courage, which the Labour caucus is too cowardly to follow.

  5. My personal view is Labour have been a right wing party for decades. Their policies look a lot like Nationals and remind me of the Democrats vs Republicans proposition in the US. One pundit got it right there when they suggested the choice was between the “right and far right”.

    • Yes Sean Labour is (right ‘lite’)

      Labour today have no courage of their founding principals.
      Martyn should place the ‘Labour Party founding principals’ up on the Daily Blog header page daily to remind labour of their responsibilities now going to 2020.

  6. Stephen could always join the 4pm political lightweight Wallace Chapman to talk about all things trivial (do you put the milk in before the tea, that sort of thing). That’s if you can dislodge regular panelists Mike Williams (who is recorded on continuous loop talking about his prison entrepreneurship) and the utterly horrible Michelle Boag, a candidate for Face for Radio if there ever was one.

  7. It seems that RNZ has a policy of deliberately not using anyone to represent the Left other than the most right-wing centrists able to be included on their broad conception of what is ‘Left’.

  8. NZ Labour are stuck where they are, while in government, because they know that NZ Inc is just a tiny domino within a global economic structure, prone to be swiftly isolated (by other global players) as the Chavez style ‘Venezuela’ of the South Pacific, should they dare step just a tiny wee bit away from Rogernomics.

    They are scared stiff to dare do and say anything that may upset ‘the markets’, employers and business operators. Just look at how they operate now, and how they have done so many flip flops while in government, since some election talk about ‘transformational change’ that will NEVER happen under this lot.

    Immigration has been loosened up again, not tightened up, overseas investors can sigh in relief, as they are welcome to buy NZ businesses and land, with only few exceptions, and labour laws have changed little, most I see and know still work 50 to 60 hours a week to get by (10 to 12 hour shifts).

    Fossil fuel continues to be burnt as per usual, abolishing one way plastic bags was a token gesture, not much else is done to stop the petrol heads Down Under drive and drive, yes be driven even to their drive in funerals.

    • You are quite right Marc. This is the fundamental underlying situation. No serious changes can be made if a trading nation wants to continue to trade. This is why Syria is in the situation it is in. Assad tried to run his country for the people of Syria, with a sovereign banking system and a socialist philosophy. It is not allowed. The existing system has to collapse completely before a new fairer system can replace it because all the power is in the hands of the few who benefit from the status quo.
      D J S

      • David Stone: “No serious changes can be made if a trading nation wants to continue to trade.”

        So it seems. We are well-advised to remember the overthrow (no other description fits) of Gough Whitlam in Australia. He had grand social democratic plans; Australia has never returned to that path. I was an adult at the time; had family living in Australia.

        Many people suspect that the CIA had a hand in that. Given that the modus operandi could have been lifted straight out of its playbook in many other countries, that suspicion is well-founded.

        “This is why Syria is in the situation it is in.”

        Indeed. Also the godawful mess that is Libya now.

  9. Labour is a friendlier looking Nat lite. Not so surprising, but sad. Will Jacinda prove to be NZ’s Obama? All hope and small change. Who will be NZ’s Trump?

  10. Great headline I now see. Represents the poorest, according to him. Let him walk the poorest street of his city and back without feeling fear.

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