Putting the mandate to work

I struggle to believe the National party that read and led the public mood so well for most of the previous six years has so spectacularly lost its way. Recent months, and the past few weeks in particular, have been the government’s hardest, and only part of that is due to ministerial incompetence and bad optics. Part of it is because they have chosen policies that contradict the very narratives Key and his government have so carefully crafted.

This can’t be accidental. I think the fact that they barely won a majority despite the worst performance in a generation by the Labour party has convinced Key that this term is probably his last, and he intends to make best possible use of it. This is good strategy for them. It’s a strategy I’ve been writing about since Key was in opposition, and one that the Labour party ignored, to their detriment, until late in the last term. John Key is no mere smile-and-waver, but a man of action who, when the time is right, will act ruthlessly and decisively. He has spent his five years as leader earning the trust of the electorate, gaining a mandate, and now he intends to put that mandate to work. This country will not be the same in three years.

There are many possible examples here: privatisation of state assets is the most obvious, but is well-covered by others more informed than I am. I’ll cover three more recent topics: two are bad politics, but I can see the point to them; the last is simply a terrible idea that, if not abandoned quickly, will have profound implications for the future of New Zealand’s political discourse.

Paid parental leave

The decision to call an immediate veto on Sue Moroney’s private member’s bill extending paid parental leave was badly handled. If it were to be done, it ought to have been done immediately the bill was drawn, in an offhand way so as to frame the veto as inevitable; as it was, sufficient space was left for the idea to take root in the collective imagination of the electorate, and now the use of the veto looks anti-democratic; signalling it before it has even been debated looks doubly so, and leaves about a year for sentiment to continue to grow.

Of course, the government has the procedural right to take this action, if perhaps not the moral right to prevent Parliament from passing something that a majority of its members supports. But it chips away at the Key government’s carefully-framed appeal to being pro-middle-class, pro-family, pro-women. Unlike welfare reform, this is not an issue that only impacts people who would never vote for the National party anyway. Paid parental leave predominantly benefits middle-class (rather than working-class) families, and especially middle-class women — those who, for five years, the government has been reassuring that we are on your side. Key is personally very popular among women, and this has been central to National’s success. It looks like the government are prepared to sacrifice this on the altar of fiscal responsibility. The comparison to Barack Obama’s strategy to win a second term on the basis of strong opposition to GOP misogyny could hardly be more stark.

This is in spite of the argument on the merits: a low-cost policy that yields considerable long-term benefits of the sort the government has been anxious to create (or invent, if need be). And the arguments being levied against the scheme are particularly weird: “Is it about labour force participation, or about women spending more time with children?” Well, yes. “It’s discriminatory against non-working mothers!” Well, yes, but I don’t see any of the people making that argument supporting a Universal Motherhood Entitlement, and in fact, I distinctly remember some rhetoric about “breeding for a business” whenever such ideas are raised.

A possible reason for this bad veto call is that it foreshadows a future softening of National’s position on the topic; as Key did with the Section 59 bill, when it looks close to passing the government will signal support, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

Or, maybe it’s just that they don’t care any more — so they’re unpopular, so what?

Student entitlements

The latter argument also explains the decision, announced today, to limit the availability of student allowances and require higher repayments of student loans, although not completely. This is bound to be popular with those who have forgotten (or who never experienced) how hard it was to undertake tertiary study and build a career without Daddy’s cash and connections, and those of the generations who had it all laid on for them by the taxpayers of their day. But it will be less popular among the growing ranks of young voters, and it will be less popular among the parents of those young voters, who are having to provide financial support to their kids through their 20s and in some cases into their 30s, because said kids are finding the economic dream is more rosy than the reality.

This policy is also anti-middle-class, anti-family, and anti-women: because the middle class includes most of those who can afford to (and have the social and cultural capital to) undertake tertiary study; because it places an additional burden on their parents, and because women are already disadvantaged in terms of earning power, and therefore have less ability to avoid or pay back loans. It also erodes National’s aspirational, high-productivity, catch-up-with-Australia narrative, by raising the barrier to becoming qualified to do the high-productivity jobs that such a goal requires. More crucially, it erodes National’s “money in your pocket” narrative by imposing upon borrowers a higher effective marginal tax rate — over and above the existing 10% higher effective marginal tax rate — making it harder to survive on the wages that come with those jobs.

It could be worse. They’re not reintroducing student loan interest. But it is only the first budget of the term, and the same reasoning — this is good because it allows borrowers to pay off their loans sooner, and it will provide cost savings for the government — is true in spades when you charge interest. People can already pay their loans back more quickly if they choose — it is easy to do. People don’t, because wages are low and the cost of living is high, so the government wants to force them to do so. So much for choices.


