Benefits, Budgets and b***s***

Are they going to do it?

At long last, isthe Labour government going to significantly increase base benefits and ensure that people actually have enough to live on, reversing the stagnation that’s existed since the horrors of the 90s?

People say the signs are there. I hope they’re right. I desperately hope that after so long, we will see genuine action, a real shift, something that we can hold onto during the lean years when National inevitably get their acts together (sorry, that was an unintentional pun) and regain the Treasury benches.

But the bar is pretty high.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group report recommended increases to the various benefits of between 12 and 47% (note this is from 2019 and just think about something random like how much housing costs have increased since then.)

The head of the Auckland City Mission put the figure at $200 a week.

Either of those would be pretty amazing, and change a lot of people’s lives. And while I find it a bit gross how often we talk about “child poverty” as though it’s fine for adults to go cold and sick and hungry and homeless in our country, it would do incredible good for thousands of New Zealand children.

It might even be enough to save Jacinda Ardern’s legacy as the Prime Minister who anointed herself Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

But still … I’ll be a bit angry about it.

Angry because it has simply taken too long. It is year four of the Great Transformational Kindness Ardern Government, and I simply reject the idea that the first three years don’t count because mean old Uncle Winston said “no” and there was just no way to negotiate, bully, build popular support to shift the narrative, or otherwise make it happen despite him. To accept that excuse would render all those global accolades for the PM’s amazing leadership meaningless; and that would be terrible. 

Angry because I know how the story will go. Labour will trumpet it from the rooftops. Look at us, the bold, the brave, the transformational (or whatever word we’re using now), we are the good ones, we understand how terrible poverty is in this country, we are the government who cares and will make a difference, let’s do this, hashtag he waka etc.

And it will be like the last four years never happened.

Because this is one of Labour’s weird psychological foibles: they cannot never acknowledge that their decisions to date are in any way flawed, or insufficient. Until they do a u-turn, and then it’s like it never happened.

That is why even a week before this Budget (assuming this Budget does significantly increase benefits) the answer to any criticism of their failure to substantively deliver on welfare was still “but we did a $25 a week increase. We introduced the Winter Energy Payment. We indexed benefits.”

Sometimes they throw in a line like, “we know we need to do better” or lean hard on the phrase “we’re making progress” so the audience infers that more things are happening behind the scenes. But the overall tone is still: look at what we’ve done! We’ve done the good things! Stop asking questions about the other stuff, it’s so unimportant I’ll ignore it entirely!

There is never an acknowledgement that $25 a week ain’t much; only a Steven Joyce-esque assertion that it’s “the biggest increase made by any government” (biggest doesn’t mean sufficient). There is never an acknowledgement that the Winter Energy Payment is a pretty sad $20-30 a week for only five months of the year. The indexation of benefits – which is good insofar as it stops the increasing cost of living from creating real-life benefit cut, but does nothing to repair the damage done in the 1990s and 30 years of stagnation on top of that –  gets cynically trumpeted as “increases” rather than adjustments.

But here’s the thing: if we get what we want on Thursday, all this will be wiped away like tears in Grant Robertson’s rainy day.

It happened with the hated 90-day fire-at-will “trial periods”, which Labour resolutely campaigned against for years, only to turn around and suddenly decide really, the issue was “fairness”. They ultimately retained the trials for small businesses. 

It happened with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which saw massive popular opposition, leading to Labour setting down five strong bottom lines prior to the 2017 election. These were possibly mostly met, if you believe Stephen Jacobi, and mostly weren’t if you believe Jane Kelsey, but either way it took Newshub to check because Labour never mentioned them again.

It happened in record time recently with the public service pay freeze: on day one Chris Hipkins was bold as brass, calling out the Public Service Association (the largest union in New Zealand representing more than 75,000 workers) in Question Time thusly:

I’d also say to them that the guidance is consistent with the decision last year by the Remuneration Authority that Ministers and MPs would not be getting any pay rises for the next three years because of COVID-19 and the decision by the Public Service Commissioner, who sets the pay of Public Service chief executives, who will also not be increasing any of their pay.

…directly comparing a pay freeze for staff on $60k+ to a couple of other pay freezes for elected officials and CEOs on $150k+.

Then after the apparently unexpected backlash it became (from Grant Robertson):

“I understand this has caused distress and upset, I obviously regret that deeply, but we are not talking about a pay freeze here, we are talking about a process or guidelines for negotiation.”

It’s not a pay freeze, it’s just guidance, a starting point for negotiation (unless you’re a nurse) and frankly we should be apologising to him for the misunderstanding.

