And The Truth Shall Set You Free: Moving beyond the thirty-year-old neoliberal order in New Zealand can only be achieved by confronting and disproving its explanations and excuses for the inequality, poverty and powerlessness it perpetuates.
LET’S ASSUME, for the sake of argument, that there’s a change of government in September. Some combination of Labour, the Greens and NZ First (or, perhaps, since Winston’s on a roll, Labour and NZ First alone) cobbles together the necessary parliamentary support to form a government. What will confront them?
The simple answer is: The Past. A government elected on the strength of public misgivings about rampant homelessness and the lack of affordable housing; out-of-control immigration; and a despoiled natural environment; will be presented with thirty-year-old government machinery designed specifically to make effective state intervention as difficult as possible.
Any attempt to deploy this machinery in pursuit of social and economic objectives for which it was not designed is highly likely to end in failure – and, quite possibly, disaster. Arrayed against a government in which only a handful of ministers possess Cabinet experience will be a bristling phalanx of public servants, National Party appointees, corporate and special interest lobbyists and public relations firms – all of whom have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.
Not only will these groups warn the incoming government that their election promises cannot be delivered, but they will make sure that their advice somehow falls into the hands of the news media. The new government will, accordingly, find itself squeezed in a vice. From one side will come the pressure of their officials. From the other, a relentless barrage of media questions demanding to know why they are refusing to heed official advice.
The question to be asked, then, is whether or not Andrew Little and Grant Robertson, Winston Peters and Shane Jones, James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter are sure enough of their convictions, not only about what must be done, but also about how it is to be achieved, to convincingly out-argue both their officials and the news media?
When, after staggering into their minister’s offices under the weight of multiple reports, studies and surveys, the representatives of Treasury, MFAT, MBIE and MPI advise the new progressive government that its programme will wreck the economy and/or bankrupt the nation, how will Labour, NZ First and the Greens respond? Will they be able to offer their own stack of reports, studies and surveys in rebuttal?
The short answer is: “No, they won’t.”
What’s more, there will be a number of ministers in the new government (hopefully a minority!) who wouldn’t rebut their officials even if they could. For these politicians, simply becoming a Cabinet Minister will be enough. The fat ministerial salary; the chauffer-driven limousine; the deferential chorus of “yes, Minister”, “no, Minister”, “of course, Minister!”: these are the only attributes of power that really matter. Give these careerists a rubber stamp and they can be relied upon to use it diligently and without asking awkward questions.
If New Zealand was able to boast a selection of well-funded and professionally-run left-of-centre think tanks: outfits resembling the Washington-based Brookings Institution, or Demos in the UK; then a reforming government would be able to enter office bearing policy weapons of equivalent firepower to those wielded by public and private sector play-makers. Unfortunately, New Zealand lacks a George Soros-type benefactor of progressive organisations. Such effective think-tanks as do exist in this country are wholly owned and operated by the Right.
What, then, is a progressive government to do? How are the Past’s elite regiments of defenders to be disarmed and demobilised?
One possible answer is to offer the voters a three-year inquiry – or, series of inquiries – into how we got ourselves into our current predicament, and how we should set about getting ourselves out of it. Crucially, this mega-inquiry would prioritise the evidence of ordinary New Zealanders. It would solicit especially the stories of those who found themselves at the sharp end of thirty-years-worth of economic and social “reforms”. The inquiry would also make a point of investigating and exposing the prime beneficiaries of those changes. Not only would Kiwis finally get to discover who the winners were, but also how they won, and what sort of institutional arrangements must be kept in place if they’re to go on winning.
What’s being proposed here is a variant on the Truth and Reconciliation exercise undertaken by the Nelson Mandela-led government of post-Apartheid South Africa. There was, of course, no disputing the suffering that black South Africans had endured at the hands of their white racist overlords. New Zealanders, however, lack such a clear-cut cast of villains upon whom to focus a people’s inquiry. For us, it is more a case of discovering whether thirty-years-worth of answers about the way this country should be run have been truthful; and whether the excuses for thirty-years-worth of inaction on accumulating socio-economic injustices are valid.
Having interrogated the Past, such a government would be uniquely well positioned to confront the future.