First up, I need to make make it clear as someone who’s spent the majority of my adult life in the movement and who still does a bit of contract work for unions, including the current push to get the Holidays Act payroll problem fixed: I’m perhaps not the most impartial commentator on union issues.
That aside, I’d want to see this business with the Holidays Act sorted even if I’d never heard the word “union”. The idea that one million dollars of debt owed to Kiwis could be written off every single day, or that $2.3bn (!) could be owed to hundreds of thousands of us is a Big Deal.
Watching One News last night I was a bit surprised to hear John Key refuse to stop the clock on this debt-bleed by claiming legislation takes too long. It’s not something I noticed last year when the validation of speeding tickets was passed from whoa to go in one sitting. Or when they passed the Hobbit law in just two days back in 2010 – a law that took work rights off hundreds of Kiwis.
Sam Huggard from the Council of Trade Unions is right. This is a matter of priorities:
“It comes down to John Key’s priorities, this just isn’t a priority for him but it needs to be, they need to back kiwi workers.” @SamHuggard
— TVNZ’s Breakfast (@BreakfastonOne) June 21, 2016
What I find most surprising is Key’s antenna has failed on this issue. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that people feel a bit differently about speeding tickets than they do about surprise extra back pay. And, even further on that limb, I imagine that many New Zealanders probably have a few choice opinions about a Prime Minister who urgently addresses the former while letting the latter disappear over the horizon.
So why not just do it? It’s not like freezing the statute acknowledges any government liability, nor does it lock them into accepting the union movement’s fix for the problem. It merely stops people from losing money while the problem gets sorted out.
My guess is that, caught on the hop, Key’s natural response was to say no to “The Unions”. I think that’s a mistake based on his, and other National Party folks’, unwillingness to acknowledge that “The Unions” is in fact a group of democratic organisations comprising a huge cross-section of New Zealanders, including many National Party voters.
In my experience, the union movement mostly consists of people from “middle”* New Zealand. Which is why reflexively pushing back on unions has repeatedly put National on the wrong side of public opinion, from the Hobbit law, to health and safety reforms touting dangerous worm-farms, to trying to lock zero hour contracts into law.
That said, Key’s found himself on the wrong side a lot in the last few months from the trivial (flags), to the very very serious (homelessness). Maybe he’s tired, maybe he’s out of touch, maybe he’s just not getting good advice any more.
Whatever the case, he should do himself and all working New Zealanders a favour and stop the clock on the back pay. Even if it’s just in the name of the good politics he’s built his reputation on.
By the way, if you want to join thousands of others who are telling John Key to stop the clock the Together petition is here.
*note: I use the term only as shorthand – the notion a homogeneous “middle” New Zealand exists and can be identified and targeted is responsible for some of the silliest political decisions of the last 30 years.
Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.