Who is the left’s Rodney Hide?

I had some thoughts on Rodney Hide’s latest column in the Herald on Sunday:

And they kept developing so I figured I had the makings of a blog post there!

Who’s the left’s Rodney Hide? I submit we don’t have one. Many people have equally-extreme leftwing views, but not a weekly column in the Herald on Sunday. Hide is a commentator – not a blogger. There’s a lot of authority in that distinction, and a lot more influence.

We have some great progressive commentators – like Michele A’Court, Dr Susan St John, Deborah Russell. They get some column space and a few TV spots. But they’re usually talking about real issues. (Shocking!) Rodney Hide talks in narratives. Like redefining the word “industrious” to mean “people with a lot of money”. Or reinforcing the idea that the only good thing is economic value, and the only proper frame for deciding what’s right and wrong is profit and loss.

He’s not discussing a real issue or a concrete policy. He’s tearing down a reverend who dared to say money isn’t everything, and people’s lives are more important than one man’s wealth. The rightwing narrative is so entrenched that we don’t even notice that he’s basically arguing against everything Jesus ever said.

There are staunch left commentators – like Helen Kelly and Robert Reid – who get op eds and panel seats on The Nation or Q&A. But they aren’t the equivalent of Rodney Hide, because they’re not actually extreme. They talk about fairness and decent working conditions, not, say, the immediate need for compulsory unionism and the renationalisation of all private property.

And some people who get to comment “from the left” are significantly to the right of Labour.

daenerys fire

Across the Anglo world, we’ve seen rightwing parties get into power and stay in power, despite passing harmful, often unpopular policies, because (in part) they’ve got a loud voice on their right making them look reasonable by comparison. The UK Tories have UKIP, National have ACT, the US Republicans have the Tea Party.

(They’ve also got a lot more money and convinced us all that economics is a hard science, but baby steps!)

The respective Labour/Democratic parties have chased the ever-moving-rightwards centre – conceding the basic argument that the economy is more important than people. Not only that, they’ve usually been the most vigorous opposers of their own left flank.

leo west wing what are you doing
This plays out every time Young Labour put forward a remit on, well, anything. Instead of rolling out MPs to say “no, that’s stupid”, these are opportunities for Labour to go “well it’s a bit extreme, but” then re-affirm its leftwing principles and announce a toned-down version as reasonable, progressive policy.

That is, do what National do when their right flank calls for total privatisation of state assets – “oh no, but what about selling off 49% of the shares in them?” – or a flat tax – “oh, that’s too far, but what about slashing the top rate?”

Expand the frame of available, credible opinions and declare yourself in the middle.

It may seem difficult in practice, because anyone from the left is automatically “less credible” than a taxpayer-rorting ex-MP like Rodney Hide. But our media are crying out for a drawcard, in this age of falling ad revenue and social media distractions. They want drama.

Look at the Goff vs Collins segment on Stuff: the idea (however well you think it’s executed) is to get a bit of argy-bargy going, post something which will simultaneously outrage the lefties and the righties, and voila: more eyeballs on product. Consider Radio NZ’s Panel, which gets a lot more buzz among the #nzpol blogosphere when it’s not Matthew Hooton vs Mike “I agree with Matthew” Williams. Want to get the left and the right tuning in? Have a real argument. That means having real differences of opinion.

gladiator entertained

I think there’s space for a few more staunch, out-there leftwing voices in our discourse. But there’s a final wrinkle: it only works if Labour wants it to. Only if we want to be the party which puts people first, and isn’t afraid of doing the right thing even when the high priests of the economy scream the sky will fall, which refuses to play the right’s game on their terms.

Find the right people. Put them up there. Shift the centre. Or it’s just going to be two more years of Rodney Hide making it easier and easier for National to get that fourth term.

What do you earn?

Helen Kelly linked to an advice column in the Herald which suggests that while it’s perfectly okay to ask people how much they paid for their house, it’s a no-no to ask about their income.

It’s a great collision between two myths which reinforce a lot of terrible ideas we’re told about people, and value, and solidarity.

Of course you can ask people – with proper etiquette – what they paid for their house. House-buyingness is next to godliness. Buy a house young and you’re an entrepreneur. Own multiple properties and preach the virtues of “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” and you get headlines. There’s no shame in owning one house, five houses, or making millions of dollars literally being subsidized by a state which won’t provide decent housing for people in need.

But there’s plenty of shame in asking people what they earn. That’s private information, after all, and you’re an individual standing on your own two feet and by god, if other people (who aren’t as good and productive as you) find out what you get, they’ll try to steal it!

Or as advice columnist Lee Suckling put it:

Asking somebody about his or her salary is far less permissible. This is purely because it’s none of your business.

The only people that need to know how much you earn are your boss and your spouse.

It’s the gospel of self-interest. You’re an individual. You’re think as an individual. You function as a good little rational economic unit working purely for its own gain.

