Mike Treen’s speech to Alternative Aotearoa conference


I want to address a sort of big question because clearly the system is breaking down. What is that system that is breaking down? Can we do a system reset by tinkering with that system or is a more fundamental change necessary? What is the nature of that change and how do we get there? All in ten minutes of course.

We went through a big crisis in this system which we cal capitalism in the 1930s and through World War Two. And then we had three decades of seemingly uninterrupted growth and the appearance that in each decade things would get better, generally. That generally inequality would be muted, that generally jobs would be guaranteed, that generally health care would be extended, that generally education would get more accessable. For three decades it seeemed like people’s rights would get a bit better, for Māori, for women, for gay people. A little bit better, a little bit better each decade.

Then we entered a period of crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s and there was a reset done to the system.

But the system since then has not been able to deliver in the same way. In fact, for a generation now things have actually gotten worse.

Our living standards, real wages and housing are worse than they were a generation ago. This system no longer works. This system can no longer deliver improvements decade after decade, generation after generation. This sytem is breaking down

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It is not the pandemic alone that is causing this. The system has inner cycles and laws that were setting the stage for a new crisis before the pandemic hit.

The decade of the 90s hadrelatively strong growth as the system recovered again from a crisis. Normally you have a crisis in the system and (the economy) goes down before it bounces back. That is the way capitalism has worked for almost 200 years. Every decade it goes down and up. But the revolutionary part of capitalism was that the upturns generally were stronger than the downturns. Overall there was growth. Overall this is a system of growth. Overall, this is a system of improving productivity. Overall it generally improves wealth in society. The distribution of that wealth is another thing.

But now we have a situation where the system is unable to generate the wealth people need to live well. Or it is generating that wealth, but it is being captured by a smaller and smaller percentage of our society and can’t be distributed because they are holding on to it.

But the growth that is endemic to the system, the growth that gives it its revolutionary character, has become a threat to the planet. If you have 3% growth every year for 30 years it doubles the system. So the system has doubled in size every 30 years. We cannot double the size of an extractive, exploitative system every 30 years because the planet cannot sustain it.

So the system has become incompatible with the life of the planet.

This system, which has a name, it’s called capitalism, has become incompatible with the life of the planet.

So we need to devise measures that transition beyond this system and not just tinker with it.

For example whilst I have been impressed by many of the Green Party’s policies over recent weeks and months to do with the climate and adressing poverty, I think there is a fundamental problem with what the government is doing (to fix climate change) because they are relying on a mechanism that toys with the system. The Emissions Trading Scheme is trying to use prices to signal people to do the right thing. But no. They are not going to do the right thing. You are not going to trick them into doing the right thing. You have to force them into doing the right thing in a more direct manner.

So I have a five point programme. These are most important and urgent things we need to do. They don’t necessarily require system change for most of them to achieve but can get us moving in the right direction.

We have to begin by empowering people.

We can’t do anything without empowering people.

Empowering unions, empowering communities at the very bottom.

We’ve got to begin there. How do we empower these communities? How do we empower unions? How do we empower organisations in all of these fields which are wanting to do the right thing? How do we make them stronger and able to empower citizens?

1) We should begin with Jobs for All.

It used to be almost an obligation of the government that everyone had a job.

As I grew up, anytime that unemployment ticked above one or two percent, the government intervened. The railways started employing another five or ten thousand people. They just did it. Every railway workshop in the country was a working-class university. You went there, knocked on the door and you got a job. Very soon you were an electrician, or a plumber, or just a worker. But you got a job.

Yes New Zealand Rail “lost” $200 million a year, but so the fuck what. Every significant working class community had its own working class university where people could get jobs and get training.

We should be able to do that again. We should be able to put the pieces back together to do that sort of thing again.

Yes, Jobs for All. We should begin with jobs where the community does an audit. Every community should do an audit of their needs – cultural needs, social needs, health needs, connection needs, food needs. Can you procduce food? Can you cook food? Can you share the resources? Can you produce the energy you need? Can you share this energy? Every community can do an audit on what their needs are. The central government’s job is to deliver so that those communities can solve their own problems from the grass roots up, not from the top down.

So Jobs for All, resource the communities to do it.

2) A living wage for all.

This is just basic. Everyone. A Living Wage for every single person. The official policy of Labour and the Greens and the CTU (Council of Trade Unions) is that the minimum wage should be two-thirds of the average wage which is similar to the Living Wage and that makes sense.

The Government says it is supports a Living Wage, right? Does it tell the companies it owns that they should do that? NZPost? Does New Zealand Post, 100% owned by the New Zealand government pay a Living Wage? No, it does not. So it’s not just contractors (it should be extended to).

Who the hell owns the health boards? Do the health boards give a Living Wage to all their staff? No, they do not. Do they rob them of their annual leave entitlements? Yes they do, they owe them $650 million in annual leave entitlements. Does the government fund them to allow them to do that? No they do not. If the government supports a Living Wage for all it must fund those people to pay it. Not just contractors but companies and institutions that they control must pay a Living Wage.

