Why fiscal responsibility is the Bog of Eternal Stench

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.

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.

My plea to the New Zealand left: don’t get cocky

Well. That was a hell of an announcement, wasn’t it? A massive cause for celebration: no matter how true it is that being Prime Minister involves a hell of a lot of hard work and time away from your family, we all know that no one ever resigns, unexpectedly, on the eve of election year, out of selfless sacrifice.

The New Zealand left have spent a good eight years hating John Key. Whatever the reason he’s going, and however little it has to do with anything we’ve actually done, our enemy is vanquished.

And yet, a tiny voice cries out. It belongs to the cynical part of my brain, the bit that, sharklike, never stops working. Because I’m a millennial nerd, it speaks in the voice of Han Solo.

han-solo-dont-get-cocky

The question many people will be asking Andrew Little now will be “So do you think you have 2017 locked down now?” That’s a bit of a trap. Labour has to look confident, but not, you know, too confident.

mean-girls-really-pretty

What encourages me is that so much of the feedback you hear from the Mt Roskill by-election is about how hard Michael Wood and his team campaigned there. There was no taking Roskill for granted, even when up against a gaffe-prone exemplar of the National Party’s “terrible candidates running in theoretically winnable seats” finishing school.

But we have to keep that momentum going.

We – the left, the progressive movement, pick your own label – now have our best chance in nearly a decade. Not just to win. Not just to get comfy in the back of a Crown limo or find out if the seats really are greener on the other side of the House. We can get a Labour-Green government which plans for the future and rebuilds New Zealand into a country which cares about people, leads the world in our response to climate change and growing corporate power, and promotes strong, progressive values over the nasty, cynical individualism of the right.

We aren’t going to get that if we let ourselves think, “Well, Key was National’s greatest weapon; now he’s gone, guess that whole election thing’s in the bag.”

i-take-a-nap-right-here

Now we have to work even harder, because it will be too easy to assume victory is assured. We have to be even bolder, because if voters do want “a change” they’ll have one in the form of a new PM – especially if it’s a woman or, should Bennett or Bridges take the crown, our first Māori PM (commiserations to @LukeTipoki).

People aren’t stupid. They know that our country is being run for a greedy few, not all of us. The change National offers now may only be superficial, but it might be enough for them, unless they’re given a genuine alternative – not just a few decent policies and a good-sounding slogan, but a whole new way of looking at the world, underpinned by serious, progressive principles (these ones are a pretty good start).

It shouldn’t be that big a challenge. Labour has the proud history of standing up for what’s right. The Greens have the cred of always looking to the future and coming up with good policies ten years before they become mainstream received wisdom. In some ways it shouldn’t matter who the Prime Minister is – because we should be setting our own agenda, not just reacting to the government’s and letting them dictate the terms of the battle.

But we need to show determination and vision. We won’t be allowed to sleepwalk to victory. Key’s resignation is a huge opportunity – and it has to be taken, not taken for granted.

2016 local government endorsements

UPDATED: 30/9 with Sustainable Waikato and a busload of Wellington groups!

It’s that time of the election season when various groups start putting out their naughty-or-nice lists of local government candidates. Because I’m the kind of nerd who likes this sort of thing, I figured it would be handy to at least get them all together in one place for people to refer to.

The list will be pinned to the top of the site and updated as regularly as new information allows. If you know of any other endorsement lists, let me know in the comments.

Candidates supporting Jobs That Count

These candidates have pledged to stand up for good jobs, strong communities and a clean environment.

Candidates supporting a Living Wage

The Living Wage Movement is calling on council candidates around the country to support a Living Wage for directly employed workers and for contracted workers delivering services on a regular and ongoing basis. 

Candidates supporting the environment

Generation Zero has put together comprehensive scorecards on a range of environmental issues and collated them on a nice little website.

Candidates supporting children

Tick for Kids is calling on all candidates nationwide to prioritise policies that will improve child wellbeing.