Although I disagree with them, there is some political justification behind both these previous positions. But nothing explains the government’s decision to take a harder stance against asylum seekers. In the Australian context (and in the USA and the UK, although I know less about these), immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers is a political bonfire. This is most obvious in terms of human life and potential. Able, resourceful and motivated people are imprisoned for months or years, barely treated as humans, and allowed to become disenchanted and alienated while hostile bureaucrats decide their fate, and cynical politicians on all sides use them as ideological tokens in a dire game — before being released into society to fulfill the grim expectations that have been laid upon them. But it is also a bonfire for political capital — the more you chuck on, the brighter it burns — and for reasoned discourse. Politicians, commentators, lobbyists and hacks of all descriptions dance around this fire like deranged cultists which, in a sense, they are.

The immigration debate in Australia, though it barely deserves that name, is toxic, internecine, and intractable; it has been propagandised to the point where it is practically useless as a policy-formation tool, or as a means of gauging or guiding public sentiment. It sets light to everything it touches; people take leave of their senses and run around shrieking whatever slogans fit their lizard-brain prejudices. The word “sense” is used so often it ceases to have any meaning: all is caricature, and in keeping with this, other ordinary words also lose their value: assurances that asylum seekers will be treated “fairly” or that systems will be “efficient” would not be recognised as such by an impartial observer. Somehow, it becomes possible to simultaneously believe that the policies are targeted against “people-smugglers”, while being fully aware that the punitive costs imposed by such regimes are suffered by the smugglers’ victims. Otherwise-reasonable people resort to idiotic bourgeois framing such as “jumping the queue” — as if it’s OK to escape from political or religious persecution, if only you do so in a polite and orderly fashion. Mind the gap!

What makes it all the more stupid is that a brown tide of refugees in rusty boats is not even an issue for us: we are simply too isolated, and surrounded by waters too hostile, to be a viable destination. Unfortunately this fact will not be sufficient to prevent people from getting worked up about it, and demanding that Something Be Done. Someone on twitter recently said that anyone who could get a boatload of people here from the third world deserved a beer and our congratulations, and I couldn’t agree more. We need people with the degree of daring, toughness and pioneer spirit to make such a journey, and qualities such as these were once most highly prized.

This policy also undercuts National’s mythology about itself, most assiduously cultivated over the past year in preparation for the sale of the Crafar farms and other assets — of New Zealand as a land of opportunity, welcoming to outsiders and open for business. National have been swift to condemn any deviation from this line as xenophobic, and yet this is somehow different. It is worse than a solution in search of a problem — it is a cure that is far more harmful than its ailment.

What’s more, while I can see the underlying political reasoning behind the two other policies I’ve discussed here, I can’t see the reasoning for this one. Most likely it is an attempt to cultivate some love in redneck-talkback land; to shore up slipping sentiment among the culturally-conservative base that National used to own. But even in this it is misguided: this is not a debate that does any major party any good. It is an opportunity for extremists to grandstand, to pander to society’s most regressive elements. It crowds out meaningful discussion of other matters, it makes reason and compromise impossible, and what’s worst: it never dies. We saw a glimpse of this with the Ahmed Zaoui case; by fearmongering about boatloads of Chinese en route from Darwin on the basis of just one isolated case National runs the risk of admitting this sort of idiocy to the national conversation permanently.

And that might be this government’s legacy. The former two topics, while they will change New Zealand’s politics in meaningful ways, are essentially part of the normal partisan ebb and flow. Asset sales is much bigger; other topics, like primary and secondary education reform and the proposal to cap government expenditure will also have longer-term and more profound impacts. The National government has a mandate, and they are using it while they can, in the knowledge that you can’t take it with you when you go. That is understandable, if perhaps regrettable.

But to use such a mandate to permanently poison New Zealand’s discourse, willingly driving it towards a permanent state of cultural war is a different sort of politics altogether — deeper, more ancient, harder to control, and much more dangerous. I hope I’m wrong.


12 thoughts on “Putting the mandate to work

  1. I’m intrigued that Immigration Minister Nathan Guy stated in various media that 500 Tamil(?) refugees had traveled 13,000km to reach Canada. That’s one hell of a Great Circle sea voyage.

  2. oops actually this wasnt the one that docked … they intercepted this one once in crossed into waters. Crossed wires, glad I actually read the article!

  3. I am interested to see the increasing number of grey ships tied up as I pass Devonport everyday. Guessing that defense cuts are refocusing priorities, if you are going to run a imaginary navy it makes sense to have an achievable mission such as guarding imaginary boat people.

  4. Excellent posting, Lew.

    National has indeed painted itself into a corner vis-a-vis its social-conservative base. Its relationship with the Maori Party rules out Maori-bashing. It’s relationship with Asia rules out the Yellow peril.

    Picking up on the Australian obsession with “boat people” is, indeed, very hard to fathom.

