Politics

National’s Index of Shame, and the other issues the left needs to focus on this election

What are Labour and the Greens going to throw at National this year? Anger? “You make me very angry with your stupid policies Mr Blinglish” isn’t going to work, especially if it’s bitter or righteous or out-of-control anger. Instead, how about shame, suggests Simon Wilson in the final part of his week-long look at Labour in 2017.

New Zealand is not the country it was even 20 years ago. Child poverty, dirty rivers, runaway CEO salaries, runaway house prices and the distortions they force on the economy, provincial decline, an aging population, an exploding population in Auckland and, looming over it all, climate change… And while all these changes have been happening, the government has confined itself largely to reassuring us nothing much is going on.

Shame on them. Shame. On. Them. And disgust on them, because there’s an awful lot for Labour and the Greens to shame the government with. This is an incomplete list.

THE SHAME INDEX

1. Child poverty

Remember John Key in McGehan Close, back in the halcyon days of 2008? That time he wanted us to know he cared? Combatting child poverty is a mindset. When you declare it, and mean it, you’re saying you’re putting children first, you’re going to work systematically and comprehensively and you’re going to prioritise this work. And it’s a terrifically valuable Trojan Horse: you can’t combat child poverty without doing education, health, housing, domestic violence…

Yes, there have always been children in New Zealand living in poverty. But it’s way worse now. Thirty years ago, according to the Child Povery Monitor, 14 per cent of our kids were affected. Now it’s 24 per cent. Actually, the rate has fallen since 2008: by half a per cent. In Australia in the same period, it went down by six per cent.

2. Filthy rivers

It’s about cows. Not just cows, but mainly cows. And it’s not about all those little mum-and-dad dairy farms. The damage has become acute because big business is taking over: land used for dairy grew by 28 per cent in the last 10 years and the average dairy farm is now worth $10 million. The result, says the Ministry for the Environment, is that 60 per cent of monitored waterways are no longer fit to swim in. It’s terrible in itself and it’s a powerful symbol of government neglect.

3. Domestic violence

This country, we’re not a great place to bring up kids. But how little we do about it. I put this in a previous post, but where’s the comprehensive All Blacks-led campaign to remake the idea of what masculinity is?

4. Tax evasion

Such slow progress on a Google tax, it’s pathetic. And the continued failure to make all forms of personal income taxable. And trust laws that favour the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Has new revenue minister Judith Collins been asked to revise tax law so that everyone pays their share? That’d be something.

We already accept the principle of equality in our elections, with MMP. We accept it with GST: everybody pays. So why doesn’t the same principle apply to tax on all income?

5. Farm worker deaths

Since 2013 there’s been a concerted safety campaign in forestry and it seems to be working. But the industry with the biggest number of workplace deaths (nearly five times more than forestry over the last five years) is agriculture. The government refuses to act. What irony it was for John Key to declare his respect for Helen Kelly when she died last year. She’d have said, if those words mean anything at all you’ll listen to what I’m saying and treat farming as a high-risk industry. Respect isn’t a hollow platitude.

6. Underfunded mental health services

How is this not a major scandal? Is it that we’re horrified when something goes terribly wrong but then we forget about it until the next time it happens? We don’t forget about it, do we?

7. The surging wealth inequality gap

Did you know the salaries of CEOs in our big companies jumped 10 per cent in 2015 and 12 per cent last year? Everyone else, meanwhile…

There’s nothing wrong with wealth inequality. But there’s something very wrong with the gap getting bigger, and the OECD says that’s happening here faster than in almost all other developed countries. And if you think the plight of the poor is simply the price we pay, consider this: the OECD also says rising inequality over the last 30 years has wiped out a third of our economic growth. By the way, note the timespan: this trend was just as strong under the last two Labour governments. It desperately needs a new plan.

8. The housing crisis

Because the government has not wanted to unsettle homeowners or mess with their ability to buy more property, we have a housing crisis that is crippling the country’s major city and fast spreading to other centres too. Is there a better example of a government anywhere putting its own interests ahead of the interests of the country it is meant to serve?

