Monday, May 14, 2012


Interviewed by The Dominion Post after signing a referendum petition last Friday, Wellington commuter David Lamborn had no difficulty explaining his opposition to asset sales:
There doesn't seem to be any good logical explanation for why they want to do it, it's just based on ideology. I would rather retain them for future benefit for all New Zealanders rather than just a few who can afford to buy shares.
That is what privatisation means: removing assets from public ownership, where they can benefit the whole of society, and placing them in the hands of those who can afford to buy shares. However this is not what privatisation means to the principal political forces that are opposing the proposed sale of a 49% share of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand. To these parties, the evil of privatisation lies in the risk of foreign ownership. Thus in his opening statament for the launch of the referendum petition, Labour leader David Shearer is quoted as pledging that
Labour will stand up for New Zealanders and make sure that we keep our assets and our future in Kiwi hands
while the Green party has filed its opposition to asset sales under the ‘foreign ownership’ section of its website, along with the logo of its campaign against land purchases by overseas investors.

‘Own our Future’. ‘Keep it Kiwi’. The crude approach to economics and sovereignty encapsulated by these slogans is clearly seen by the two main centre-left parties as an election winner and the best strategic response to the Tories’ privatisation agenda. However the glaring problem with this strategy is that it buys wholesale into a right-wing analysis of the problem. Witness for example Labour’s attack line against National in the lead-up to the last election based on its doubtful assurances that ‘Mum and Dad investors’ would be the main beneficiaries of the sales, which saw the party both conceding the existence and virtuous nature of that ghastly political subject – the mumanddadinvestor – and implying that a privatisation mechanism that actually ensured the outcome touted by National may be acceptable to progressives.

Of the two parties, Labour was always going to find it more difficult to articulate a stronger opposition to asset sales, seeing as it is responsible for introducing the State-owned enterprise model and has never reneged on that policy. All of the companies currently slated for partial sale are SOEs, meaning that they are already run like private companies mandated to return the maximum profit to its shareholders – which just happen to be us. But this is already a form of privatisation: for the profits in question are extracted from the public in regressive fashion, and the resulting revenue allows the government to moderate the taxation of income, which is progressive. Thus SOEs serve the interest of the wealthiest among us, whilst never being required to produce a social dividend. The case of Folole Muliaga remains sadly very emblematic in this respect.

Asset sales are simply a further round of privatisation, increasing the transfer of wealth towards the ruling classes and allowing for some of this wealth to flow out of the country altogether – either in the hands of foreign entities or in the bank accounts of New Zealanders who should opt to take their money overseas. This capital outflow would have material consequences for our economy, but by focussing on this single aspect to the exclusion of everything else, Labour and the Greens are passing up on the opportunity to mount a broader class-based critique of the sales, as well as placing themselves in the curious position – for ostensibly progressive forces – of having to pander to anti-foreign sentiment to garner the requisite level of support and keep the issue alive and at the centre of the political debate.

For those who think that the charge of xenophobia against these campaigns is misplaced or disproportionate, I defer to Dougal McNeill’s brilliant dissection (and compelling historicisation) of the rhetoric around the Crafar farms. For my part what I’m mainly concerned with today is reconciling the debate around assets sales with the response to the most recent measures against beneficiaries announced by the government.

Firstly, the offer of free long-term contraception to female beneficiaries and their daughters: a move that can pass as fair and reasonable as opposed to grotesquely coercive only in a country that has lost all capacity to understand and debate the power dynamics between the State and the citizens who most depend on welfare for their survival. On this issue Labour was simultaneously chastised for responding and praised for not responding to what was portrayed by more than one political commentator as an artful distraction ahead of the budget. As a point of fact Labour did respond, and through no less than its leader, who argued that women in the scheme might feel intimidated by case workers into accepting the procedure and questioned why men weren’t targeted – which is more or less what Metiria Turei of the Greens said, if somewhat more forcefully. Turei also responded at the earliest opportunity to suggestions by Social Development and Employment Minister Paula Bennett that beneficiaries may be required to vaccinate their children or risk having their payments discontinued, a measure every bit as provocative as the previous one in its manifest aim to constrain the rights of some citizens in exchange for the State support that they receive.

Whether or not the likes of Vernon Small are correct in their claim that public opinion strongly sides with the government on these kinds of issues (eight out of ten Sunday Star Times readers do just that, a statistic tempered by the fact that ten out of ten of them consider the Sunday Star Times a legitimate source of news), liberals can in fact generally be depended upon to muster a response, as was the case here. However they’re also liable to vastly underplay the crass class war character of the measures, which is what enables the Tories to set the terms of the debate. Outside of the unions, much of the institutional Left in New Zealand has lost the vocabulary, let alone the willingness, to describe phenomena in terms of their class dimension. But discrimination and exploitation aren’t the same thing, and the true test for a Left worth its salt lies in its capacity to mobilise against both.

