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Gordon Campbell on tomorrow’s speeches by Key and Little

Gordon Campbell on tomorrow’s speeches by John Key and Andrew Little

The Key government has already kicked off the political year on a stridently ideological note, with Environment Minister Nick Smith choosing to lay all manner of sins at the door of the Resource Management Act. Tomorrow, the government will wheeling out its best salesman – Prime Minister John Key – to sell its plans for state housing, which happens to be another of the government’s most contentious, most ideologically-driven policy packages. Presumably, Key will be trying not to double down on the rhetoric, and thereby leave room for Labour leader Andrew Little to sound like the centrist voice of reason.

Key will have his work cut out, though. The social housing plans unveiled late last year – after the election – have been universally reviled ; and not only by commentators on both the left and right, but by the community groups that the government is relying on to deliver the policy. Essentially, the plan is to offer such compelling incentives to community groups, developers and private sector financiers that they will go out and build the new and affordable housing stock that the government – with readier access to cheaper finance – cannot, or for ideological reasons, will not. Faint hope.

In the meantime, and while waiting around for pigs to fly, the government has also made it clear that it prefers to alleviate poverty by subsidising rents, rather than by building more public housing. National tried this same subsidy tactic in the 1990s and it failed miserably. The policy served mainly as a subsidy for landlords, most of whom simply pocketed it and jacked up rents – and there is no reason to think the same thing won’t happen all over again. Late last year, Russel Brown provided an excellent historical overview of National’s social housing plans and it remains essential reading before Key’s speech tomorrow, with house prices in Auckland set to roar away again towards 10% levels.

Key will need to pull some magic rabbits out of the hat tomorrow to make his social housing policy look like anything remotely fit for the scale of the task it claims to address. So far, it has seemed little more than (a) a sop to party ideologues who abhor government being the agent for addressing social need, and (b) a gilt-edged gift to landlords. Incidentally, Paula Bennett - whose many interests now include social housing – has a lot riding on Key being able to clear the political ground for her.

As for Little… the main interest will be in seeing how high he may be prepared to jump to win “credibility” for Labour with the business gathering in Auckland to whom he has chosen to deliver his speech. Within the Labour caucus, the myth has been promulgated that Labour lost last year because it was “ too left” (!) for the electorate. Incredible, but that does seem to be the caucus diagnosis, a gloss that conveniently covers up a multitude of their own failings.

In fact – if one can judge by the poll findings of Stephen Mills that got a lot of play in November – the electorate is waiting for Labour to go further left, and not towards the centre.

On that polling data, more people – including a fair chunk of those nominally in the “centre” – are actually on the left. We’ve known this for a long time, since the 1980s in fact. The electorate is well to the left of an asset sales/ privatization/low tax policy agenda, and there is no room Little in trying to outdo the current positions of the National/Act axis on economic and social policy – in some foolhardy pursuit of ‘credibility’ as defined by the mainstream media. The fertile ground for Labour and its allies lies out to the left of a consensus in which few believe, but which they have been induced to accept as the only credible norm. That credibility is shaky. There is mileage for Labour in exposing the unfair, opportunity-strangling outcomes of the current policy settings – not simply between rich and poor, but across generations.

Some in Labour know this already. Problem is, not many of them are in caucus. In 2015, it is entirely self-defeating for Labour to try and outdo National as the “party of business.” That’s because there’s no way a modern Labour party can convince the business elite that it is a more faithful and assiduous servant of its needs than a National/Act government.

Labour party mandarin Bryan Gould spelled that out only a couple of months ago:

“As soon as you say: we’ll also apply the policies of austerity, or if you say whatever happens, the government will be in surplus… Well, as soon as you say that, you immediately validate the whole analysis of your opponents. And you also suggest to the voters that you are almost certainly not as good, or as committed, practitioners as your opponents will be. So you’re not gaining anywhere. And you look shifty and easily pushed around. Its just a disastrous thing to be doing.”

Will Little take heed of such advice? Here’s a very, very good rationale – based on the Syriza success in Greece - for why he should stand up to the money men.

Stones in Ireland, September 1965.

Long before the Rolling Stones became the embarrassment they’ve been for the past three decades, they did a tour of Ireland filmed for a documentary called Charlie Is My Darling. The film became locked in litigation hell for 40 years, and some of it was stolen. In 2012, a restored version finally re-surfaced, and it looks great. Here’s a clip from it of the fiery young band doing “ Satisfaction” – and this being Ireland, there’s even a hip young priest in the audience. Wonder where he is now….

Also, here’s a rare interview clip from the same film, of Brian Jones talking - and what an unusual, ethereal person he seems to have been.

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