The trick Labour does is not to simply change their minds – anyone can do that, and if it follows reflection, research, fact-finding or a change in circumstance, it’s admirable. No, instead Labour engages in a form of gaslighting – pressuring people to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes and experiences by insisting that reality is otherwise. We never said 90-day trials were completely terrible, we just want them to be fair. We have bottom lines – no, we just want a fair deal for New Zealand. We’re implementing a pay freeze, take that, unions – the unions are our friends and we love working with them and also never announced a pay freeze (it’s the media’s fault you think so!).

Let’s do this. Actually, we’re not able to do this and never made any commitment to any particular timeframe. 

And so it will be, after  Budget. If (and I still would not put money on it)* the Government delivers a massive boost to benefits, we will be scolded for daring to suggest that the past four years of inaction happened at all, that the WEAG report has largely languished, that concrete steps to implement it have been actively countered,** that the child poverty indicators are going nowhere. “We’re tackling child poverty and ensuring New Zealand is the best place in the world to be a child!” the social media accounts will announce. That will be the new reality and you will be the obstacle to real progress for remembering differently. 

Why does this matter? Because Labour’s consistent refusal to actually be a progressive, transformative, caring-for-people government is a recipe for disaster. It is an open door to National’s penny-pinching benefit cutting ways. It is an excuse for every swing voter to say The Two Parties Aren’t Really That Different, Right? Wouldn’t Mind A Tax Cut Actually. It is tinkering at the edges, leaving the shattered, gutted sense of community and fairness lying on the floor instead of taking the opportunity they were given – four years ago – to reshape this country in a better direction. To actually do all the good things they campaigned on doing! To live the values they happily slap on tea towels and Facebook shareables.

I really hope they start to prove me wrong tomorrow.

~

*Okay, I’ll put $1 on a marginal, but insufficient, increase in benefit levels nevertheless touted as the biggest, best, most poverty-eliminating increase ever, and then next February the Salvation Army’s State of the Nation report will point out that too many families still can’t actually afford the basics and Jacinda Ardern will furrow her brow and insist that those statistics don’t count because the Budget 2021 package hasn’t been fully implemented yet.

**Yes, that is the Labour government pulling the same “fiscal veto” that Bill English used to defeat increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks. 

Labour’s first 100 days

Labour’s ticked-off 100 Day Plan

Labour’s come under some fire as its (drumroll please) First One Hundred Days In Office has ticked over.

[The email from Labour] talked about how it had done what it had promised to do. It used words like “delivered”, “achieved” and “commitment”.

That’s called spin. It has massaged the truth. Massaged its promises. Embellished what has really happened in 100 days.

And that annoys me. Not just from a journalistic point of view, but because this Labour-led Government has promised to be open, honest and transparent.

I struggle with this too. I wanted a new government that would shake things up, kick ass, deliver all the goods. It’s frustrating to see “we’ve started this process” “we’ve initiated this review” “we’re looking into this issue” over and over. Just bloody do it, can’t you?

But I remind myself that it’s a start. There’s a hell of a lot to do, and it has to begin somewhere.

We’re stuck in short-term thinking. Remember how every year in the Budget, National would promise tens of thousands of jobs were just around the corner, or The Glorious Surplus was nearly here, and never mind that those promises had been broken time and again in the past or that inequality kept growing (or that the whole idea of a government budget surplus is a fairy tale)?

The Opposition bought into it too, and focused on the battles of the day over the ongoing struggle. We all mocked National for pushing back its promises to raise the superannuation age or make rivers swimmable (for a given value of swimmable), because we knew they were completely insincere; but I worry we unwittingly reinforced the idea that longterm goals themselves are pointless.

The problem isn’t having a list of things you want to do the minute you get into office. In actual democracies you just can’t do a lot the minute you get into office. Jacinda Ardern doesn’t have the executive power to simply dictate benefit rates or carbon emission targets or overhauling fiscal policy. This is a feature, not a bug.

Lloyd Burr’s right. The “first 100 days” deadline is a charade. It’s not one of Labour’s making. Over time, every politician’s picked it up (from the US, where all bad political ideas seem to originate) as a way of saying “I’m really, really serious about this” – not just “first term” serious, proper serious. And it handily gives journalists something to cover over the dullest period in New Zealand politics: the time between an election and Waitangi Day.

The problem is Labour hasn’t told this story well. It does come across as a little taking-the-piss to declare “we’ve done everything we promised!” when (a) you haven’t, and (b) you wouldn’t have been able to anyway.

The story should be: “we’ve made an amazing start. We’ve kicked off a huge amount of important work, and here’s some concrete things we’ve already achieved (pets for state housing tenants, first year of tertiary education free). We couldn’t do everything we promised, because this is MMP – and the strength of MMP is every party in government gets to contribute to the decision-making process. But look at all this! It’s going to deliver amazing results, and it’s creating the foundations for even more good stuff, because fixing inequality and injustice and making New Zealand the country we all want it to be is a big job.”