3. Housing as a right

I grew up in Pamnure and GI (Glenn Innes) in the state house communites (and One Tree Hill), You had a home for life, they couldn’t throw you out of it, they couldn’t evict you. It didn’t matter what your income was. You got one for life. But you could move to a different suburb if you wanted. I lived in a state house my entire life until I left school and it never occurred to me that you would want to buy one. That seemed an extraordinarily stupid thing to do. I eventually did but in a sense it was the system that forced me to do it.

We stopped creating communities. When they built Panmure and GI, they didn’t build a slum they built a working class community. Everyone had jobs. We had institutions. We had parties and unions. Working class communities were created.

(Public) Housing wasn’t something only the desperately poor or refugees got. If you create a system where only the desperately poor or refugee gets you create a system that breeds resentment – “They are getting something I’m not.” “I’m living in a garage.” “Why can’t I get a home?” You are right. You are living in a gargae and you do have a right to a home.

The government, at a minimum should be building ten thousand social homes every year until we eliminate homelessness and poverty in this country.

4) End migrant worker exploitation

We have 300,000 temporary migrants in New Zealand. We are not going to, and cannot deport 300,000 people. There are a whole buch of students and so on but probably half of them are what the outgoing Minister of Immigration calls “normally resident” New Zealanders. That means they have renewed their visa again and again, children have been born and going to school here, They may have partners. But they have never been allowed to transition. They have been brought on these recycled temporary visas. Theirs are not essential skills, actually they are essential skills but not important enough to transition to permanent residence.

They were brought here on a lie. Deception. They have been billed and cheated out of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fees they needed for courses. Fees they have given to Immigration New Zealand. They have been cheated and lied to and they deserve to be able transition to permanent residency immediately if they want to.

They have made this country their home. And we have to allow them to stay if they want to. We cannot throw them out.

5) Decommodify meeting human needs

The final thing is that we have created a system — capitalism is a system of commodity production for profit. They have tried to impose those system values on everything else. They tried to impose it on education and health. They imposed it on (government-owned companies) New Zealand Post, on KiwiRail, on Air New Zealand, on public services like transport and so on.

In fact, it is law, you have to rip people off and seek a profit. Like Meridian Energy which was recently caught spilling water to hike prices. An extraordinary example of cheating (to make a profit). They just lied. They have to maximise their profits by selling commodities. It’s the law.

We have to de-commodify things more and more. We have to de-commodify sectors of education they have commodified like the early childhood sector. We have to de-commodify the health sectors that have been commodified like the aged care sector. Who decided that aged care would be made into a for-profit business? No sane person in this country would make that decision. But it has been allowed to happen.

We need to de-commodify things more and more. We don’t actually need McDonald’s (although I represent a thousand workers there). If we are supporting businesses through a period of crisis then we need to look at how we can do things differently.

How we can produce food and feed ourselves differently. How we can produce houses and house ourselves. How we can deliver health care. We have got to be able to do all of it differently. Not base everything on the pursuit of profit and selfish needs but on the basis of solidarity and support for one another.


  1. I stopped after ’empowering unions’, that’s the money shot you are after?…the rest is just fluff and words to fill an opinion piece!
    Meh….another Marxist Socialist with his idea of Socialism that will work this time, honest! All the other times in every country, over the last 70yrs, got it wrong but my way will work LOL
    Ohhh and if it’s implemented, don’t forget the empowering union bit eh?

    • IR
      So business forums and organisations are Marxist Socialist as well or do you not allow yourself to see that.
      So what is wrong with unions to give collective voice to workers.

      Unions grew out of workers having no voice and suffering extreme exploitation.

      If employers looked after their workers or included them into workplace management, the Unions may not be needed. But corporate rules will not allow workers to be considered when it comes to setting shareholders dividends.
      We need stronger unions and some form of compulsory membership so workers are protected from the victimisation experienced by many union members, by employers who want to crush unions or fire union members.

      • Well said John W. The trickle down principal is rubbish, doesn’t happen. Individual bargaining puts ALL the power with the Employer. Employee rights can only come from Union strength through strong membership numbers. Make Union membership compulsory IMO. Unfortunately many workers don’t know the benefit of strength thru numbers, having been indoctrinated by neo-lib media mantra.

  2. “This system can no longer deliver improvements decade after decade, generation after generation. This sytem is breaking down.”
    What a delusional fool you are.
    Capitalism is crap, but it is far superior than communism that has never delivered anything but poverty and fascism to 3very country inflicted with it.
    Furthermore, who says a system is broken if it can’t deliver continuous improvement?
    What’s more, this current”breakdown” is due to the massive overreaction to a more virulent flu.
    So if we let the grown ups talk, what is needed is capitalism to deliver wealth and modest socialism to redistribute some of that wealth.
    I love it when you children talk trash about capitalism as if it is the cause of all the world’s ills but fail to mention how fucking awful communism is.
    To be clear, communism is the single most dangerous idea that humanity ever conceived. More so than even religion.

