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!”

Do Good Thursday: #KnitforJacinda and Little Sprouts

Here’s a lovely convergence of events. I’d been meaning to cover Little Sprouts for Do Good Thursday for a while, and then the whole idea of New Zealanders knitting for charity kind of became international news:

I was introduced to Little Sprouts a while ago by my grandmother, who can whip up a gorgeous cabled cardigan-and-booties matched set over the course of an ODI innings. In addition to goods like nappies, eating utensils, breast pumps and strollers, Little Sprouts baby boxes contain clothing and blankets often handmade and donated by a massive network of crafters. They work with groups like Barnados, Women’s Refuge and the Neonatal Trust to provide for:

  • Families with premature or unwell babies,
  • Women escaping from domestic violence,
  • Refugees starting a new life in New Zealand,
  • Young parents without support networks,
  • Families where one parent is terminally ill or struggling with other illness,
  • Families where the key earner has been made redundant,
  • Families with multiples (twins or triplets),
  • Single parents (mums, dads, grandparents and other caregivers) who are struggling,
  • Mums battling post-natal depression,
  • Families living in an ongoing cycle of poverty,

and more.

It’s amazing work, and one of many fantastic organisations who could use our help. I have a bag of goodies to send them myself – though I don’t think I can really use #knitforJacinda as they were done before the news broke!

~

I don’t normally make a lot of additional comment on DGT posts, but this one warrants it. There has been some unfortunate sneering, by men, at the notion of people wanting to knit for Jacinda Ardern’s baby, and knitting in general.

“Let’s not pretend those booties are anything more than a diversion to [sic] far bigger issues,” opined a certain leftwing man whose blog is entirely built on the unpaid labour of superior women writers.

But here’s the thing about the ~diversion~ that is knitting items for charity: it can literally save babies’ lives. The Neonatal Trust explains:

100% wool is a beautiful natural fibre that importantly is breathable – unlike synthetics and acrylics which can cause a baby to sweat and overheat. Babies born early cannot regulate their own body heat and the use of wool is key to ensuring their body can focus on growing and developing.

Now, we can keep premature or sick babies in hospital in an incubator. Or, with some booties and merino singlets, they can go home with their families that much sooner.

If that’s not enough for you – because you’re a Very Serious Person who wants to focus on Real Issues – consider how legendarily cold and unhealthy New Zealand housing stock is, especially for families on our equally-legendary low wages. Think what a difference it makes to those families being able to keep their babies and children wrapped up and warm when it’s simply too expensive to turn on the heater (or too pointless, because your windows don’t close properly.)

And we cannot underestimate the value of knitting or other crafts for the people doing them. The Neonatal Trust, again, points out:

• It can help with managing stress, anxiety, and depression
• It keeps your brain healthy
• It can help your motor skills
• It is a meditative act
• It instils pride upon completion

Knitting requires patience, dexterity, creativity, dedication and a whole lot of aroha. Making a few pairs of booties may not bring on The Revolution, but it’s doing concrete good in a world which feels out of control and terrifying right now.

If the Prime Minister’s pregnancy means more people get involved in a community effort to provide for those in greatest need, it’s socialist enough for me, comrades.

Generational change

This paragraph in a eulogy for Jim Anderton on Newsroom, got me thinking about generational change in politics:

Trapped in near-perpetual opposition since the first Labour Government of 1935-49, with only brief single-term governments in 1957 and 1972, younger members of the party, the so-called ‘Vietnam Generation’ were desperate to modernise the party and reform it into an organisation capable of establishing a lasting government. To this generation, commitment to the party’s union origins was less important than social justice and, ultimately, power; compromise was needed.

It’s been clear for the past decade or more that a significant change is needed in progressive politics and activism. Centrism has drained the passion out of the left; the old ways of organising workers don’t apply to a casualised/”gig” economy; and the problems of poverty, inequality and injustice just keep getting worse (no thanks to the “compromises” the Vietnam Generation decided to make to achieve power – instead of driving genuine democratic and political change through the unions and other progressive movements of the day.)

