The paper on which the Socialist Aotearoa forum at Victoria University, "Where is John Key taking New Zealand?" was based.
John Key told us he was ambitious for New Zealand. He promised the country on the campaign trail in 2008 a lot. National, he said, would deliver tax cuts, higher wages, better economic performance, faster broadband and more roads, frugal public spending but good quality public services, cuts to the bureaucracy and education reform. He also said he’d get tough on crime in the wake of high profile killings of children and a growing feeling that youth gang violence was out of control.
Key asked the questions that Labour could never answer. “Why, after eight years of Labour, are we paying the second-highest interest rates in the developed world? Why, under Labour, is the gap between our wages, and wages in Australia and other parts of the world, getting bigger and bigger? Why, under Labour, do we only get a tax cut in election year, when we really needed it years ago? Why are grocery and petrol prices going through the roof? Why can't our hardworking kids afford to buy their own house? Why is one in five Kiwi kids leaving school with grossly inadequate literacy and numeracy skills? Why, when Labour claim they aspire to be carbon-neutral, do our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate? Why hasn't the health system improved when billions of extra dollars have been poured into it? Why is violent crime against innocent New Zealanders continuing to soar and why is Labour unable to do anything about it?”
The Labour party that took power in 1999 was never able to keep up with the public mood on these issues and as discontent grew support for the National Party rose in the middle class. And too many of Labour’s workers stayed home on polling day 2008 or they voted for a smile, a tax cut and the right to secretly donate millions of dollars to political parties.
On election night Key beamed, “Today across the country, New Zealanders have voted for a safer, more prosperous and more ambitious New Zealand. They voted for hope, they voted for action, and they voted for results. They voted for a better life for all New Zealanders.”
Safer, more prosperous, more ambitious. We lapped it up and a year and a half later what do we see?
Well let’s take crime first. On the last day of April in the west Auckland suburb of Blockhouse Bay where brick and tile units, state housing and garish McMansions jostle for position two men walked into a bank. They walked into a bank with a gun and as happens from time to time in suburban Auckland banks, one of them pulled that gun out and told the tellers, “It's all right ladies, just move back", as he took $12,000 off them. The paper reported that one of the tellers was a male but when your head is covered with a hoodie it can be hard to tell. As he raided the tills this man, 31 year old Fijian-born Epinisa Rokobatini shouted, "This is all John Key's fault". Before driving off in a Subaru Forester (marketed as a "getaway car").
Two weeks earlier while sipping coffee on Ponsonby Road maybe one of these bankrobbers read Herald columnist Tapu Misa, “Crime went up last year, the biggest real increase in years. Murders were up by 25 per cent, the 65 recorded homicides being the highest in a decade. And violent crime was up by 8 per cent per capita.” Misa went on to charge National of ignoring the real drivers of crime. Unemployment sitting around a ten year high with 59,715 New Zealanders on the dole. People are hungrier as well, South Auckland Sallies staff now distribute 775 food parcels a month, compared to 464 at the start of the recession. And the alienation of consumer capitalism and the stress of the economic crisis is taking its toll on people too. Alienation is as Marx said when you feel annihilated, when you feel your own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. It’s that feeling you get when you turn on the TV and see five straight channels of reality TV, it’s when you get another parking ticket or electricity bill, it’s when you find yourself eating dogfood because your landlord ripped you off, and it’s that feeling that the only way to stop your mate from hitting on your missus is too bite him on the neck and drink his blood on an Autumn night in an innercity park. 20% of us will experience a mental disorder in any given year and as long as we remain a seriously unhappy, seriously unwell society our streets won’t be safe and our prisons will be full. It’s no surprise that more than half of those in prison have a mental illness, personality disorder, or have drug and alcohol addictions.
Epinisa was trying to tell us something when he told the customers and staff at the Blockhouse Bay bank that, “This is all John Key's fault”. He was trying to warn us that Key is allowing New Zealand to become more dangerous and more criminal. It’s a New Zealand where people are hungrier, they’re increasingly out of work and they are sader, mader and bader because of it. They may have voted for hope, they may have voted for action, but they certainly didn’t vote for the highest recorded homicide rate in a decade.Prosperity
Well what about prosperity? In 2007 John Key told the Kerikeri Business Association “We would love to see wages drop”. But in the election he told us about how we could catch up with Australian wages if only we vote for him and his right-wing buddies to institute their brighter future. He even went on to set up the 2025 Taskforce and got Dr Brash out of the mortuary to explain how we could catch up with the average Australian income; around 35 percent higher than New Zealand’s average income. Amongst his 48 recommendations the Taskforces Dr Evil even had the gall to lecture us that, "The case for any minimum wage at all is questionable."
But let’s not judge Key by his pre-election rhetoric but instead by his track record. Labour party bloggers at The Standard have done some good work on this. Before the ‘08 election they predicted how a Government would attempt to decrease real wages. They predicted it would, cut benefits or don’t adjust them for inflation; hold the minimum wage steady, hold down public sector wages by cutting funding, weaken labour law and collective bargaining rights, and allow unemployment to rise to keep workers scrambling for jobs with their heads down.