    • Please STOP with the right wing lies that if someone is critiquing capitalism, that means they are propounding communism. All you are doing is showing your own ignorance of deeper and wider political thought, for a longer term future than your one-dimensional view of life is capable of conceiving.

    • No no the system may not be broken for you but frankly for every child living in poverty and there have been large numbers for a long time the system is well and truly broken.

      I heard Mike, I don’t recall him saying that communism was the answer at all.

    • Jays
      Well my boy/girl, your inexperience or lack of background history may leave you with little grounds to understand capitalism so you throw in a little socialism to temper capitalism’s inevitable stripping out a societies wealth and commons and shifting the wealth to a few who are already obesely rich, and in NZ case live offshore.
      So as we are all children by your judgement please make clear just what you mean by
      “fail to mention how fucking awful communism is.”
      The Chinese, Vietnamese, Cubans and many others may need to know as well. Many Russians mourn the passing of the USSR and its social programs that brought a food supply and quality education to all citizens.
      So you have a very big task ahead my child.

      • You are 100 percent right.

        Socialist countries tend to provide far better for the people, given the resources they have. They have fewer resources because they were plundered by imperialism in the past, or are subject to crippling embargoes in the case of Cuba.

        The notion also that socialist countries have murdered tens or even hundreds of millions is also demonstrably false, but one sucked up even by many on the left. Indeed the opposite is the case. Take China for one. The greatest improvements in life expectancy and literacy happened under Maoist policies, under actual socialism, not after China was ‘opened’ up to the West. Something acknowledged even by Western researchers:
        “China’s growth in life expectancy at birth from 35–40 years in 1949 to 65.5 years in 1980 is among the most rapid sustained increases in documented global history”

        I have met Russians, Romanians, and other Eastern Europeans – all of them say life was better under socialism.

        “Three out of four Russians think the Soviet era was the best time in their country’s history, according to a survey published by the independent Levada Center pollster on Tuesday.”

  3. Crikey Mike you flushed out the rabid righties in one hit !!
    Obviously they DIDN”T READ the piece. Have no idea of the communities created by socialis/State housing in NZ and have total disdain for the proven effectiveness of guaranteed for life housing in creating stable functional societies. Scandinavia for example. Sigh.
    Communism worked well for over 60 years in Yugoslavia and the small farms created by Tito’s reforms are still operational today producing much of Europe’s premium organic produce.
    Guaranteed housing in the Netherlands and France has allowed a huge rise in improved health outcomes since the 2nd World War.
    Cuba still produces more medical Doctor’s per head of population than ANY OTHER COUNTRY on the planet. Why? because education is free there. Cuba has a better health system and better hospitals than NZ. Because it is a socialist country. It prioritizes health and education in it’s government’s spending above everything else.An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
    I find it interesting that the rabid righties so critical of Mike’s thinking have NO ANSWERS to our looming crises.
    Mike has presented a WORKABLE PLAN. No one in our parliament at present is doing that because they are intellectually bereft and devoid of any real knowledge or abilities whne it comes to the looming disaster created by neo liberal capitalism . A failed system. Grant and Jacinda know nothing else and are fully paid up subscribers to this worthless fuckwitted form of capitalism. They simply lack any ability or philosophy that will enable them to deal with this shitstorm. So do the rabid right.
    Where’s your plan Righties////

  4. Decommodify meeting human needs


    We have got to be able to do all of it differently. Not base everything on the pursuit of profit and selfish needs but on the basis of solidarity and support for one another.

    …And on respect for the world around us, for the land itself which supports us.

  5. We cannot double the size of an extractive, exploitative system every 30 years because the planet cannot sustain it.

    We have to leave behind the old exploitative, predatorial approach from previous millennia and fully take responsibility for our gifted guardianship of the land, the water, the flora and fauna, and the people. Instead of “Profits, profits, profits”, it has to be care, protect, sustain. Instead of “My Rights!” it has to be “My responsibility, for the land, for the people, for the planet”.

  6. So to cause the system to change, we’d need to force the Nat’s & Labour to form a coalition government at this up and coming election? That should self destruct within 18 months providing an opportunity to then bring about a complete system change as by then the full effects of the economic meltdown globally will have played out, with C19 still lingering in the background.

  7. Communism, Socialism, the pair argued and death defined the name, sorry argue about the call of this thing, Communism, Socialism, let!s call it The Communist Manifesto.

    All who say we preach practice it, are State Capital Socialist states, like all monied controlled countries are, with a social conscience. Myself Engell!s and his euro friends should have stuck with the Socialist.

  8. I a socialist mind, capitalism, what fool confusion our not Greed, who!s, can you afford the weeks rent power food bills, guy was talking about unionism, speaking like out their care grasp humanity.


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