Labour has to be laying the groundwork now for the next three years and an even better result in 2020 (and beyond). That means emphasising the strengths of MMP – a range of voices get to be at the table deciding what happens. Emphasising the principles which underpin everything Labour does – making the case that good government means intervening, rebalancing the scales, ensuring everyone has a decent life.

That in turn shows consistency, so everyone who’s stuck on Labour as the scattershot party of disunity begins to see their integrity and reliability; and that relentless positivity, by establishing there’s more to their policies than just reversing the last two or three years’ worth of National Party bullshit: there’s an idea of what New Zealand should be and it’s one that everyone can be part of.

It seems like a lot of strategic importance to place on one mass email and a couple of Facebook graphics, but it’s crucial. If there isn’t one story, one strategy, one plan to build a coherent, powerful narrative about what Labour is doing and why, they risk achieving a lot of good without ever making people see that it’s by design; it’s not just stuff any government could have done.

Will voters understand that this good could only be achieved by a Labour-led government, because Labour is a party that stands for justice, equality and openness? Does that even matter, if the good is achieved anyway?

I guess that depends on whether you want voters to think, “Yes, yes, that’s nice. But I like that Simon Bridges, he looks like someone you’d have a beer with. Did you see him have a go at John Campbell that time? What a rascal!”

Has Labour kept its promise on the TPPA?

There’s a question I haven’t seen answered in the most recent coverage of the abysmally-renamed Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership: how does it line up with the five principles then-Labour leader Andrew Little announced in July 2015?

– Pharmac must be protected
– Corporations cannot successfully sue the Government for regulating in the public interest
– New Zealand maintains the right to restrict sales of farm land and housing to non-resident foreign buyers
– The Treaty of Waitangi must be upheld
– Meaningful gains are made for our farmers in tariff reductions and market access.

(Are we even allowed to know? Wasn’t the TPPA’s secrecy another major sticking point for a lot of people?)

Professor Jane Kelsey suggests that, besides a token attempt to address the issue of investor/state disputes, we’ve achieved none of those points. The best that free trade fanboy Stephen Jacobi can say today is:

“I wouldn’t expect the dairy farmer to be jumping all over the place, but it’s better than it would have been otherwise.”

… which could be interpreted as “meaningful gains are made for our farmers” if one were feeling extremely generous. One is not.

On the Pharmac issue – maybe? Those of us who aren’t Stephen Jacobi are still having to read between the lines here – Stuff reports:

Fully 22 provisions of the original TPP agreement have been suspended, up from 20 frozen in November last year. These provisions include controversial pharmaceutical changes and would only be reactivated after renegotiations and if the United States re-entered the pact.

Does that mean Pharmac is protected … until the US enters the deal? If we sign this and a new President comes along in 2020 and says “Yup, we’re in” do we even get to discuss what happens, or is it gone by lunchtime?

Tens of thousands of people marched against the TPPA, and expected Labour, especially Labour-in-government-with-the-Greens-and-New-Zealand-First, to actually be different to the last lot. But I don’t know if Labour really understood this. If you go back to the July announcement, Labour declared:

Labour will carefully consider the impact of the draft TPP agreement on New Zealand’s interests, and we will not support the TPP unless it protects New Zealand’s sovereignty and is in the best interests of New Zealanders.

… in the last paragraph. The first four words of the announcement, though, are:

Labour supports free trade.

So it has been: at every opportunity, as New Zealanders protested and organised and challenged the very idea that “free trade” is good for all of us, you couldn’t get a statement out of a Labour spokesperson which didn’t begin with, “Well of course Labour has always supported free trade agreements, however.”

Labour has been unable to detach itself from the idea that trade agreements are Good Proper Governance. They’re what you do when you’re in power, and while of course there are some domestic issues to work through like basic human rights and the ongoing legacy of unilaterally self-immolating our manufacturing sector, y’know, Trade Agreements Are Good. They must be, or we wouldn’t keep signing up to them, and those nice men in suits from the big banks and think-tanks wouldn’t keep saying how great they are.

Even when New Zealanders took to the streets saying, this secrecy is undemocratic. This provision for companies to sue our government over lost profits is obscene. Pharmac is too precious to give up for undefined economic gain, Labour dithered, giving Phil Goff leave to cross the floor over it and looking not entirely cohesive when David Shearer wanted to do the same.

I don’t think Labour have ever understood that those specific complaints (which they haven’t actually fixed!) about a specific agreement weren’t the whole of the argument. That people weren’t blockading motorways just because of one particular instance of investor/state dispute resolution clauses.