    Crosby-Textor’s influence perhaps?

  5. Given the non-existent nature of the supposed “threat” from refugees the frothing it engenders is astonishing. That reliable bell-weather of unhinged talkback Taliban fear and loathing, the comments section of Kiwiblog, managed to generate 127 (and counting) comments – and Kiwiblog has generally been declining in comments in recent times. All those comments on an issue, it bears repeating, that doesn’t actually exist!

    On NatRad yesterday, another Bell – Graham, that stalwart authoritarian who is the acceptable face of white middle class received wisdom and prejudice, used extraordinarily immoderate language to to describe this will’o-wisp threat. Mr. Bell saw fit to favour his audience with his opinion that opponents of the government on this “issue” are “hysterical and uptight” and the lack of evidence of any actual threat is firm evidence that it is “something we need to act on now” because these people are just “queue jumpers” and “ratbags” who presumably even as we speak are plotting in dark corners to “destroy their passports and turn up on our beaches”. Again, it needs to be pointed out that Graham Bell’s little tanty was all about A PROBLEM WHICH DOES NOT EXIST.

    So alas, the governments authoritarian rabble rousing on this seems to be a very sure aim. We’ll eventually end up in ten or twenty years with the ACT party demanding as part of it’s support agreement that we equip our P-3 Orions (we’ll still have them in twenty years you know) with missiles to sink on sight the non-existent fleets of (by then) rusty carnival cruise liners full to the gunnels of the dusky skinned peril. The extraordinary outbursts of racist paranoia that this non-issue seems to be able to conjure up at will in the down under countries must come from the deepest mental recesses of the settler class in New Zealand and Australia. Personally, I think it resonates with a significant component in the foundation myth of the white settlers of both of Britain’s Antipodean colonies – that we’ve created a better class of Britisher out here, one that can fight better, run faster, jump higher, kick further and generally be sun bronzed and healthier than the pasty Poms of the Clydeside and tubercular denizens of the East End. Imagine if the abundant urban and rural idyll that we call home was threatened! And it would be, if we allowed our lands to despoiled and polluted by unregulated invasions of hordes of dark foreigners! Therefore we must guard the myth with the utmost rigour and attention to the slightest threat, real or otherwise. We owe it to our children.

  6. I still don’t understand why parliament can’t turn round and suspend standing orders to override the veto. It’s not like it requires a supermajority.

  7. Indeed Sanctuary, we owe it to our children. The same people who say this will also invoke it to justify austerity in a time of declining incomes.

    But they most certainly do not owe it to the children to do anything to mitigate against potentially catastrophic climate change, at either the individual or the political level!

    Our friend Mathew Hooten offers up as a prime example of this selective thinking.

    As regards the boat people issue, it’s a sign of how low our leaders will stoop when they use such phrases as the one you mentioned, “queue jumpers,” and another, “illegal immigrants,” when the refugees are neither.

    And they know the truth full well, yet pander to the misinformed and the ignorant.

  8. Thanks, all. Yes, I heard Bell on the wireless last night; exactly the sort of know-nothing authoritarian kneejerkery I’m talking about. And of a piece with the Kiwiblog comments; Luc’s gallant stand a notable exception.

    The first problem with discussions around refugees is that the framing is totally dominated by the culture warriors, who misread Huntington (in the rare cases that they read him at all) as a how-to manual rather than as theory of political change. It’s impossible to have a reasoned discussion with people who literally cannot understand why it’s wrongheaded to refer to people seeking legal political asylum, exercising rights granted by the United Nations and upheld by signatory nations including our own as “illegal aliens”. We do not live in District 9.


  9. There are parallels with the Natz “boat people” and the longstanding “deserving and undeserving poor” tory meme.

    Direct overseas investment, wealthy immigrants–tick, welcome, questioners deemed xenophobic.
    Refugees in dire straights within their rights-cross, not welcome,
    deal to the dirty que jumpers, right-o!

    So yes National has set up a giant contradiction. All New Zealanders one way or another are ‘boat’ people.

  10. Such a good point, TM.

    And ikewise that we’re all boat-people. In fact, many of us Pākehā who (justifiably) consider Aotearoa our homes are descended from the sort of “economic refugees” Farrar sought to distinguish from “genuine refugees”. As if seeking a better life elsewhere due to economic marginalisation was somehow inferior to seeking it due to the inability to fully exploit one’s wealth and privilege in one’s home country.


  11. ” We do not live in District 9.”
    Actually I am not so sure.

    “The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has released figures showing that at least 1,500 migrants drowned or went missing whilst attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe during 2011. The figures cited are just an estimate based on collected data and actual figures could be much higher as boats which sank may have gone unreported.”

    Read more: http://digitaljournal.com/article/318891#ixzz1tqNP06gF

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