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The Carter Columns - Payback time? No thanks.

Payback time? No thanks.

On The Left

by Jordan Carter

I said at the end of last week's column that I'd talk about the first 100 days of a Labour led Government. I'm going to put that back a week or two, because this election result has led to a bit of reflection on my part. From the time I became politically conscious, I've wanted a left wing Government - and I've had to wait eight long years for it. Now we have it, and it hasn't really sunk in yet. That's for next week.

Some of my frustrations with National's administration were vented on Usenet, and particularly nz.politics. In one particularly angry post about 11 months ago (which I simply cannot find in the Deja archive) I used the phrase "payback time" which was coming to National supporters.

This was picked up by David McLoughlin, a "North & South" journalist, and in his January 1999 column of the magazine he constructed an argument that Labour simply wants to punish success, using my comment as the title of the column, and quoting me without any attempt to see if there was anything I'd have liked to add to balance the (from memory, slightly hysterical) post.

I raise this now because we have indeed won the election, and it is now payback time. For the edification of McLoughlin, if he reads this, I'd just like to list a few of the sins that we're going to resolve in our payback time.

* People aren't going to be forced into poverty due to extremely high "market" rents in state housing any more. Therefore they won't die of third world diseases due to overcrowding.

* Pensioners, who of all people are most unable to adjust to iniquitous changes in Government policy, will have their income restored to a decent minimum level.

* Schools will get improved funding, along with the removal of the bulk funding scheme which has done so much damage to education in New Zealand over the past few years.

* People won't wait ridiculous lengths on hospital waiting lists any more, and there'll be a focus on keeping people healthy, not treating them when they are sick from totally preventable diseases.

I could go on, and on, and on, and on about all the things Labour plans to do. It's payback time for those who follow the ideology of greed; who think they're alright and no-one else has any legitimate call on their resources.

The problem with the term "payback time" is of course that it's an ugly word. It conjures up images (so I've been told, anyway) of a rampant left wing government meting out punishments to its' opponents, crushing dissent and making people do what it wants them to.

So that's why the important point about this new Government is not anything about "payback time" or anything even remotely close to it. Labour isn't a punitive party out to punish opponents. What we are engaged in is a project to rebuild a country which hasn't had a decent government since 1975.

This "crusade", as the new Prime Minister has labelled it, is informed firstly by a couple of extraordinarily simple ideas. It takes proper note of the importance of communities, and recognises that individuals can prosper best in the context of a strong and supportive community that enables people to reach their potential. It makes a moral stand against the idea that poverty and suffering is OK. It's not. And finally, it recognises that the New Zealand economy is in need of a major overhaul, and has policies to deal with it.

Fundamental too is a reassertion of New Zealand's identity. For a long time now, certainly as long as I have memories of this country, we've been given a constant barrage of "you are a consumer" type ideas. It's about time that our other roles were re-emphasised - we're citizens, family members, members of communities as well as consumers. Our identity which is celebrated so well in our arts and culture has come under not so much an attack, as a lack of interest by the powers that be. Labour's interest in the arts isn't a sideshow - it's a core part of rebuilding a vibrant community, where we tell our own stories and know our own past.

The policies of the new Government are all available on Labour's web site. The core commitments on the pledge card are among the first priorities to be done. They will hold Labour accountable. If the Government hasn't done what it says it will on that card, it doesn't deserve to be elected again. This has been one of the stronger parts of Labour's campaign - the fact that what we're offering is sensible, achievable, and that we're not asking for a blank cheque. There'll be no surprises this time.

Politics, in the end game, is about more than economics, or policy outlines, or ideologies. It has to be about a vision for the future, and that vision has to be capable of carrying people with it. Our country's vision has shifted twice in the last 20 years - once in 1984, when the free market experiment began, and somewhere in the mid 1990's, when people lost faith in the market experiment and looked to something else. Arguably the 1993 election, and certainly the 1996 result, were elections where the peoples' will was denied.

This election marks the electoral realisation of the public's desire for change that has been in the air for at least three years. The new Government will have a mandate to start off on a new road, and if it plays it's cards carefully, will define New Zealand's politics for the next twenty years and more. The challenge is to build an inclusive society, where power is "in the hands of the many not the few," and where opportunity is open for everyone.

That depends on economic success, and on shifting the terms of the political debate from the sterile commercialism of the past few years to a richer conception of democracy, debate, openness and tolerance. We need again to talk about communities as well as people; about opportunity as well as responsibility, and about rights as well as obligations.

If the new government can achieve this, then they're on the way to something very important.

Next week: my election day story.

Jordan Carter Auckland, New Zealand.

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