From its first actions as government, it seems that the National-ACT-NZ First (NACT1st) coalition is basing its approach to policy-making on utu (they would prefer to say revenge), racism and repaying their donors and supporters with aggressive repeals of legislation passed under the previous Labour government. The approach is brutish, brazen and nasty, but unsurprisingly was not something that they campaigned on during the general election. It seems that they knew how unpopular their retribution would be so they just winked and nodded to their silent partners (like the tobacco and fossil fuel lobbies) while yammering about crime, housing costs, foreign home buyers and tax cuts. They successfully used a compliant clickbait-obsessed corporate media to platform them and highlight personal peccadillos in the Labour caucus in order to undermine faith in the Labou-led government while avoiding answering hard questions about their real agenda.
Now in office, they demonstrate a complete disregard for democratic procedures and processes. For all the talk from the Right about the “Stalinist” bent of the Ardern government during the pandemic, the fact is that Labour spent much (often fruitless) time in public consultations and parliamentary committee hearings hashing out the pros and cons of a number of important policy issues. The actually listened to the public and to the Opposition on important matters even if not ultimately agreeing with them. The NACT1st approach, in contrast, has been to pass under urgency, without any public consultation, repeals of major pieces of legislation like the Smokefree Act, Fair Pay Agreements, Ute Fuel Tax and Clean Energy Rebates. They seek to abolish the use of Te Reo in official communications and review the Treaty of Waitangi (how they propose to do is a matter of conjecture at this point).They cancelled major infrastructure projects already underway. They want to reduce the number of ministries, specifically those having to do with Pacifika and Maori affairs. They propose to deregulate a host of commercial activities, open Conservation lands to mining and renew oil and natural gas leases.They want to privatise parts of the public health service, permit Charter schools and military-style boot camps for adolescents, and in general adhere to long since discredited neoliberal prescriptions for economic management.
In other words, they have adopted a retrograde scorched earth approach to Labour policy measures that appears to be taken out of a book written by Argentine president and “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei, the self-denominated tantric sex guru who consults his cloned Mastiffs for policy advice (I am not making this up). Milei has reduced the size of his cabinet from 18 to 9 ministers and has threatened to remove 100,000 public servants from the federal payroll (Argentina is a federal republic with a presidential-dominant democratic system, unlike NZ’s parliamentary democracy). The ministries of education, labor, employment, social development and social security have been absorbed into a new uber Ministry of Human Capital, and the ministries of transportation, women and gender, environment, and culture were eliminated outright.
Milei wants to close the Central Bank and “dollarize” the economy, although his more centrist advisors convinced him to hold off on that while other measures are implemented. Instead they have devalued the Argentine peso by 54 percent overnight last week, basically halving the income of anyone who did not have significant dollar reserves in personal accounts or who is paid in US dollars (one can imagine who the lucky ones might be). The fact is that most Argentines do not get paid in dollars and do not have bank accounts holding them in any significant quantity.
To top things off, Milei, who has a penchant for hurling misogynistic insults at female critics, has publicly stated that “blue eyed” people are intellectually superior (he himself is blue-eyed in a country of brown-eyed people), and proposes to repeal abortion rights and legal protections for non-binary individuals. Truth be told, Milei is a freak both personally and ideologically, a merkin elected out of desperation by just over half of the voting population tired of the corrupt politics as usual but who ignored the fact that he is not the lesser of the many evils that they are saddled with. He is no panacea for what ails the country.
Given the tone of NACT1st statements in recent days, could this be a path that it will chose to follow? Members of its coalition have voiced support for Milei and his project, so it is not a reach to think that they might want to emulate at least some of his policy ‘reforms.” Certainly the attacks on Maori seem to come from a “blue eyed” perspective.
There is something profoundly ugly about this, yet it is an approach to governing that is celebrated by rightwing groups like the Tax Payers and Free Speech “Unions,” assorted rightwing bloggers and, now that Elon Mush has opened the lid on the septic tank, a bunch of reactionary, racist, misogynistic and gay- and trans-phobic social media trolls, to say nothing of the reactionaries on platforms like Counterspin, The Platform and Reality Check Radio. It as if NACT1st has ripped a scab off the NZ body politic and out has oozed the pustulence of rightwing authoritarian-minded intolerance, greed and bigotry.
