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On The Government’s Politics Of Nostalgia

There’s a thin line between “conservative” and “reactionary.” The former strive to retain the best of current practice, while the latter want to pull everything down and revel in memories that have been marinated in nostalgia. Clearly, we’re being ruled by reactionaries. They seem motivated more by what they want to cancel and destroy than by what they have the desire (or the competence) to build.

The abolition of Fair Pay Agreements has been a case in point. As an act of destruction, it ranks with the scrapping of the smokefree legislation. In April 2022, when the Fair Pay Agreement Bill was introduced into the House, the then Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood began by providing a reminder as to who stood to gain the most from it: Cleaners, bus drivers, early childhood education workers and aged care workers, among others.

Via FPAs, these lowly paid members of the workforce would be able to bargain more effectively for better wages and conditions as fair reward for the essential work they do. For decades, that work has been systematically under-valued.

As Wood said, for 30 years our employment relations system has embedded low pay and poor work conditions, and encouraged a race to the bottom in many sectors. That happened not necessarily because individual employers set out to exploit their staff, but because the system incentivised employers and managers to force down labour costs, and keep them that way. Nothing personal, just business, right?

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Besides the moral arguments, there were also compelling economic reasons why the scaremongering about FPAs never had much substance. In 1991, when the Employment Contracts Act was being passed, assurances were given that a highly de-regulated labour market and an individualised bargaining model would boost labour productivity. Well, it didn’t. Instead, workplace “flexibility” has served ever since to suppress wages, and erode working conditions and living standards:

Our 30 year experiment with a low labour cost model has not worked. Many workers have suffered but equally, our... rate of labour

productivity has been among the worst in the world under that regime, lower than the OECD average, and lower than other countries that have a sector-based co-ordination for worker terms and conditions.

Other developed countries have prospered– relative to New Zealand - under the same sector-based bargaining that was central to Fair Pay Agreements. Wood, again:

Sector based bargaining is not an extreme approach to these issues. It is common around the world, including in our nearest neighbour. Australia has had a sector-based bargaining system in place for over 40 years, contributing to higher wages and an economy where average labour productivity growth has been 46% higher than New Zealand since 1991, when we abolished sector-based bargaining. The arguments that sector based bargaining and FPAs stand contrary to productivity growth, are false.

The FPA model had been devised by a tripartite working group chaired by former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger. FPAs would have encouraged good faith bargaining at the sectoral or occupational level. By negotiation and mutual agreement, each FPA would have established a sustainable floor of pay and conditions, and would have dis-incentivised the race to the bottom.

Regardless, FPAs have been scrapped, under urgency. As leaked Cabinet documents have shown, Treasury had warned Cabinet that if FPAs were to be scrapped, the main losers would be young people, Māori, Pasifika, women, and workers on low incomes. None of these groups tend to vote for National and ACT. Old and wealthy white men do – disproportionately – and it is their voices that have prevailed.

Past Presence

Cycleways and walking tracks seem to be the latest victims of the new government’s efforts to turn back the clock. We’ve been told about the First 100 Days action plan and tax cuts are coming in mid-2024 whether the country can afford them or not. But what then? Well, Werewolf has obtained access to a leaked document entitled In The Year 2025 that sets out the next phase of the coalition government’s plan to erase the last 30 years of New Zealand history.

Among the main points: the Public Health Coalition is to be disbanded, and replaced by the Radio Doctor, who will give brief talks on everything from colic to chilblains at 10am sharp on RNZ every Saturday morning. To restore media credibility, news bulletins will be voiced in future by holograms of Philip Sherry and Dougal Stevenson. Every Sunday night, state television will be required to broadcast a quality British drama. Each year, film festivals will be allowed to screen only one R18 movie, preferably from Sweden.

In the public service, women will be allowed to work only as receptionists or in typing pools, which will be re-instituted. Skateboarding will be banned, as will the riding of bicycles by anyone aged 18 or over. Graphic novels will be removed from libraries. If allowed to exist at all, libraries will be expected to enforce silence at all times during operating hours. Female librarians will be encouraged to wear spectacles, and put their hair in buns. Farmers will once again receive state-guaranteed minimum prices for their produce.

To encourage jocularity among Māori, the Matariki holiday will be replaced by a national celebration to mark the birthday of Billy T. James. To ensure the viability of pharmaceutical companies, Pharmac will be forbidden to buy generic medicines. Instead, every household will receive annually free of charge, two family-sized bottles of Lane’s Emulsion, Clements Tonic or Cod-Liver Oil.

Every provincial city will have at least one state-sponsored steakhouse serving steak and chips, preceded by a plate of white bread and cubes of butter from which the younger fry will be encouraged to construct chip butties. Men of the household will be enlisted to deter their wives from using recipes written by, or inspired by, Yotam Ottolenghi. Every Sunday, family roasts will be carved by the man of the house. At social gatherings, ladies will be encouraged to bring a plate. Finally... and in a bound-to-be popular move, guitars will be banned from the nation’s places of worship.

It is a bold and ambitious plan. But the public can be assured that Finance Minister Nicola Willis will be going through it line by line, to ensure it gets delivered on time, and to budget. If it isn’t, someone else will be sure to cop the blame.

Past presence, part two

There’s a difference between learning from your mistakes and fetishising them, as the coalition government is intent on doing. Mainly because it seems to be the only thing they know how to do. This hit track from 1970 by Tyrone Davis was about yearning to be able to go back and not repeat the same stupid bad stuff that wrecked everything:

Davis was an interesting soul man. He didn’t do macho, and he wasn’t as overtly sensual as the other lover men of the time (Barry White) or like those who came after him (D’Angelo,Miguel.) In a string of 1970s hits on Atlantic and CBS, his gentle soul/disco tracks were about him being steadfast, reliable and attentive, and trying to be a better guy for her sake.

He was like soul music’s version of the Ryan Gosling meme.

This persona explains why he won a sizeable audience of female fans who stuck with him right into the 1990s when, like many other veteran soul musicians (eg Johnny Taylor) he ended up on the southern-based Malaco label, doing the same timeless stuff. From the CBS soul/disco era, here’s Tyrone Davis in 1975 doing “This I Swear”

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