The world is changing. More and more people are starting to think, maybe “free trade agreements” aren’t the universal good they’ve been sold as. Reconsidering what “free trade” means: who gets to be “free”? Free from what – job security? Affordable housing and healthcare? The power of their own elected governments to pass legislation for the public good? Things that matter more than profit margins?

And maybe, after thirty years of this being the status quo, we’re ready for an alternative. A genuine change in direction. We see a new government formed of parties who (more or less) said that the TPPA was not OK, who promised a new way of doing things. It’s the old organising model of Anger, Hope, Action. People are angry. Jacinda Ardern gave them hope. Action?

Apparently not. And I don’t know how thrilled people are going to be about that – or the government’s message that actually they should be happy because that’s the way the world works.

I could be wrong. It could be as my comrade Giovanni suggested:

Maybe they won’t face a backlash over this. But either way, this will be a massive lost opportunity for Labour. And I worry it won’t be the last.

2017 rewind: Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

The fourth-most-read post on Boots Theory last year questioned a pretty strongly-rooted tenet of modern Labour Party faith. People have said to me since the election result, “see, it worked!” Yet National still gained 44.4% of the vote, and Labour’s boost came directly from Jacinda Ardern’s amazing personal appeal. And the question now becomes: is winning one election worth it if we don’t actually change the status quo?

Originally published 25 March 2017

Labour and the Greens have announced a cornerstone coalition policy for the 2017 general election: a set of Budget Responsibility Rules which will, per the Greens’ website:

… show that the Green Party and the Labour Party will manage the economy responsibly while making the changes people know are needed, like lifting kids out of poverty, cleaning up our rivers, solving the housing crisis, and tackling climate change.

It feels like I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a decade. The short version is this:

Labour and the Greens cannot credibly campaign on a foundation of “fiscal responsibility”. It is anathema to genuine progressive politics. It isn’t a vote-winner. It’s a vote-loser.

I’ve heard the defence: but we ARE the fiscally responsible ones! Look at our surpluses in government! Witness our detailed policy costings! BEHOLD OUR GRAPHS!

If empirical evidence worked, we’d already been in government and this conversation wouldn’t be happening, and I know I for one would be happier for it.

Everyone knows this is crap. No one really tries to defend it by saying, “but fiscal responsibility is the most important thing in government”. They say, “but we need people to believe we’re fiscally responsible.” They say, “but the media always ask how much our policies will cost!” They say, “we need to win or we can’t achieve anything, learn to count Stephanie.”

We know we’re selling our souls, but only for the right reasons. The tragedy is, we’re not. Fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench. Once you dip so much as a toe in, it makes everything else you do reek.

Don’t just take my word for it – after all, we’re all rational creatures making objective decisions based on evidence, right? Take it from someone who has the evidence, my favourite American Anat Shenker-Osorio:

Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people … become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place — the last thing we want when we’re talking about the common good and our national future. …

Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us — and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap.

If we prompt New Zealand voters to think about money first, they aren’t going to think about common good, about ensuring their neighbours have a good life too. They’re going to think “actually, getting another block of cheese each week does sound good” and the right’s fourth term is secured. They don’t even have to work for it, because when we explicitly buy into their values, it weakens our own.

It cuts out the heart of our politics. Our critics are absolutely right: Labour and the Greens are not trusted to be good fiscal managers. THAT’S THE POINT. No one wants us to be good fiscal managers – except for the right, who are thrilled that we not only want to play in their playhouse but will obey all the rules they’ve made up to ensure they always win.

It’s like some people watched Mean Girls and thought, “well of course we have to wear pink on Wednesdays and throw out our white gold hoops, how else will we get Regina George to truly respect us?”

Pink is not our colour. Fiscal responsibility is not our strength. The economy is not the most important thing in the world – HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA, HE TANGATA.

We’re meant to be the ones who care about people, and make sure everyone in our communities is taken care of, whether they’re sick, or old, or exploited by a shoddy employer or having a baby or building a life in a new country. These are the areas where we’re strong. These are the values which we must promote – not just because we hold them dearly, but because doing that is the best way to fuck up the other side’s message of greed and self-interest and exploitation of people and our planet.

People want change. They don’t want poverty and housing crises and public services stretched to breaking point. They know these things cost money! But they’ve been told for decades that government must be small, and the private sector runs things better, that the only metric that matters is that sweet surplus. They know it doesn’t feel right, but there doesn’t seem to be another way of doing things, because we keep telling them we agree with it. And they vote for the party they “know” are the better economic managers, because that’s National’s brand, and not all the graphs and spreadsheets we throw at them are going to convince them otherwise.

We’re never going to win while we keep playing in the right’s playhouse and skinny-dipping in the Bog of Fiscally Responsible Stench because we want to smell just like our enemies. We have to be an alternative. Stop talking about the bloody money and start talking about people.