9. The Emissions Trading Scheme

The government’s principal vehicle for meeting international commitments to fight the causes of climate change is ridiculously weak and misguided, partly because it excludes agriculture (46 per cent of our emissions) but also because it does not work as an effective tool for reducing the emissions it does measure.

10. Pike River

This one is pretty simple, really. Promises were made and human decency should prevail. State Coal should not be allowed to seal the mine against all future recovery missions.

The ID tags of the lost Pike River miners. Photo: gg.govt.nz

The ID tags of the lost Pike River miners. Photo: gg.govt.nz

11. The Saudi sheep deal

The auditor-general decided there was no evidence Murray McCully had been corrupt in putting this deal together, but she did identify “significant shortcomings”. This shabby affair set a new low for government integrity.

12. Housing the homeless

The shortage of emergency and short-term housing for the homeless is appalling in itself, but the added levels of bureaucratic absurdity just beggar belief. One recent example highlighted by John Campbell on RNZ: a woman and her son living in a spartan one-bedroom at a cost to taxpayers of $2300 a week. Is it a crime to fleece taxpayers like that? And how did the minister responsible – that would be you, Paula Bennett – not lose her job for simple incompetence?

13. Healthy food in schools

Seriously, what would it cost to get serious about healthy eating in schools? Oh yes, that’s right. It would cost the support of the Food and Grocery Council and its boss, former National MP Katherine Rich, and her dirty-politics friends as exposed by Nicky Hager in his book of that name.

14. Underfunded homecare services for the elderly

Heard these stories? People who don’t qualify for a little bit of assistance at home, thus forcing them to move into much-more expensive taxpayer-funded care facilities? What nonsense – and, surely, how easy it would be to fix.

15. The neglect of Northland

The province of such beauty and such destitution. Northland’s not the only neglected part of the country but it’s one of the most obvious – even though the by-election in 2015 delivered National a big slap in the face.

16. Abuse of children in state care

When judge Carolyn Henwood released the findings of her investigation into abuse of children in state care, she called, with the support of the people most affected, for a full inquiry. Anne Tolley’s refusal was a disgrace.

17. Deep-sea oil drilling

It’s nothing short of perverse for the government to maintain its commitment to deep-sea oil exploration. Not only is it nuts to imagine there is any useful place in the future of this country for a growth in carbon fuels, but the companies themselves are no longer interested.

18. Blaming Helen Clark

Seriously, they’re still doing it, in their ninth year in office.


Read more in Simon Wilson’s series on the NZ Labour Party in election year 2017, including a 3-step plan to making Andrew Little an electable PM, here


THE OPPORTUNITY INDEX

Along with the shame come opportunities. There’s almost no sense of strategic planning in the government’s policies and preoccupations (the singular exception being the social investment programme for welfare). No sense of the future. It’s an open invitation to Labour and the Greens to stack up some building blocks. Some of the opportunities are outlined above; and below, here’s another incomplete list:

1. Fix the cities: Christchurch

That city has so many people with great ideas and determination and hope, and not nearly enough of them have been empowered. The rebuild is underway and it’s not really focused on making Christchurch an immensely liveable and productive modern city of the 21st century. But it’s not too late.

2. Fix the cities: Auckland

What could not be achieved by central and local government working together on a future-focused plan? Actually, a lot. A new government won’t fix Auckland any time soon. But it’s sure got to do more to help the council try.

CatGerry

3. Fix the cities: everywhere else

What’s going to happen to Whanganui? Nelson? Gisborne? Dunedin? Whangarei? Wellington?

4. A high-wage economy

It’s not a fantasy is it? Anyone want to say it is? Harder question: any political party want to spell out how we get there? (Clue: stronger unions, living wage, focus on high-wage industries, stronger education sector…) A high-wage economy might sound like a hard sell but it’s the key to winning back all those “middle New Zealand” voters who voted for John Key.

5. Education reform where it’s really needed

National Standards and an obsession with private schools and charters will not fix the big problem in New Zealand education, the long tail of failure. What will? More support for good principals and teachers and a home-and-school whole-community approach.

6. Lift exports

In 2008 Key proposed lifting exports as a percentage of GDP by 30 to 40 per cent, and also said he wanted to double the value of exports. You’d think a National government would have something to crow about in those areas. Nope: we’re not remotely close.

