Future Lefts - Practical Schmactical
Tuesday 1st August, 2000
`Practical men... are... slaves of some defunct economist’ - John Maynard Keynes
Editorial: It’s not just what - how counts too
Employment Relations Bill reported back
Web site of the week
Editorial: It’s not just what - how counts too
One of the annoying, if you like, things about being a socialist is that you actually care about things. The right has it pretty easy really. They’re comfortable with the fact they stand for established power, the privleges of those few at the top of society, and have no trouble with it because they believe it is the way things are meant to be.
Then, on the other extreme, there are lefties who think that the way to bring about utopia is to have a violent and bloody revolution, and kill most of the people who the right are out to defend. This is never really talked about in such stark terms, but take a Stalinist and scratch them hard enough, and that is what emerges.
Floating somewhere in the middle of the pack (which is quite ironic, given the tagline of last week’s edition) are normal lefties like us, who are what would be described as reformist socialists. The Labour Party in particular is a fusion of a few people further left, a dominant strand of reformist and ethical socialists, a strong liberal element on the right and some fusion through the whole to parts of the Blairist modernising agenda.
What irritates me is those people who think that you can sort of get a decent tax flow, and create “social justice” (which is of course a core goal of socialism) by doing something to people - giving them free health care or education, for example. Or by redistributing cash incomes through progressive taxation on incomes; again, the notion of “creating” social justice is one that sits easily with some people. Not with me though.
I’ve argued before both here and overseas that the confluence of radical democratic thought that mingles with socialism to produce (bet you won’t guess this one!) democratic socialism, means that we can’t just look at outcomes. Social justice isn’t something that one creates with tax dollars. To lapse into language better fitted to an essay, things like free healthcare and education may be necessary conditions for social justice to arise, but they are far from sufficient.
It’s this distinction that the right find so hard to come to grips with, because what the above implies in practice is two things they hate. First off, it means involving people in decisions that affect them - a participatory model that those who are interested in protecting entrenched power have no interest in. It also, and more unpleasantly for the right, means that there is an active role for the community in the form of central and local government to play in people’s economic, social and political lives.
To my mind, the clearest evidence of this so far is in the emerging Employment Relations Bill (more on that below). If the fifth Labour Government (well, really, first Labour Alliance Coalition Government) leaves one legacy, when it finally leaves office at the end of this decade, it should be a real change in people’s views on these points. People aren’t passive objects or atomistic masters of their own fates. We’re social beings, and those of us on the left are committed to expanding people’s rights in all dimensions.
Anyhow, till next week,
Employment Relations Bill reported back
To rapturous applause from the Government and allies today, the Employment and Accident Legislation Select Committee reported back to the House on the Employment Relations Bill. The majority report has recommended some minor changes to the Bill, but has kept it basically intact.
In all the media coverage that is going to arise over the next couple of weeks, as it is pushed through Parliament, and then in the weeks before implementation and the changeover, it’s helpful to keep the macro issues in perspective. We have in New Zealand the unfortunate circumstance of a mass media system that is so biased against unions in particular and the left in general, that taking a critical perspective of their coverage in the next months on this issue is important if you don’t want to either repeat stupid slogans, or get angry and confused by your opponents appearing to speak “common sense.”
Employment levels is the first point. Its supporters claim that the ECA generated 300,000 jobs, and lowered our unemployment rate. This is utter trash, of course. A cyclical recovery in 91/92 (arguably the start of recovery after the screwups of the Fourth Labour Govt, but with an extra-long recession care of Ruth Richardson’s idiocy) dragged unemployment down to a low of just under six percent.
This is NOT good enough. Before the “reforms” of 1984 started unemployment never passed 3.7%. Now, it’s not my place to imply that we’re going to go back to that. What I am arguing here is that the ECA did not cause the fall in unemployment; economic recovery did. And that today’s unemployment rate, at over 140,000 people, is a sad waste of human talent and people’s lives.
Other flaws of the ECA can be approached more easily. The labour productivity growth rate plunged and has never recovered. The ERB will help resolve this by involving unions again, instead of isolating and stressing workers out. The endless drive to cut costs and skimp on training, that the ECA allowed, will be left in the past. Employers will have instead to compete on increasing their workers' productivity - a harder but better way to go, for both sides of the equation.
