Saturday, April 21, 2018

Aunty Cindy, whiteness, and the future of democracy

I had long grumbled in private that the Labour Party needed to promote Jacinda Adern and Calvin Davis to leadership positions so when they did I was not in the slightest surprised that Labour's polling leaped into contention. Nor was I the slightest bit surprised when Winston Peters preferred Labour over National for a coalition partner. It was obvious his influence would be sidelined in a National led coalition and that a less stable partner would allow him more scope.

What has surprised me has been is that the Greens, whom Jacinda burned badly at election time, have crept back into positions of influence and appear, despite their electoral drubbing, to believe that they have a mandate to push their ideology. Equally I have been surprised that Simon Bridges, the new National leader, who seemed to be nothing more than a John Key lackey, has actually done a very good job in rallying the largest party in the Parliament and has already begun landing telling blows on the government.

So far Jacinda's response to this has been to double-down on her cult of freshness. She has done the Women's magazines and toured the world charming the socks off world leaders. Because she is as bright as she is astute and attractive Jacinda is an ambassador most Kiwis are probably quite comfortable to have representing them - baby bump and all.

The problem is back home where Jacinda's stodgy and far less talented colleagues are starting to inhale the heady fumes of power and already a level of plain amateurism is becoming apparent to the mandarins in Wellington.

The Minister of Broadcasting, Clare Curran's secret dealings with a Radio NZ staffer, and her blundering attempt to gag Radio NZ's Chair, Richard Griffin, revealed an appalling ignorance of her role and responsibilities. Curran acted like a power tripping school bully and was rightly skewered by the very sharp Melissa Lee giving Bridge's National Party early, easy new political points.

Next out of the gate has been Phil Twyford's policy statement on transport, a document which he appears to have cooked up with Jacinda's friend and parliament's other mum-to-be Greens Minister Julie-Anne Genter.

The big news for talk back radio was a series of petrol tax increases totaling twenty cents a litre in Auckland. This from a party which on the hustings had claimed it would not introduce new taxes - admittedly in the context of a discussion about capital gains. This was easy meat for right wing shock jocks and not surprisingly the Labour Party has already taken a major hit in the polls.

But the real story buried in the multi-billion dollar transport policy statement is far more significant than the average Gallery hack will ever turn into a three minute video segment. Transport is not just traffic congestion and pot-holes. Transport is New Zealand's whole society, and economy in action. All life involves motion - that means transport. What this transport policy is trying to do is re-align this to an ideology most of the country does not actually share.

Because Twyford and Genter are strong advocates of central government planning. They believe that people are driven by government policy. They believe that people make the transport choices they do because the Tories have brainwashed society by offering cheap petrol, easy access to motor vehicles and a market led, dog-eat-dog world, as opposed to a caring sort of University campus world where people walk, cycle and use public transport, live close to where they work and diligently avoid emitting carbon dioxide.

It isn't that Twyford or Genter are stupid, they most certainly are not. But they are very, very "white". Their ideal is a kind of Portland, Oregon in the South Pacific.Portland is famous for its walking and cycling and public transit and is extolled by left leaning, planning oriented Americans in transport conferences the world over. Of course Portland has also been trashed by right-leaning US media via the Portlandia TV show, where its political correctness has been lampooned to hell and back. But Portland does also have a less funny aspect to it. It's been designated the most racist city in America.

What is so "white" about Twyford and Genter is their willful blindness to things they don't want to see .What they don't see is people. What they don't mention in their policy, is inequality. All they see is urban space efficiency and emissions.

Taking half a billion dollars from highways all New Zealanders use to build a light rail system from the centre of Auckland to Auckland airport, and the Wellington airport to just short of Parliament is to build a service that only really helps people like them. People who live in Auckland and fly to Wellington and back a lot. Most people in New Zealand will not see any benefit from it. Working people who rely on fixing highways all around the country will see their incomes slashed by a third for the privilege.

The focus of their transport plans is mode change which pulls investment out of the regions and out of poor parts of the cities. The assumption is that poor people dependent on transport construction work in the regions can be employed building their light rail system in the cities. Census studies of Auckland clearly show that the places where public transport, walking and cycling are least useful to get to work is in the poor brown suburbs in the city's south. The plans assume the truck drivers they take off the road can find work on coastal ships. Its an assumption that life is the same regardless of class, gender, or ethnicity and that by optimising for one gender, class and ethnicity the system optimises for everyone. That is the essence of "whiteness".

Labour has dumped on the poor before. The Lange-Douglas government effectively betrayed everything the Labour party stood for, sparking massive unemployment. Clark's government fell when the Greens led it into the wilderness of policies which were a bridge too far for the average Kiwi.It also gave up on innovation when it discovered Taranaki oil was pumping more money into the economy than start-ups, and immigration was a tidy little earner too. When John Key took over he simply turned both the oil and immigration spigots up to max and drowned out any problems anyone raised by yelling about a "rockstar" economy.

Adern has turned off both, What Aunty Cindy (as Jacinda's niece calls her) got right during the election was to home in on working people's concerns that the "rich seam" National's friends in real estate were mining (because of immigration) was driving up housing costs and driving down wages, making the rich (National's traditional supporters) richer and the poor poorer. This was another reason why Labour and New Zealand First fitted together so well. Jacinda was "change you can believe in".

But since the election it has seemed that Labour's varsity roots have led it back towards the Greens and away from the people who voted for them. The promise of change is off track. If this continues Labour will again collapse - not due to competition from National (which its bitchy policy hothouse seems to think is the root of its problems) but because it betrays those who turned out to vote for it last time.

The only way for Labour to win the 2020 election is to abandon the righteous 'white' varsity politics that the Simon Wilson's of the world espouse and embrace actual democracy. This means listening, not steamrolling plans through in an effort to appear decisive or to construct monuments for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. It means spending a lot more time and effort on understanding the complex dynamics of property, trade and labour markets in New Zealand and optimising them for people not policies or ideologies. It means not being embarrassed about Andrew Little's sensible but mocked (by National) efforts to understand the future of work. And it means pitching a social contract which puts people at its centre, not capital (as National did) or the environment ( as the Greens keep trying to do).

People-centric policy that recognises personal freedom to grow and innovate is a natural fit for Jacinda Adern's brand, and a natural fit with the work that Labour leaders like Andrew Little have pursued all their lives. But it must recognise that New Zealand society is a complex, constantly evolving and dynamic thing. No solution available now will necessarily still fit its purpose in 25 years time. It is about a deal, and our national values, not specific things.

If Labour fails to do this it will probably lose the next election. The questionable competence of some of its Ministers will be picked apart by a crowing National Party. It's more dubious arrangements (such as Shane Jones' billion dollar slush fund for regional enthusiasms) will probably
become a massive embarrassment.  Aunty Cindy and her baby will not have enough the cuteness appeal to overcome this apparent incompetence.

To my mind unless we gain a people-focused social contract we will end up with a capital focused social contract like the one ripping apart the United States right now. Watching the US - a nation that was once the heart of constitutional democracies - plunging into the black hole of techno corruption
should be enough to scare any politician to take evasive action.

The only question is whether Aunty Cindy has the wherewithall to emulate the tough pragmatism of leaders like Angela Merkel and put a people-first stamp on the entire coalition. It is a tall order and I must admit I doubt that even a media darling like Adern can pull it off.

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