New Zealand leans left, but big struggles ahead

November 4, 2017

New Zealand Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, who says capitalism has been a “blatant failure”, became the country’s new, and youngest ever, prime minister on October 19.

Asked a few days after becoming PM if capitalism had failed New Zealanders, 37-year-old Ardern responded: “If you have hundreds of thousands of children living in homes without enough to survive, that’s a blatant failure. What else could you describe it as?”

The formation of a minority Labour government ended nine years of rule by the right-wing National Party. Ardern’s Labour achieved an almost 12% swing in the elections to pick up 14 new seats and take its tally to 46.

Both Labour, and the governing National Party (which won 56 seats), fell short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament. Labour successfully struck a coalition deal with the protectionist NZ First party (nine seats), and a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens (eight seats), to allow it to form government.

Speaking to Green Left Weekly, New Zealand socialist trade unionist Joe Carolan said it was “a relief that the Tories are now out, after nine years of growing inequality, a housing affordability crisis and rising homelessness”.

“What we have seen in New Zealand, and particularly in Auckland, is a dramatic rise in housing and rent prices that has not been matched by any rise in income and wages.

For Carolan, who is a union organiser with Unite, which covers workers in largely low-paid sectors, “this scenario had a huge impact on the election, with large sections of the working class moving left”.

‘More Justin than Jeremy’

Looking at the rise of Ardern, it is hard not to draw comparisons with Britain’s socialist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Less than two months out from the elections, Labour was in crisis and polling at a historic low of 24%. “It was a Labour Party that had gone through three or four pale, stale and male leaders, all of who are instantly forgettable,” said Carolan.

In this context, “where the old leaders simply had no connection with the grassroots”, Ardern emerged as a viable leader who could turn Labour around and lead it into the elections.

However, Carolan views Ardern as “more Justin than Jeremy”, a reference to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“Ardern is a photogenic new leader, the first PM elected who is younger than me,” said Carolan with a laugh. “So clearly there is a generational shift at play here, as well as a change in style.

“And there is a kind of feel-good factor that has emerged in the wake of her victory.”

Carolan said it would be wrong to use the Coke/Pepsi analogy to describe the change that has occurred between the outgoing National and incoming Labour governments.

“Our union, Unite, which is part of the roughly 50% of unions not affiliated to Labour, had a position of supporting a change in government and beating the Nats.

“We are happy to see that already the new government has moved, within its first 100 days, to abolish the 90 day hire-and-fire law, which strips workers of their rights and anti-union laws that restricted union access to worksites.

“We also see the rise in the minimum wage, which will rise to [NZ]$16.50 [an hour] soon and $20 by 2021, as a significant reform for low-paid workers, as is the push for fair pay agreements, something which could be akin to the industrial award that exists in Australia.

“It’s also important to acknowledge the impact the result has had on working-class morale: you can see a certain swagger in the way workers walk, a sense of confidence.

“We need to use this confidence that has come from beating the Nationals to push for wage rises. I get a sense that workers are up for it after years of shit from the government.”

Challenges

However, Carolan, who stood as a socialist candidate against Ardern in a by-election in February, said it was necessary to look at the shortcomings of the new government.

“What we found during the by-election campaign was that Labour couldn’t really engage with a number of ideas we raised.

“For example, education policy: they have a policy for free education, but one that will take nine years to implement — at that rate my 10-year-old son will be lucky to receive a free education.

“And so workers are asking: if it’s a good policy, why not implement it now?

The answer, Carolan said, lies in Labour’s unwillingness to break out of the existing neoliberal orthodoxy.

“What we have seen from Ardern and Labour is that they are trumpeting themselves as a fiscally responsible government and pledging to stay within the neoliberal framework.”

This creates all sorts of problems for the government. Carolan explains: “If you are not willing to tax the rich, who will you tax?

“Look at the government’s new fuel tax, which it says will fund light rail to the airport. I organise about 1000 casino workers, many of whom have to drive to work because they are on night shift when there is no public transport.

“They are angry about being hit with this new tax to fund a project that will benefit tourists, but does little to solve their transport problems.

“Not taxing the rich means taxing the poor.”

The Labour government’s pledge to be fiscally responsible comes “despite the fact that you could argue that the previous National government didn’t even do this: it was more than willing to borrow money to maintain government programs at a certain level and deal with the consequences of the earthquakes that hit Christchurch.

“Now we have Labour in government talking about fiscal responsibility, which is what we saw the last time they were in power, when the left had to fight hard to defend its position.

“What we are facing, when it comes to Labour, is a party that refuses to work outside the parameters of neoliberalism. At the same time it has shown a willingness to scapegoat migrants if its suits their agenda.”

This is a big concern for the radical left, Carolan said.

Racism

In this regard, one big issue is Labour’s coalition with NZ First. Carolan said he wouldn’t put the party “in the same category as a hard right party like UKIP in Britain or the fascist groups that have emerged in Europe, but it is a party that was built on the back of racism”.

“NZ First represents a kind of old-school Tory politics that is anti-neoliberal and therefore has a certain base in the working class. But it’s largely known for its anti-Maori, anti-migrant policies.”

Carolan noted that, “importantly, the Greens have shown signs of wanting to challenge NZ First’s racist rhetoric and recently dropped their own contradictory ‘sustainable immigration’ policy after coming under pressure from the left over this”.

He added that many Greens activists are active in the housing and migrant struggles, alongside socialists. “So it will be interesting to see if further tensions open up between the Greens and the coalition government.”

But it is not just NZ First’s racism that is a problem, said Carolan, noting: “For example, we have seen the reformist left in Labour respond to anger over housing prices by focusing on foreign buyers.

“For example, not long ago Labour’s housing spokesman Phil Twyford published a list of foreign property buyers with Chinese-sounding names. This is a shocking tactic aimed at scaremongering and scapegoating foreigners for the country’s housing crisis.

“It’s simply wrong to blame wealthy Chinese for the housing crisis: the majority of housing speculation is done by domestic, not foreign, buyers. It’s not foreign speculation that’s the problem — speculation is the problem.

“We want to put pressure on the government, challenge it from the left on these issues. Campaigning on the issue of housing and low pay, we want to undercut the racist arguments used to blame these problems on migrants.

“This issue will be a fault line within the government — the socialist left must challenge the government over this and not allow them to scapegoat migrants.”

Migrant rights

Carolan explained that socialist, Labour, Greens and union activists have been working with the Migrant Workers Association on such a campaign.

“We have campaigned with Migrant Workers Association against racist scapegoating and cases of slavery that have been exposed.

“For example, Masala, a chain of Indian restaurants, was found guilty of paying workers $3-4 an hour and had their assets confiscated by the state. This is the kind of super-exploitation that is occurring and that we are exposing.

“Our efforts have gone into organising migrants, helping them organise themselves. We have taken this fight into the unions and language schools, along with the campaign to stop deportations.”

Carolan told GLW about the recent launch of the Migrant Lives Matter campaign “to a packed out Church on a Sunday — a remarkable feat in the 21st Century!”

The focus of the campaign is to reach out to the wider community to help overturn deportations and fight against slavery and super-exploitation.

“While Ardern’s rhetoric is one of capitalism with a human face, we are working to provide a human face to the victims of capitalism and asking the government to overturn deportations carried out under the National government.

“We have worked to put a human face to the migrant bashing that is going on.”

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