7. Superannuation strategy

This is hard but also easy. The easy bit is recognising how silly it is that all citizens get the same support at the same time in their lives, regardless of circumstances. The hard bit is producing a workable alternative. But it has to be done. The party that creates a solution popular with young and old will be richly rewarded.

8. Restructure transport planning and funding

Why do we have “roads of national significance” but no railways considered in the same way? Because they’re planned by different agencies. Why are motorways still prioritised over rapid transit options in Auckland? Because despite all the evidence the government is still captured by the idea that we always want to drive ourselves everywhere. Integrated transport planning is a vital key to urban and national development. In fact, the best way to get the roads working as well as they could is to focus transport planning on cycling, rapid transit and heavy rail.

9. Create a freight masterplan for the upper North Island and for the country

Which ports to do what? Which rail, which roads? The government prefers competition, but the only real winners are the shipping companies.

10. The future of work

Why do people laugh at this? Who doesn’t yet grasp that work as we know it is changing almost faster than we can think about it?

11. Build up the building trades

All those people who can’t find work – young, middle-aged, whoever – train them up for the building trades. From Christchurch to Kaikoura to Auckland, these are the workers we desperately need. Especially, make construction a great occupation for women: the payoff for them and for our culture as a whole will be immense.

12. Climate change

Carbon tax, electric vehicles, alternative energy incentives, behavioural change for commuters, kids back on bicycles… the Greens can run with this stuff but it’s not just for them. Every modern political party should be a green party.

13. Productivity growth

Did you know it’s among the lowest in OECD?

14. Immigration

We can talk about it better and we must.

15. Social investment

If we have the means to target help to people most at risk; and over time to minimise those risk factors in society, why wouldn’t we want to do it? Social investment carries many risks, including punitive surveillance, misuse of data, stigmatising children instead of helping them and being used merely as a way to cut costs. Keith Ng has a fine commentary on the issues here. But remember, data collection is here to stay. It’s not just about targeted welfare where it’s needed but also about identifying causes of poor outcomes and addressing them society-wide. It offers a progressive government an invaluable tool to break the cycles of violence and poverty.

THE TASKS FOR LABOUR

Summarising my posts over the last six days, and a few things I never got round to mentioning, in no particular order…

1. Choose a charisma army of candidates

Labour and the Greens are both short of top-quality MPs. This election they have to introduce a new front bench in the making with many candidates for future leader. Labour must ensure it includes good people from throughout the broad church of the party.

Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern at the launch of his Labour Party leadership bid in October 2014.Photo: Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern at the launch of his Labour Party leadership bid in October 2014.Photo: Hannah Peters / Getty Images

2. Refresh the front bench now

What, Annette King is still deputy? Why? That should be Jacinda Ardern’s job: good for young supporters, for Auckland and for her belief that you can rise in politics without becoming a horrible person. When she becomes heroic in pursuit of that view she will be a powerful campaigner.

3. Assuming Ardern does well in the Mt Albert by-election, of course. If she doesn’t, Andrew Little himself should look to his future.

4. The underlying concepts to guide the central campaign promises:

  • Tackle child poverty.
  • Grow a high-wage economy.
  • Align the economy with climate-change goals.
  • Make the cities work.

5. Policies that connect to self-declared ordinary people integrated with policies that arouse the activist base.

6. Messages of hope, good ideas and shame. Be the party the country has been waiting for. Be the party for the common good.

7. Andrew Little

Turn him into a liked, admired and trusted leader. His close advisers need to change what they’re doing because it isn’t working. Little himself needs to work out what this means for him. The same old won’t cut it, we know that now. He has to change.

8. That Blinglish

Call him Caretaker Bill. Treat him like he won’t be there for long.

9. And oh yes: have some fun. It’s infectious.

This is the final in a 6-part series by Simon Wilson on the Labour Party and the general election. See also:

1: Why Bill English is such a formidable opponent for Andrew Little

2: The Andy Plan: How to fix Andrew Little

3: Identity politics and Labour’s broad church

4: The revolutionary challenge of “social investment”

5: The lessons of Donald Trump

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