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A Sorry Excuse for Politics

A Sorry Excuse for Politics

The government's mania for apologising indicates the sorry state of mainstream politics, argues Philip Ferguson.

“Sorry” may have been the “hardest word” in the old Elton John song, but it certainly rolls comfortably off the tongue of Helen Clark. In the space of a few months she has said sorry to NZers of Chinese descent for the poll tax and other discriminatory measures bound up with the old White NZ policy*, Samoans for two particularly brutal actions of NZ administrators 70-80 years ago, and gays and lesbians for past discrimination.

One of the more bizarre elements of the sorry mania afflicting Clark is that no-one has asked for any of these apologies. Indeed, the Samoans seemed rather baffled by her apology to them at the end of May. Samoan prime minister actually pointed out that people there had long since forgiven and moved on.

We also know that words are cheap and actions speak louder. It’s easy to apologise to the Samoans for colonial crimes committed the best part of a century ago, before Labour got into power and before the National Party existed, but what about the ongoing impoverishment and underdevelopment of Samoa? What about the infamous dawn raids of the 1970s, begun by Labour and carried to extremes by Muldoon’s National government which had people lifted off the streets as “overstayers’ because of the colour of their skin? What abut the continuing harassment of Samoans and other pacific islanders by the immigration authorities?

In relation to Clark’s apology to NZers of Chinese descent, what about the role played by Labour in the creation of the White NZ policy in the early twentieth century and its commitment today to closed borders and the detention of Asian migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers?

When it comes to gay men and women, Labour has been wooing this section of society for twenty years. The party boasts several openly gay MPs and a transsexual MP. And, as dissident Labour left-wing activist Nick Kelly has noted, people standing for positions in the party quite frequently use their gay credentials to guarantee their advancement. While much of the gay community is a middle class set with a kiss-ass attitude to the ruling class, some basic human rights for gays and lesbians are still being denied. Clark’s apology for past discrimination notwithstanding, she isn’t exactly rushing to allow gay marriage and adoption or implement other reforms which provide equality before the law – let alone in practice – for people regardless of sexual orientation.

Clark has even said sorry, sort of, for the ‘new right’ economic policies of the last Labour government. This is about as genuine as the charity artwork bearing her signature, as she was a cabinet minister in that government and eagerly pushed through reforms in the health sector. As David Lange has noted, Clark “was so dry she was almost combustible” in those years. More importantly, the ‘Third Way’ policies pursued by Clark as prime minister today are built upon the reforms of the 1980s, reforms which represented the biggest attack on workers’ right sand living conditions since the Depression of the 1930s. Her government hasn’t even done something as reverse the huge cuts in welfare benefits made in 1991, as National continued the reforms of the previous Labour government.

Much of the general population is more bemused than anything by the stream of apologies out of Clark’s mouth. While the deluge of sorries may make Clark appear almost saintly to the liberal middle class who exercise political power out of all proportion to their actual numbers in this country, most workers remain detached. Indeed the rise of the sorry industry is predicated on the defeat of the working class as a political force in society and the utter dominance of the liberal middle class which is preoccupied with the most superficial aspects of the existing order. You can say sorry to any minority which has been discriminated against in the past and incorporate a few of them in helping run the system today. All of this strengthens the fundamental aspect of the status quo –the one unequal relation that is indispensable to capitalism - the exploitation of wage-labour by capital.

With the postwar economic boom and rising living standards long gone, capitalism is well and truly exhausted. There are no big new ideas for reforms, even right-wing ideas are largely worn out as the market reforms failed to inject any real dynamism into the NZ economy. The exhaustion at the economic level is reflected in the exhaustion of the political system which rests on it and manages it. In a form of society which no longer has anything materially substantial on offer for the vast majority, it appears that mainstream politics can be nothing other than a sorry affair.

From issue #18 of 'revolution' magazine, June-August 2002. Available in selected book and magazine shops around NZ, or direct from Radical Media Collective, P.O. Box 513, Christchurch, New Zealand. Also check www.revolution.org.nz

For an article on Labour's role in the White New Zealand policy, see Philip Ferguson, "Labour's racist roots", in 'revolution' #17, March-May 2002.

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