One of the terrible aspects of our current system is how it unnaturally pits us against each other. You certainly shouldn’t look at the other people working around you and think “we’re in this together. We’re in the same situation! We should be treated fairly and given the same pay for doing the same work.” They’re not comrades. They’re competition!

We’re meant to take it on faith that each of us – the “you” who has to protect your good deal from the avarice of your fellow labourers – is getting the best deal. And we’re meant to see this as a good thing, because the boss wants us to sit at his table in the cafeteria, not them.

We’re meant to trust that the boss is properly sharing his or her profits with the people who created them. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren’t.

That’s what a lot of people working at Google discovered when Erica Baker created a shared spreadsheet of the salaries of people working at the company. Surprise surprise – they found people weren’t being paid equally for their work. And apparently managers at Google didn’t like this. Erica Baker isn’t working there any more.

The defensiveness is kind of understandable, but also shows the benefits of transparency for everyone involved. We know about unconscious bias. Most people don’t twirl their moustaches and announce “I’m going to pay women less because I hate them”. They don’t realise they’re doing it until it’s all laid out in front of them. And if they think of themselves as good people who aren’t sexist or racist, etc, it can be a shock to discover you were being sexist or racist, etc, in practice.

(In the same way, I doubt Lee Suckling sat down at his keyboard and thought “Haha! How can I reinforce a cult of individual self-interest today? Muahahahaha!”)

A final point: if you’re in a unionised workplace with a collective agreement – and I acknowledge they’re the minority – you do see what your coworkers are earning. You know that the same job is paid at the same rate, or that everyone in your team sits in the same pay band. It doesn’t ruin morale.

What do we see when the people in a workplace or industry are in the union? Higher wages, better conditions, and fairer pay for men and women.

the incredibles coincidence

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to keep on being impolite. Because “politeness” is capitalism’s way of tricking us into not comparing notes and realising just how much we’re all getting exploited.

Loopy rules: another National Party circus act

The National Party sure love their theatrical productions.

Back in the days of Don Brash as the leader they announced with much fanfare that Wayne Mapp was to take up the mantle of Political Correctness Eradicator. They got great headlines and a few impassioned letters to the editor damning the feminist takeover of our society, and then the idea sank without a trace.

In 2009 as part of their coalition deal with ACT they launched, with much fanfare, the 2025 Taskforce, a high-powered team dedicated to the goal of closing the wage gap with Australia. Again, they got great headlines, and a couple of reports which recommended the same old Chicago School voodoo (cut taxes, cut spending, sell assets), and then the idea sank without a trace.

How’s that wage gap with Australia doing? In 2013, David Parker calculated that it was the equivalent of a full day’s pay for Kiwi workers. Oops.

Now we’ve got the “Loopy Rules” taskforce, created with much fanfare as a vehicle for Paula Bennett to stage her leadership bid get rid of unnecessary regulation. And despite a massive amount of panic-mongering in the initial stages – you have to fence paddling pools! Ranchsliders aren’t counted as windows! – what’s the first thing they come up with?

Allowing builders to certify their own work.

It makes perfect sense from a National Party perspective. All regulation is inherently bad and unnecessary when you believe the market will solve everything. But this proposal, and Bennett’s defence of it, is risky. She’s declared that “people have moved on” since the leaky buildings disaster which cost the country $22 billion and saw a heck of a lot of property developers retire to tropical islands. “Products have moved on.”

Well for a start, she’s wrong. This is from an article on interest.co.nz published March this year.

The leaky home and leaky building era is far from over.

As builders, local councils, property owners and building materials manufacturers continue to fob off responsibility for the crisis, new cases are still coming out of the woodwork.

Against this backdrop Home Owners and Buyers Association of New Zealand (HOBANZ) president, John Gray, says the youngest leaky home he’s aware of is still in construction.

“The thought of the leaky home problem being a distant memory, insofar as new builds are concerned, is just a fallacy”, he says.

It would be nice to think that we’ve all learned our lesson and evolved into a society where shoddy construction work just doesn’t happen. But it’s the same argument National uses for empowering employers to take away rest breaks. Most employers are good employers; most builders are good builders. Most employers won’t mistreat and overwork their staff for a buck; most builders won’t sign off a shoddy job for a buck.

These things are true. Except that we don’t have laws because most people are good. We have laws because some people are bad. And we regulate buildings, and have disinterested parties sign off on their construction, because buildings are large, and pretty much permanent. You can’t apply a free-market scenario like “I went to a different dairy this morning because they had a special on 2L milk.” It’s a block of apartments.

There’s undoubtedly some silly rules and bizarre loopholes in our regulations (just like our tax law) – though not any of the ones which people like Paula Bennett frequently use to incite outrage, like bans on lolly scrambles. There will be inconsistencies across different regional and territorial authorities.