Hilariously, the thing that seems to piss off employers the most is that in future, under good faith bargaining provisions (which they will have a direct role in creating, I might add), they will actually have both to listen to what their workers suggest, and respond to it. In other words, they will have to take their workers seriously when it comes to writing employment agreements, instead of ignoring them and imposing contracts from above. I can see why they’d dislike the thought of not being slave drivers as they may like (and why the two Tory parties hate the idea so much, since it might let people actually think they deserve to be treated like human beings rather than morons who need to be controlled), but I don’t quite get why the media buys in.
In the briefest of ways, the above challenges the dominant ideological position that the media takes up. Unions aren’t all bad. The ERB is not bad for business. What it does, in its own moderate way, is make a start to improving the conditions that ordinary working people have to deal with every day. It will reduce the legalism in the current contracts system of employment. It provides for fast and free mediation. It has a consensus on the left and in the moderate centre in Parliament that the ECA was too extreme (and it was), and its institutions and modus operandi are an improvement on the current state of affairs.
As a Labour politician, I will defend the ERB anywhere, any place, any time. And for those of you reading this who are Labour supporters or friendly allies, the same should apply. Point out the sheer idiocy of the Nats in promising to repeal the law even before it’s gone into action. Point out how much self-interest motivates the pointy-heads in ACT and National to such paroxysms of rage against this innocuous and middle-of-the-road labour law.
In short - piss them off. Because we’re right, they aren’t, and we won.
Bad pun alert! The government this week announced the terms of reference in to the review of our taxation system. The opposition’s response has certainly been ‘taxing’, with the best criticism thrown up by National’s Revenue Spokesperson Annabel Young, seemingly being that the government is not spending enough money on the inquiry. Finance Minister Michael Cullen has described the review as “architectural”, meaning that the inquiry will look at the entire tax structure, and how it meets New Zealander’s needs. The inquiry will focus upon the following questions:
Can the tax system be fairer in its role of redistributing income? This includes: whether the income tax base should be broadened; the extent to which marginal tax rates should increase with income, wealth and expenditure; the best mix between different tax bases, such as income, consumption, financial transactions and assets. How the tax system can be designed to encourage desirable conduct such as work and saving and to discourage such undesirable behaviour as the wasteful use of non-renewable resources. How can the level of tax that is reasonably required by the Government for the provision of essential social services be achieved reliably in the medium and long term? Do the tax system and tax rates need to be modified in light of new technology and international competition?
The ERB has returned from select committee, largely intact aside from a few minor clarifications. The Bill’s passing into law will not come a moment too soon, particularly in the light of the Department of Labour’s discovery of around sixty sweatshops operating in South Auckland. That’s the ‘flexible’ labour market for you. Being flexible in his interpretation of how to not behave like a buffoon this week, was Richard Prebble. The increasingly desperate ACT leader strayed well outside the ordinary bounds of parliamentary behaviour by releasing details of the select committee-reviewed ERB before it was released by the committee itself. Far be it for us to label such behaviour childish and pointless, but yes, it was childish and pointless.
Another silly little man who is currently feeling a bit sorry for himself is failed Fijian businessman George Speight. After strutting about behind an arsenal of guns, holding his own country to ransom for a couple of months, Speight has himself now been taken into custody at gunpoint. After violating an army curfew, he was arrested and has been placed into custody for an indefinite time while it is decided just which charges will be laid against him. There will be no shortage of choices, with one of treason being a distinct possibility.
Charges also ought to be levelled at former minister of Social Welfare and Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, after it was revealed by the Wellington downtown Community Ministry that the Department of Work and Income has underpaid New Zealand beneficiaries by over one billion dollars since the savage cuts that she instituted in 1991. This shocking figure is based on the Departments own figures, and demonstrates just how badly a decade of tory rule screwed up the delivery of social services in this country.
And in high-techy news, the on-line music distributor, Napster, had a stay of execution this week. Large recording companies are taking Napster to court in an attempt to close off the supply of free music that Napster supplies to on-line users. It doesn’t look good for Napster, but for the mean-time anyway, the judge has quashed an injunction that would force Napster to cease operations while the case is being heard.
Website of the Week
This has been updated recently, and apparently they’re meeting in Wellington this weekend, so it’s kind of topical too. --
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