Image by Simon Oosterman

Take Ports of Auckland Limited, a council-owned entity that operates like an SOE at the local level, and Labour’s comprehensive failure to deal with the issue, from the conduct of its Mayor, Len Brown, down to the fence-sitting of party leader David Shearer and his timid and belated support for the locked out workers when the Left took to the streets. Throughout the dispute the bourgeois commentariat insisted of course that the Labour party should run away from labour issues, and that any suggestion to the contrary would smack of ideology and run afoul of the public. But aside from the customary inability on the part of said commentators to see the beam of free-market ideology in their own eye, the problem with this viewpoint – and with Labour’s conduct – is that it woefully misunderstood the political moment. To have come out strongly on the side of workers in the Ports dispute would have helped Labour articulate a far more coherent stance in the fight against asset sales, and be more incisive in its attacks on the government’s failure to stem the exodus of workers to Australia. There was a lesson to be drawn and questions to be asked on the nature of the public good and on the virtues of a system that produces the imbalances of globalisation within a single country, pitting Auckland wharfies not against those of foreign ports and lower-wage economies, but against their counterparts in Tauranga, two hundred kilometres down the M2. Welfare reform, too, would have come into sharper focus, since the attacks on workers and unions and the attacks on beneficiaries and women belong to the same political agenda, and are never mere distractions standing in the way of something more important, not even the government’s core economic document.

I am of course speaking hypothetically. It would be unaccountably naïve to expect Labour to be that opposition party and to seize upon such a narrative. Even if that living, breathing counterfactual – the opportunistic David Cunliffe, former paladin of public-private partnerships – were somehow to be magicked into the leadership, he would be faced with the task of marshalling a caucus that wants nothing to do with any of that. The Greens, for their part, keep alternating a stronger and broader commitment to progressive politics on a number of issues to what appears like a steady rightward drift. We are stuck therefore with owning our future and keeping it Kiwi, and a politics painfully out of step with the radicalisation of left-wing oppositions elsewhere in the West and with the magnitude of the economic and social problems facing the country.


Alex said...

Actually Russel Norman made a speech in Parliament outlining exactly how this was a transfer of wealth from common ownership to the rich. His main point was that the only people who can afford shares in assets are those who got tax cuts, and that the average person on $550 a week will not be able to afford shares. To suggest that the Green opposition is only based on the Keep it Kiwi slogan is just as crude as the slogan itself, there is also the likely lack of investment in renewable energy if the power companies are sold, as well as the transfer of wealth from common ownership to the rich.

Giovanni Tiso said...

If speeches in Parliament or discussions in select committees and speeches to the public were the same thing, I'd be inclined to cut Labour and the Greens some slack. But they aren't. And the materials and statements put out by the Greens speak for themselves - that logo most loudly of all.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(There is half a sentence in the minute-long Keep it Kiwi video by Russell Norman to the effect that the Greens don't always agree with the way SOEs are run. That's the relative weight they've chosen to give to that side of the argument in crafting their communication strategy.)

Unknown said...

What to do with this?
Then this,
There is no escape from they who own the message.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I find the first piece terrifying, even more so than the original report from earlier today. There is something genuinely sinister in the collective absolution that comes from a reader community sharing in the discomfort at those - gasp! - non-English signs. Dougal's post is more relevant to this kind of stuff than mine I think.

Najma said...

I have just discovered your blog: thank you for so clearly exposing what is happening in NZ, keep up the good work, I look forward to reading more.
I fear however that you are preaching to the converted (and I don't mean that disparagingly) as far as I can see the only way to get the message across to those who don't read the paper; and certainly not the politics articles, and can't see how they are manipulated by TV news programmes,is subliminal messages at a rugby game, or down the pub.
I weep for my country.

katy said...

Great post.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Najma and thank you Kathy.

