The politics of nastiness

Is this election year going to be the most vicious in recent history?

There’s always a bit of argy-bargy in politics, and sometimes it’s personal.  Despite the best of intentions, it’s impossible for people’s families and backgrounds to never be part of the conversation, because often they themselves bring it up – whether it’s John Key growing up in a state house or David Cunliffe being the son of a country minister, Holly Walker talking about her own experiences of motherhood, Darien Fenton speaking publicly about her past struggle with addiction, the personal story is everywhere in politics.  And sometimes this means it gets turned into a weapon by the other side (whichever side you’re on.)

But there’s surely a line between personal attacks which can maybe be excused by the political argument behind them, and, well, just plain calling someone an idiot, or a “sensitive wee sausage”.

And I don’t know why the National Party have decided to cross that line, multiple times, in the past week.  I really don’t know why John Key would cross it today after the Mean-Girls-style attack on Metiria Turei backfired, getting her pride of place on Campbell Live having a nice chat about how normal and inoffensive she is.

The first assumption is desperation.  Are National seeing bad internal polling?  Have they run out of policy ideas?

The second is more Machiavellian.  Is there some cunning long game in play?  Is it the political equivalent of a Guy Ritchie film where all the seemingly random threads will tie together in an astounding knockdown conclusion?

I honestly don’t know.  So let’s hash it out in the comments!

It’s past time for fair employment laws

After David Cunliffe’s state of the nation speech at the end of January, the spotlight was, appropriately, on the big policy announcement he made: the Best Start package for Kiwi kids.  (It wasn’t the friendliest spotlight, unfortunately.)

But there was a sentence at the end which hasn’t had a lot of pickup, and which could – I hope – point at a truly revolutionary policy on the horizon.

David said:

There will be opportunities in all our regions and decent work based on fair employment laws.

Fair employment laws.  We haven’t had a lot of that lately.  The ability of workers to organise and to bargain collectively – the best way in the world to raise wages and conditions – was shattered by the Employment Contracts Act, and while Labour’s Employment Relations Act repaired some of the damage, you can still see the effects today.

We’ve got a society where you have to be hush-hush about what you get paid because your co-workers are competition, not colleagues.

We’ve got a society where there’s a myth around individual agreements – they give you the chance to negotiate the best contract for you!  Maybe that works for the senior managers, or for people with really specialised skills, but for your average clerical worker or shop hand?  Here’s the agreement, take it or leave it – and oh yes, you’re on a 90-day trial.

And we’ve got a society where people don’t know their rights at work – or don’t have the power to stand up for those rights – and certainly don’t have the resources to hold bad employers to account.

National have introduced 90-day trials, youth rates, and now they have a bill going through the House which will take away the right to rest breaks, protection for vulnerable workers,  and weaken your ability to challenge unfair dismissals.

And let’s not forget Jami-Lee Ross’ private members bill – which was supported by National and Act at the first reading, but fortunately failed – which would have allowed employers to lock out workers and bring in temporary labour.  Effectively, starving the workers out until they accept whatever deal the employer deigned to offer.

National’s unfair employment laws benefit a few at the top – the bosses who are happy to turn a profit by grinding their workers down.  But that’s no basis for a happy, healthy society, and a strong, growing economy.

I think the argument’s simple enough: when people are earning enough to meet their needs, when they feel respected, when they’re getting ahead under their own steam, we all benefit.  Individuals benefit from less stressful lives.  Employers benefit from having a more productive team at work.  Our families and communities benefit.

A Labour-Green coalition in 2014 can build a completely new framework for industrial relations in New Zealand.  A framework where everyone gets treated with real fairness and dignity, and which recognises that there’s a basic power imbalance between workers and employers, especially in the hard financial times when unemployment is high.

And I can’t wait to hear more about how they’re going to make that happen.

What is the Boots Theory?

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

I first read Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett in my teens, and this passage was an eye-opener.  It’s not a new idea, but it’s an important one.  And it’s told in a way that sticks with you, making it a perfect political parable.

It stuck with me, so here we are:  Boots Theory.  A blog about politics and society in Aotearoa/New Zealand, from a leftwing perspective.  With it being an election year I hope I’ll have a lot to write about …