This taskforce isn’t going to fix them. It’s a show pony for the government to push the idea that they hate rules and regulations just like all you dudes on talkback who think bike helmets are stupid. If they can help their property developer buddies make a bit of cash on the side, all the better; as per usual, it’ll be the next Labour-led government which has to deal with the consequences.

Poor suffering property investors

Jess McAllen has a great article in the Sunday Star-Times about the plight of renters and the should-be-criminal state of many rental properties in NZ.

The rats have evolved. They used to fall for the traps Harley Neville set out in his bedroom but that’s just succeeded in killing off the weakest members of the herd. The strongest are left, he says. They’re smarter and walking straight past. He’s tried colby, he’s tried camembert. All the rats want to nibble on are his candles. It’s not a house in a third world country. It’s a four-bedroom villa in central Auckland that costs $720 a week. But people don’t care, he says. Buyers are the ones with the money. Renters are the unheard voice. It’s a castle compared to the rest of the rentals in this article.

It also unfortunately – or fortunately, from a “give them enough rope” perspective – includes quotes from Property Investors Federation head Andrew King, aka “least sympathetic man on the planet”:

Andrew King from the Property Investors Federation, whose group represents about 6000 landlords owning 22,000 properties, says that some of the power to stop it is in their hands. He says tenants often do things that encourage mould, such as not heating homes and drying clothes on clothes racks.

“A lot of tenants actually keep their curtains closed during the day. Both parties need to take responsibility for mould.”

“The only reason a tenant would choose to stay there if it was in an unsafe condition is if the rent was really cheap. Then it’s kind of their choice.”

His association is working with the Children’s Commissioner and Otago Medical School to see if families of children who are suffering can get electricity grants through winter months to encourage them to turn on the heater.

Yep, it’s the fault of the tenants for not leaving all their windows open all day in the middle of winter while they’re out at work, it’s the fault of the tenants for being too poor to use a tumble dryer for all their laundry, it’s the fault of the tenants for being human and having corporeal form and thinking they need to have a roof over their and their kids’ heads.

I mean, the poor little landlords are only charging the bare minimum to cover their costs! They got into property investment because they love helping people! Why doesn’t anyone appreciate their charity? And look, what would be best for everyone involved is if the government could subsidise the horrific power bills their tenants have to pay just to keep their homes liveable.

And they’ll probably get it. If there’s one thing National is really good at, it’s using the power of the state to make it easier for rich people to get richer at the expense of the poor. They’ll call it a community service and jump up and down about how much they’re doing to stop kids getting chronic lung infections, but ultimately, more money will be taken from the working and middle classes and funnelled into the pockets of the kind of people who own on average 3.6 investment properties and call their private lobbying club ~a Federation~.

Our kids are still getting sick in unhealthy homes

Andrew Little put the hard word on John Key over housing in Question Time yesterday:

Prime Minister John Key implied that mould problems in some Housing New Zealand homes could be caused by tenants not ventilating them enough, something his widowed mother was vigilant about in their Christchurch state house.

He also rejected claims by Labour that the Government was making “a profit” from Housing New Zealand because it took a dividend.

This is one of those issues where John Key’s argument only makes sense if you haven’t seen what his government has done to SOE after SOE: put immense pressure on to deliver increased dividends – on the basis that they should “run like businesses” and not waste “taxpayers’ money” on fripperies like reinvestment and value-add.

The chairman of Solid Energy cited this pressure for dividends as a reason for his company’s financial issues.

And what’s been the anthem of this government since 2008? Surplus, surplus, surplus, even if it means making really bad short-term money decisions which will cost our country hugely in the future.

Meanwhile, we’ve found out that apparently Housing New Zealand doesn’t even do pre-emptive repairs and maintenance on vacant houses before offering them to new tenants.

A woman whose son’s severe health problems are being partly attributed to the mould in her state house says she has been offered a different house – but that’s mouldy too.

Health professionals said the mould in Te Ao Marama Wensor’s Glen Innes home was a contributing factor to her seven-year old’s faulty heart valve and holes in his lungs.

In a statement, Housing New Zealand said the recently offered house would have undergone a full maintenance and repair check, as would happen to all properties before a new tenant moved in, to make sure it was suitable.

Because there are some poor families for whom black mould actually conveys health benefits!

But I’m sure that inspection would have happened in a timely and thorough fashion. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been delayed, put off, rescheduled, or ultimately found to be too expensive. I’m sure that on some planet it makes perfect sense not to immediately check properties as soon as the previous tenants have moved out.

And I’m sure that getting people off the waiting list into any home available ASAP is not at all motivated by the only metric that matters: Nick Smith’s numbers.

juking the stats

Given how this government runs things, I have a really dispiriting suspicion that someone at HNZ figured out it was a lot cheaper to wait for tenants (who are hardly in a position of power and who definitely don’t want to be stuck back on that waiting list) to complain before fixing things.

And the result of that is that our kids are getting sick and even dying.

But hey, if Bill from Dipton gets the books into the black, everything must be going ok!