I don't think I share your pessimism, Najma, much as I'm all too frequently dismayed and/or enraged by stories like the one posted by Merc. I'd be pessimistic if I thought that Labour's way were the only kind of political opposition - inside of Parliament, or outside of it - that is available to us. In fact the idea that our politics is hopelessly constrained by the reality of a society in which eight people out of ten agree with proposals such as free contraception for beneficiaries and their daughters overlooks the fact that this reality is largely the product of that idea: we live in such a society because we have constrained our politics for far too long. Conservatism thrives where progressivism wilts. But it hasn't always been so and there is no reason why it should remain so. We don't lack the space or the intellectual capacity to organise, nor the opportunity - in fact it is becoming more and more of a necessity. And besides who would look at Europe and not be prepared to say that neoliberalism, that capitalism itself are in crisis? Even if we did nothing change would knock on our door.

Najma said...

Didn't mean to project pessimism Giovanni, aiming for wry! I am a kiwi but I haven't lived in NZ much for the last few years: I am actually confident that my fellow kiwis will work it out.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Fair enough. I mostly try to aim for wry too.

Unknown said...

One day we could do something about share market listed govt. backed monopolies... oh no wait, we really can't.

Alex said...

Not to split hairs, but I saw Norman's speech on Parliament TV, which is broadcast to the public. More to the point, there is absolutely no way a party leader would say something in the house that they wouldn't like to see attached to their name or party.

Plus Catherine Delahaunty made very similar points in her speech to the Hikoi in Wellington. Again, the Greens are clearly aware of the class issues at play over asset sales, and making that awareness public.

But I agree with you in some ways, there needs to be opposition to asset sales based on more than just nationalism and xenophobia.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I'm all for splitting hair on this one. I don't entirely dismiss what politicians say in Parliament, or when they take part in demonstrations, but their broader public message is quite another thing. The statements and slogans and documents that the parties present to the whole of the electorate are what ultimately defines their politics and therefore the mandate that the voting public grants them to do things. And in the respective public messages Labour and the Greens have chosen to make privatisation solely an issue of foreign ownership.

Alex said...

I do concede you have a point that they are laying it on very thick with the nationalistic stuff, and I personally find some of it distasteful. However we know for a fact that the Greens at least are opposed to asset sales because of other issues as well, such as the ones I outlined in an earlier comment.

I suppose the main problem is the eternal problem in campaign politics, how much can you fit on a badge or a billboard? You have to hang a campaign on one overarching idea, but you should always be aware of all the other issues at play while actually out campaigning.

When I'm collecting signatures and someone asks me why we shouldn't sell the assets the first thing I say is that they make a good return on investment long term, rather than a short term one off cash boost. Then I say that we all already own the assets, so why should the government be giving the rich a chance to own more of said assets simply because they have more money? Then I say that given that private investors are more interested in shorter term profits, if the assets are partially privatised power prices will likely rise and investment in renewables will likely fall.

To put it simply, as an activist on the asset sales campaign, I couldn't give a stuff if its rich New Zealanders or rich foreigners who buy the shares, because at the end of the day the principle is exactly the same. Maybe the political parties need a hook to hang their campaign on. and have gone for nationalism, but we all know that there are so many other reasons to oppose these sales, and different reasons will appeal to different people. Not every reason will appeal to everyone, but anyone who isn't a 'mum and dad investor' has a good reason to still sign the petition.

Giovanni Tiso said...

“Maybe the political parties need a hook to hang their campaign on. and have gone for nationalism, but we all know that there are so many other reasons to oppose these sales, and different reasons will appeal to different people. Not every reason will appeal to everyone, but anyone who isn't a 'mum and dad investor' has a good reason to still sign the petition.”

‘We all know’ doesn’t cut it. Who is we? The well-educated activists? The people who watch Parliament Television? If you’re talking to anybody else about all the other reasons to oppose the sales whilst distributing pamphlets that imply that privatisation is okay so long as it is to the benefit of our homegrown capitalists, I think it makes your position untenable. Because that is not just a hook, it’s how the two main parties on the centre-left have ultimately chosen to define the issue. And it is not a common denominator (everyone doesn’t like money going overseas, whereas some people might not mind if it stayed at home) but an anti-progressive message that undercuts the opposition to the sale and the way that the Left presents itself to the public.

Alex said...

Very fair point, perhaps we don't all know all the other reasons. I concede defeat on this one, the dominant message of this campaign should not be one of nationalism.
However, I know why I am personally opposed to asset sales, and it has nothing to do with the nationality of the buyer, so I intend to continue trying to get signatures because of the reasons I outlined above. We can have the debate about ends/means inherent in that position some other time.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The petition itself is fine, I had no trouble at all signing it.

(Let's advertise a local business: at Evil Genius in Berhampore you can get a good coffee and sign the thing.)

Ben Wilson said...

Bang on, Gio. All of it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you good sir.

francesca said...

Fortunately, sometimes privatisation triggers ironic results.