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On The Left – ACTivists Denied

On The Left – ACTivists denied Tuesday 21 November, 2000

Generally you know when you read Mike Heine’s writing that you’re in for a laugh. Besides actually being quite a good writer at times, his comic sense is often enhanced by the fact he doesn’t even realise that he’s being funny most of the time. Of course, there is also some ideological content and that is more sad than laughable most of the time, but he does try.

I can say, though, that his column today (On The Right - confessions of a misspent youth) was far more thought provoking. Our friend Mike, it appears, was part of Young Labour back in the dark ages of the mid-90’s.

I don’t really find this interesting in itself - Mike simply runs the standard ACT lines on housing and other issues in his column. On the other hand, it did remind me that the entire ACT party itself is born out of the labour movement’s political wing. All significant ACTivists and even some of the younger party supporters were once Labour, and it’s interesting to look back at how they got where they are today.

During the Fourth Labour Government the split between a more traditional social democratic left and an ideological, neoliberal right led to the 1990 defeat and the three way split of the Labour Party into Labour, the NewLabour Party (Alliance) and the kernel of ACT. The key split was the ACT faction’s departure - the Labour Party has very largely come back to common ground with the Alliance on most issues.

If you talk to people in ACT, some of them genuinely believe that their party exists to improve life for the worst-off people in our society. Mike appears to be one of these people. I’ve met several others: people who genuinely believe that ACT’s agenda will help those at the bottom of society. He talks about needing to ensure that opportunity is available to all, and that people aren’t trapped on benefits - statements that I would entirely agree with.

Of course, I have also met the “people” who give ACT its public face - a nasty, far right group of rabble rousers who are out to protect their own pockets and do not give a damn about anyone or anything other than themselves. It is fortunate that the latter perception prevails in the public’s mind about ACT otherwise they might actually be politically relevant.

The sad part about people like Mike is that they’re misled by ACT. We’ve come to the end point of a fifteen year reform programme which was informed, motivated, justified by and constructed on the bedrock of the ideology and policies that ACT stands for: the shrinking of the state, personal “independence” vs state “dependence,” the liberalised economy and so on.

What most people have realised by now is that the experiment did not work. Yes, the economy had to open up to the trading world; yes, the rigidities of 30 years of bungled regulation had to go. Those and other problems, however, could have been addressed in a context that actually related to New Zealand’s political and historical context. We didn’t need to buy someone else’s model and strap it on to our country. It should have been obvious it wouldn’t work, and it’s spurious for people like Mike to ever think that it can. The boring, obsolete mantra that “tax cuts will fix everything” is really in desperate need of a replacement.

The challenge the new Government is facing up to is simply this: dealing with the economic problems that are the legacy of the failed reform period, while maintaining the good things that did come out of it (and yes, there are a few) - while at the same time moving in a left wing direction in the social policy area. That is what New Zealanders voted for in 1993, and 1996 and 1999. Any party which stands against the idea will necessarily fail to gain power, because it is out of step with what ordinary New Zealanders want.

Employment is the key to driving equality, just as it has always been. The news last week that unemployment is at its lowest level in 12 years is a good start, but it’s only that. Major work needs to be done through the Government’s tax review and other policy streams to attack the insanely high effective marginal tax rates that low income people face. One of the worst legacies of the neoliberal revolution is the way that it created the high effective taxes, and then promptly proceeded to blame people for being stuck on benefits, despite the fact the policies ensured that would be the outcome. Would you work if you faced an 85% marginal tax rate? Is it fair that low income people face such effective rates while high income earners face a modest 39% rate?

Though it is two years out from the next election, the choice people face is already becoming startlingly clear. Either they pick a party that knows what our economic problems are, and is dealing with them as well as restoring a sense and reality of social justice in our country, or they vote for an out- dated rabble on the right whose big idea (tax cuts) is out of step with what New Zealanders want.

In the meantime, people like Mike who believe in the future of this place and our peoples should come back to Labour. If they don’t, they simply exhibit an inability to understand what’s going on.

Jordan Carter carters@ihug.co.nz


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