It was a pretty good guess and here we now stand with welfare reform (“the dream is over”), a minimum wage increase under the inflation level, a pay freeze in the public sector forcing everyone from fire-fighters to radiographers to IHC carers on to picket lines, a law that allows small businesses to sack staff in their first 3 months of work, and of course rising unemployment. Which all equals wages increasing at the slowest pace for almost a decade. Salary and wage rates grew just 1.5 per cent in the year to the March 2010 quarter.
As The Standard has noted, “Despite all the business collapses and the 21,000 lost jobs, half of all CEOs got a pay rise last year and the typical pay rise was a massive 5% (only 10% of workers got a 5%+ way rise)” While at the same time “75% of non-union workers received a pay cut last year (that’s a nominal decrease, no increase, or an increase less than 2%). 74% of union members got a real pay increase, a pay rise above 2%”.
So yes John Key did make some people more prosperous but it wasn’t you or me. It was the bosses. Factory worker Chandra Kumar voted for National. Chandra lives on McGehan Close, the Mt. Albert street that became the face of John Key’s Kiwi battlers, and the place where he drew a line in the sand and said he’d make things better for the underclass of this country. Well, a year after voting Tory, people like Chandra are waking up. Chandra told the Sunday Star-Times, "I thought [Key] might bring in good change, but all those promises were lies." Kumar said while he had received about $10 a week in tax cuts, rent and other costs had increased by more than that. "They put something in one pocket and take out of the other."
Now it is a lot easier to measure wages or crime rates than it is to measure ambition. I mean when John Key promised us a more ambitious country what was he even thinking? What were voters thinking?
Could they have imagined that in this ambitious New Zealand Napier woman Natalie Meehan being told by WINZ staff to delete the reference to her political science degree and apply for jobs at Pak'n Save supermarket and fast-food outlet KFC?
Could they have imagined that in this ambitious New Zealand sexual abuse victims would only receive ACC funded counselling if they have a diagnosed mental condition caused by sexual abuse? Where an Auckland mother of three would commit suicide just days after her request for counselling for sexual abuse she had suffered as a child was rejected by ACC on the grounds that she had not suffered "a significant mental injury".
Or were they thinking about a different kind of ambition? Like Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee and Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson signing a document in February that would have allowed mining on 467,517 hectares of conservation land including 90% of Rakiura National Park on Stewart Island.
Maybe they were thinking about Key’s ambition to give an extra $35m in the 2009 budget to make private schools more affordable for already wealthy parents, while also making redundant the four teachers who taught sign language to more than 260 deaf children.
Or ambition like 2,500 queuing on a hot summers day in south Auckland for 150 jobs at a new supermarket? Or ambition like a man walking into a bank with a gun and walking out $12,000 richer?
It all depends on what your definition of ambition is. If your definition of personal advancement is becoming a “Mum and Dad” investor in the Government’s first public-private partnership: building a new 1,000 bed prison in South Auckland by 2014, then the answer is yes we are becoming more ambitious. But at what cost? Is this the brighter future that John Key promised us? White middle class investors enriching themselves from the construction of human Tupperware containers for the Brown surplus population of south Auckland? Can anyone say, “modern day slavery”?
So what’s the way out? What is the alternative? Where’s the alt control delete for Key, Joyce, English and Brownlee’s new New Zealand? John Key’s bright new future is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s a place where crime rises as quickly as they can build new jails. It’s a place where ambition leads not to a $4 million mansion in Parnell but to an agg-rob in Blockhouse Bay. Joan Nathan is the mother of Aroha, the young girl that John Key took to Waitangi to prove his ambition for the underclass. Nathan was swept up in Keymania in 2008. But after she lost her job in Tory MP Jackie Blue’s electorate office she told the papers, “It doesn't matter which way you turn, you're never gonna win with government. I could have voted for Labour and we'd be going through the same old bullshit.”
It doesn’t have to be this same old bullshit though. We can turn this country and the world around. We have to recognise the problem and the problem is capitalism. The more unregulated it is the greater its risk to us and the planet. Just take a look around the world as the Greek economy enters a “death spiral” and threatens to cause a domino effect that will send other precariously placed Eurozone economies into crisis. But as socialist geographer David Harvey reminds us, “Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed.”
These capitalist class won’t give up without a fight, they are content with their unjust system where 10% of New Zealanders own 50% of the wealth. Where three billionaires own more than the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa while 1 child dies every 5 seconds as a result of hunger - 700 every hour - 16 000 each day - 6 million each year. Where failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions means that scientists now think that half the planet could "simply become too hot" for human habitation in less than 300 years.
So what do we do?
We organise fighting unions to defend and extend the gains of working people and to extend workers control over industry.
We intervene in struggles against environmental destruction, neo-liberal reform and imperialism because we must stop the ruling class attacks where we can and seek to alleviate the suffering of humanity and the pillaging of the planet when we can.
We set about building a class conscious, anti-capitalist political force that can carry through a social revolution, a long road but a necessary one. We must be patient, we must be determined and we must be audacious.
We do not live in a revolutionary time here in New Zealand, but if we can create a conscious popular desire for a decentralised socialist economy and a truly democratic and participatory system of Government, we can move away from a time of rightwing reaction.
And lastly we’ve got to wake up to the new reality of the 21st century. The Wire director David Simon said, “In this Postmodern world of ours, human beings—all of us—are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism.”
It’s the triumph of John Key.