What I want from a change of government

15 Sep

By Mike Treen, Unite National Director

(Reprinted from The Daily Blog)

The prospects for a change of government look a little brighter so I though I’d look at what we can expect.

The only option being provided by Labour, the main opposition party, is for a Labour-Green-NZ First coalition. They have precluded having either the Maori Party or Internet-Mana in the government.

In my view NZ First will only support such a Labour-led coalition government if it has a majority in its own right. If that government relies on the votes of Internet-Mana to form a majority then it is probable that NZ First will go with National in the interests of “stable government”.

NZ First however have said they will refuse to serve in a government if either the Maori Party or Internet-Mana are given cabinet posts because both these parties are allegedly “racist” parties. But National should have enough votes not to need to offer posts to the Maori Party.

If Internet-Mana votes are not needed to prop up a Labour-led coalition then the best it can hope for from the new government is to have a role in implementing some flagship policies that Internet-Mana are associated with, like providing free meals in schools.

If Internet-Mana votes are needed to provide a majority to the government in parliament then a more substantial deal should be negotiated that points in a more radical direction.

It is absurd for a small radical party to “hold the government to ransom” by demanding implementation of major policies when your party has only received a few percentage points of the vote.

But what can be put on the table are policies that are overwhelmingly supported by the public – especially Labour-Green-NZ First supporters – that we can insist are implemented strongly and not backtracked on. This would include policies like an end to asset sales and renationalisation of sold assets wherever possible. It could also include abandoning of the TPPA negotiations which while not official Labour Party policy is a strongly supported by the Greens, NZ First and Labour Party supporters.

We also need to give priority to policies that empower our own communities as much as possible to stand up and fight for our rights. These could include new labour laws that allow unions to organise the unorganised and fight for better wages and conditions for all workers. This should include the right to have solidarity strikes and being able to take industrial action to enforce an agreement.

Internet-Mana should also look at policies that could be done in an ”experimental” way that could look forward to a radical empowering of local communities. We could have our own version of the Act Party’s deal for charter schools. However, instead of putting schools in the hands of for profit businesses, we can create genuine “community schools” out of a small group of existing state schools in poorer communities that can be a lever for building and empowering genuine people’s power.

My “community school” would be open all day and evenings seven days a week. It would have sports, cultural, and educational programmes open to everyone in the community. Retired people could volunteer as mentors and tutors. Community gardens could be established where school families, staff, students, and local residents could work together. Community theatre productions could be done. Sports clubs could be established or joint projects done with existing underfunded groups. Night classes could be held on any topic that generated enough support.

The school could have social workers, a health centre, and pre-school and after-school programmes. It could have a community advocate whose job it was to help represent residents when dealing with WINZ or other state bureaucrats over accessing ACC, welfare or other entitlements. The school could be run by an elected board of students, teachers, parents and community representatives.

Once schools like this were established I believe it would unleash a powerful dynamic that would be difficult to stop. Every community would be demanding their own.

The Labour Party leadership’s insistence on the presence of NZ First as part of any government that is likely to be established is a signal that the next government won’t be too left wing. NZ First’s social and economic policies are generally fairly old school Keynesian-type policies designed to support New Zealand businesses. The Green Party has also signalled that it wants to use “market forces” wherever possible to achieve its goals. This severely limits the radicalism of the Greens as well. It is simply a fact of economics that the market will not and cannot deliver the results that are needed to meet the economic and social consequences of climate change, repeated economic and financial crises, and the relentless growth in inequality that is plaguing the world.

Because of that reality the next Labour-Green-NZ First government won’t be making too many big changes. That has been true of this National Party government also. Very few policies of the last Labour government have been overturned. Working for Families, Paid Parental Leave, Kiwibank, and Kiwisaver remain in place.

The National Party ran a fairly orthodox Keynesian policy in response to the Great Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquake by running large budget deficits that doubled the government debt to GDP ratio from 17% to 35% GDP. The big tax cuts for the very wealthy also contributed its share to the debt growth. The changes to labour laws have been relatively minor and the minimum wage has been kept at around 50% of the average wage. This is not a radical neo-liberal government like we saw in the 1990s.

That is a good thing and reflects the ideological and political retreat they have been forced to make to be electorally viable. It also reflects the deep social and political resistance by organised labour and Maori in particular. When John Key speculates about the “hikois from hell” the government would face if they tried to implement their policy to abolish the Maori seats, he is stating a fact about the broader class relationship of forces and limitations this imposes on their freedom to act.

However the “change as little as possible” approach will also work in the other direction under the future coalition. That is why Internet-Mana should focus not on getting cabinet posts (which Labour have excluded anyway) but on measures that immediately assist people and which empower people longer term.

The $2 an hour increase in the minimum wage by April 1 next year can effectively be banked. But Labour have also said they will increase the minimum wage to two-thirds of the average wage in the second term “if economic conditions permit.” This was the same language used by the 2005-8 Labour-led government when they promised to take the minimum wage to $12 an hour. They were held to that promise by public campaigns by Unite and other unions. In fact we succeeded in pushing them even further to effectively eliminate the youth rate as well. It will require similar public campaigns to force adherence to the more recent promise as well.

We also need legislative support for rebuilding unions across the private sector where union representation has dropped to just 10%. Unite knows that most workers want to join when given a genuine choice. Forcing employers to make that choice available when they hire staff would be a good start. Who could argue with that proposition. Isn’t the right wing always talking about free choice?

Legal support for secure hours would also help. It is a scandal that big employers like McDonald’s still refuse to guarantee workers any set number of hours in a week – no matter how long they have worked for the company. The minimum hours to be worked should be included in all contracts except the genuinely casual and that minimum should be able to be moved up regularly towards full-time work.

Both of the above steps would hugely increase the power of unions to organise workers to fight for better wages and conditions through collective bargaining.

The world is facing tough times in the years ahead. The combination of the climate crisis, the huge growth in inequality, and the weak recovery from the last world recession which has kept unemployment at crisis levels over much of the globe, means that capitalism offers little in the way of a future for humanity. Alternatives need to be developed. That is happening today in the radical left governments of Latin America and in the programmes of new radical left political movements in Europe like Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece. It is to these alternatives that Internet-Mana should look.

Being on the cross benches for Internet-Mana is not a negative. Our goal should be to become a mass party that challenges the status quo and seeks a system change not just a change in the faces of those in government. That may take time to develop but we can be confident our day will come because the system we want to replace has had its day. It is staggering along from one economic crisis to the next, from one ecological crisis to the next, from one war to the next.

Surgery is required to remove the cancer of capitalism that is at the root of these crises. Sharpening the surgical knife takes time because working people and the oppressed have suffered too many betrayals over the decades where our leaders have promised much in opposition only to deliver the opposite when in power. A genuinely radical, system changing party will be almost the opposite. We will work with anyone to deliver the immediate benefits while also preparing for the bigger battles inside and outside parliament that can deliver the system change solutions we need.

(Unite National Director Mike Treen has a blog hosted on the The Daily Blog website. The site is sponsored by several unions and hosts some of New Zealand’s leading progressive commentators. Mike’s blog will be covering union news and general political comment but the views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of Unite Union.)

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