The good news is that the combination of narcissistic egos and incompetence that is the hallmark of the new government may well be their undoing.They are simply too stupid, too myopic, too crass, craven and venal to understand the subtitles and nuances involved in crafting lasting policy for the betterment of the commonweal. Or perhaps that has never been their intention.
To put it in a vulgar way more in line with the thrust of NACT1st’s approach, if Milei is a merkin, then Luxon is the bell-end on an onanist policy-making caucus.
It will be interesting to see what the public reaction to the razor gang approach will be. In Argentina Milei has already used Executive Powers to repress public demonstrations against his edicts. But Argentine civil society is often raucous and its union movement is staunch and not averse to street violence to make its case. Most of the Argentine public service is unionised, so the move to mass redundancies is going to encounter fierce resistance. Since the security forces are working class people whose families will be negatively impacted by Milei’s cutbacks on welfare, health and education services, it remains to be seen if they will stay loyal to him and follow his orders if people hit the streets in protest. Whatever happens, the next few months will be tumultuous at best.
In NZ the political culture is not as violent as that of Argentina but it does have limits of toleration. The Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy like NZ does not have the Executive discretion available to Milei. But the NZ union movement is nowhere as staunch or as important to the productive apparatus as is its Argentine counterparts, being more of the compromise- rather than confrontation-oriented persuasion (some might call it the lapdog approach to employment relations where getting along with employers and surviving as a collective agent is more important than defending the interests of the rank and file, but I will leave it for others to decide if the characterisation fits). Whatever the case, the moment of truth has arrived for Kiwi society when it comes to responding to these assaults on hard-won social gains. Will Kiwis bend a knee in submission or stand up and fight? If they fight (even if just symbolically with acts of political theatre and perhaps episodic property damage), will the police stand against or with them? Will the NACT1st government try to resort to Emergency Powers in the face of civil unrest?
The larger issue is how NACT1st sees democracy. As readers might remember from previous posts on the subject, one can perceive democracy in two different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as having intrinsic worth or being an intrinsic good in that it is the best possible (albeit flawed) method of giving voice to the people and substantively protecting the interests of all via a system of contingent compromises on major social, political and economic issues. It has its problems but is universally better than its alternatives when considering the heterogenous diversity of the social fabric and the need for achieving some sort of balance or equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands in the political, social and economic marketplaces.
On the other hand democracy can be seen instrumentally, that is, as a means to an end or a tool to achieve power or partisan, sectoral or personal gain. Javier Milei has this perspective and it appears that NACT1st does as well. There is nothing intrinsically good about democracy in this view. For those who see democracy instrumentally, authoritarianism would be a better choice but it is too obvious in its bias. Instead, democracy’s worth is that it gives a veneer of representation and voice to the self-serving actions of winners of electoral contests, who then proceed to award themselves, their supporters and patrons with the spoils of governance. As Lenin put it, democracy is capitalism’s “best possible political shell.” There still may be checks and balances on the government, but those come from formal institutions like the judiciary rather than civil society itself. The latter must seek recourse in the street as well as if not more than formal channels and processes because the deck of officialdom is stacked against them when democratic instrumentalists hold the reins.
All of which is to say that the next six months should be interesting for both Argentina and NZ. Under their version of the social contract the new rightwing governments are hellbent on rolling back the clock when it comes to rights and obligations. They want to downsize the State when it comes to the provision of public goods and services, and they want to return to a social hierarchy more akin to the 1950s than the present era. Unfortunately for them, those days are long gone and both Argentine and Kiwi society cannot be remade in that nostalgic image.
In the end the fate of their regressive projects rests on whether civil society will go along with or organise against them. Because the bottom line of democratic governance is mass contingent consent to the political authorities and projects of the day, and on that score it remains to be seen if the Milei or NACT1st governments will enjoy that bottom line for any significant amount of time.
My reckon is that they will not, but that Argentines will be far less complacent than Kiwis when defending their interests.