It’s easy to point at the election of Jacinda Ardern as our second-youngest-ever Prime Minister, with new faces like Grant Robertson and Kelvin Davis at the Cabinet table, and say “things are obviously going to be different.” That thinking certainly drove a lot of Labour’s last-minute poll boost, which came from the disillusioned left, not “soft” National voters.

But it’s more complex than that. We have to reject the kind of “logic” which insisted in the early 2000s that having women in multiple important roles – Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House, Governor-General – proved sexism was dead, or more recently in the USA, where Barack Obama’s election “proved” racism was over, even as more and more black people were murdered by the police at “routine” traffic stops.

There’s always a system, a structure, a machine behind the fresh young faces. Hence rightwing pundits crowed at the news that Heather Simpson, who achieved legendary nemesis status as Helen Clark’s chief of staff, had been brought into the new administration and was exercising a high level of control over its setup. Other Clark veterans like Mike Munro and GJ Thompson were also announced as senior members of Ardern’s team.

Never mind that the same rightwingers would have hammered Labour equally hard for its lack of credibility (and did, over issues like the allocation of Select Committee seats) if the new PM hadn’t picked anyone with previous experience in government.

It would be worrying if Labour’s strategy were driven by people still operating in an early-2000s mindset, both in terms of policy direction and campaigning strategy. Especially with the Greens not delivering a strong election result and thus not in a position to exert as much pressure or provide cover for ambitious, progressive policies. The government sits on a knife-edge; even if you don’t necessarily agree with the need to push a strong leftwing, socially liberal set of policies, it’s a simple matter of survival. National know how to bounce back from defeat and adapt to new political circumstances. Once they’ve figured out who’s going to knife whom for the leadership and who’s going to strategically defect to ACT with a safe seat, they’re coming on hard. A Labour-led government which tries to focus-group and commission-of-inquiry its way through not offending anyone will not survive.

But it’s also a trap to think that progressive change requires youth, and there are no better examples than Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, little centrists, I know neither of them “won”; but I also know – as I suspect they both do – is not about single short-term election campaigns. It’s about changing the world and changing what’s achievable in politics, and if you want to argue that Corbyn and Sanders haven’t fundamentally altered the political activism of their respective countries, you’ll need to let me get a glass of water so I don’t choke on my cackling.

Sanders’ run took the word “socialist” from being a Fox News epithet levelled at anyone who suggested healthcare was a nice thing people should have to a badge of honour; combined with Trump’s victory, the Democratic Socialists of America have gained 27,000 members and seen their average age drop from 68 to 33. In 2017, socialists kept winning elections.

Corbyn – who we all know is totally unelectable except for all those elections he keeps winning or increasing Labour’s vote share in at almost unprecedented levels – is embracing new styles of campaigning, at the cost of traditional party structures:

If Corbyn gets his way, when you think of Labour, you won’t imagine rows of MPs on green leather benches, or a smartly suited minister chatting to a reporter. Instead, you’ll think of activists reinvigorating their estate’s tenants association, while others organise their co-workers and stand with them on picket lines.

The fly in the ointment for us is that a pillar of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s success is in their respective decades of unwavering commitment and activism, which gives them a credibility young up-and-comers can’t get; but there’s no one I can think of in New Zealand politics with similar bona fides.

Ultimately, it’s simply too early to say which way our new government will go. In the most refined managerial terms, there are risks, and there are opportunities. There are other obstacles to be overcome – like entrenched ideologies and ass-covering instincts among our public sector leaders, or the simple inertia of any large organisation which is used to doing things a certain way.

But age doesn’t determine whether you’ll change the world: what does is having the will to do it and the skills to do it well.

We have a government; what’s next?

I’ve got a piece up at Radio NZ about the next steps for our new goverment: After the sigh of relief, time to set a decisive course

For those of us on the left, the temptation will be to down tools and do whatever we can to support Ardern. Our instinct will be to look beyond the first three years, to set the course for a two- or three- or, gods be good, a four-term Labour-led government. See the big picture! It won’t happen overnight but it will happen!

I caution against that.

Let’s be honest, I’m most proud of getting the phrase “wombling free” into a published piece of political commentary.