THIS IS FROM one of Jacinda Ardern’s staunchest allies, The Daily Blog’s editor, Martyn Bradbury. He is not a happy man:
“Labour won’t do a thing about the Supermarket Duopoly. If they won’t bother picking up the largest recommendation from the Royal Inquiry into Historic State abuse after calling for it and paying over $140million, then they sure as Christ can ignore anything the Commerce Commission is frail enough to suggest.”
I agree with him.
How many occasions, since 2017, have there been when the Labour Party, presented with the findings of a committee of experts assembled to study a pressing social and/or economic problem – have ignored it? There was the late Sir Michael Cullen’s investigation into the pros and cons of a Capital Gains Tax. The report of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. Multiple reports on the urgent need to tackle Climate Change. The Commerce Commission’s initial report recommending the breaking up of the supermarket duopoly.
Asking for an official report was once considered the smart play. Straightforward and simple, it had just 5 steps.
1) Assemble a group of experts and set them to work.
2) Receive their report.
3) After due consideration, declare it to be an excellent piece of work.
4) Pledge to implement most of its recommendations.
5) Implement most of its recommendations.
Throughout this Labour Government’s period in office it has shown a pronounced willingness to engage in Steps 1 and 2 of this process; a lesser degree of enthusiasm for Steps 3 and 4; and almost no willingness to proceed to Step 5. The question is – Why?
Let’s take another look at Step 1. In the past, politicians began the process of social reform already knowing what they wanted to achieve. This was especially true in the Labour Party, whose entire raison d’être was changing society for the better. If you didn’t have strong opinions on what needed to be done, and how to do it, then what was the point of becoming a Labour Member of Parliament?
This predisposition towards changing the world added an important twist to Step 1. It meant that when assembling your experts you were careful to ensure that a majority of them, and the Chair in particular, shared your own (and the Party’s) view of what needed to be done. Since Labour politicians spent a lot of time talking with all kinds of experts about social and economic reform, picking the right people wasn’t difficult. It also meant that Steps 2-5 were pretty much a pro-forma exercise.
Clearly, the present Labour Party is very different from the Labour Party of the past. What happened?
The answer, as always, is: Rogernomics.
A crucial aspect of Rogernomics was its ferocious intolerance of the moderate social-democratic thinking that had for decades pervaded not only the Labour Party, but also the union and academic circles which constituted the principal intellectual reservoirs of Labour policy.
Inspired and advised by the neoliberal ideologues of Treasury, the core leadership of the Fourth Labour Government made it clear to their colleagues that any attachment to the old ideas and the old sources of advice would not be career enhancing. The sympathetic professors and enthusiastic union officials of yesteryear were banished to the outer darkness, and in their place a whole new breed of ideologically kosher policy advisers stepped forward. Henceforth, the overwhelming majority of experts called upon to guide governments would be convinced Neoliberals.
The old ideas and old sources of advice did not go down without a fight. Indeed, the ideological conflict within Labour between 1984 and 1989 was so intense that it split the party. For those who remained loyal to the Labour Party, however, the whole idea of social reform underwent a profound change. There were now clear perimeters beyond which the guardians of the Rogernomics Revolution did not permit the party to venture. Gay Marriage? Why not. Compulsory Unionism? No way
For those who lived through these intense debates and debacles it all seems like yesterday. But, it isn’t. It is very nearly 40 years since the Rogernomics Revolution and its intensification under Ruth Richardson transformed New Zealand society. A New Zealander born in 1984, could easily have a 20-year-old son or daughter – maybe even a grandchild. The Prime Minister herself was only four years old when Roger Douglas became Minister of Finance. And Jacinda Ardern’s own Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, was just thirteen.
Most of the members of Labour’s caucus have grown up in an intellectual environment completely dominated by Neoliberal ideas. Those who attempt to revive the social-democratic ideals of the pre-1984 Labour Party come before today’s Labour MPs with the unwelcome historical taint of the NewLabour splitters and Jim Anderton’s doomed Alliance. More importantly, they are regarded by the Government’s Neoliberal advisers as intellectual Neanderthals: people who simply do not know how the world works; cretins and naïfs who should be kept as far away from real political power as possible.
Unfortunately, the bits and bytes of twenty-first century Hyper-Capitalism long ago ceased to respond to the impulses of mere human ideology. Though they dare not admit it, the Neoliberals have lost control of the machine. All they are capable of now is presenting increasingly implausible explanations for why everything has gone so very badly wrong.
Understandably, the politicians expected to front for the damage done by the Invisible Hand are in the market for some credible alternatives to more of the same. When Jacinda and Grant sign-off on yet another working group it’s not because they know already what they want the experts to tell them, it’s because the experts they currently rely upon for advice have run out of answers, and they are genuinely interested in what these new experts might say.
When the reports emerge, however, they all read as if they’ve been written by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or Max Rashbrooke and Susan St John. The lips of their bureaucratic advisers curl contemptuously; their media advisers’ eyebrows arch provocatively; and with a heartfelt sigh the hapless politicians set the offending document on top of the surprisingly high pile of its predecessors. Another No Go.
The brilliant creators of “The Simpsons” television series said it all in the episode satirising the ideas of Ayn Rand. On the walls of the Randian childcare centre a sign read simply: “Helping Doesn’t Help”.
It’s the story of this government’s life.