Candidates who love/hate your teeth

Fluoride Free NZ offers a massive spreadsheet of candidates’ responses on the question of fluoridating your drinking water.

Labour Party candidates

Green Party candidates

By far the most comprehensive list! Key campaigns are also being run in:

Auckland-specific

As part of their ongoing War for Auckland, The Spinoff have created an endorsement tool – click here!

Bike Auckland has a list of cycling-friendly candidates.

The Ratepayers Alliance (groan) endorses 25 candidates who pledge to keep average rates increases below 2%.

cersei eyeroll

Look, I said I’d link to rightwing endorsement lists, but I don’t have to be happy about it.

Wellington-specific

Wellingtonista’s local body survey is legendary. This year they’ve had just three responses – from Diane Calvert, Justin Lester and Troy Mihaka – based on a strategy of “we’re volunteers, we aren’t working ourselves to death to help you lot get good PR.” But they make for great reading, so check them out.

The Wellington branch of the Public Health Association have a scorecard for candidates running for Capital & Coast District Health Board.

Renters United surveyed and scored Wellington mayoral candidates on renting and homelessness.

Cycle Aware Wellington surveyed candidates for Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council on, obviously, cycling issue. The pro-Island Bay Cycleway group did their own rankings too.

NEW! Save the Basin Reserve surveyed mayoral candidates, city council candidates and regional council candidates on the greatest cricket ground in the world.

NEW! Living Streets Aotearoa surveyed Wellington City Council candidates about making Wellington a walking-friendly city.

NEW! The Architectural Centre surveyed mayoral candidates on urban planning, architecture and lunch.

NEW! Historic Places Wellington talked heritage buildings and Town Hall strengthening with mayoral candidates.

NEW! Student Friendly Wellington surveyed regional candidates on bus fares and city council candidates on rental warrants-of-fitness.

NEW! The Wellington Chamber of Commerce surveyed mayoral candidates and then uploaded the results as a PDF because they’re bastards.

daenerys fire

Western Bay of Plenty-specific: Closing the Gap

Closing the Gap surveyed all candidates running in the Western Bay of Plenty district as an example of how to get information about local government elections.

Taranaki

E tū and Living Wage Aotearoa have surveyed local body candidates in Taranaki. PDF here.

The Mighty Tron

Sustainable Waikato surveyed and endorsed candidates for Hamilton City Council and Waikato Regional Council on, shockingly, sustainability issues.

Other online tools

Vote Local have produced an app which suggests voting preferences for folk in Auckland, Palmerston North and Wellington based on a range of questions.

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Let me know in the comments if there are any other good endorsement sets out there! Yes, that means the rightwing ones too – Family First’s central government scorecards are always good for telling you who’s worth voting for, if not in the way they intend.

On the M.O.U.

I’m a bit late to the party on the Labour/Greens M.O.U. but letting the dust clear a little before passing judgement is perhaps not such a bad thing.

The M.O.U. had to happen. And the sooner the better. Not because it means a lot in terms of the Green and Labour working more closely – they already were – but because that relationship is now publicly codified and it’s now very clear that there’s a forty-percent-plus block that balances out National’s vote.

Some in the commentariat have made a big deal about how this is Labour giving in.

It isn’t.

If anything it’s Labour getting stronger. It’s a given now that not only will Labour’s machine work to make Andrew Little the next Prime Minister, but the Greens’ machine will as well.

Effectively Little is now leading a voting block that is within striking distance of becoming Government.

And that’s something Winston Peters is now going to have to deal with.

Because despite the pundits claiming this makes Peters stronger, what it actually does is put him into a corner. When, for example, he dogwhistles against a minority such as Muslims, he’s whistling in the wind – because whatever argument he’s making goes nowhere if it’s not backed by either Labour/Greens or John Key’s National party.

A Labour party at 29% could feasibly kowtow to Peter’s cynicism (I don’t think they would, but desperation makes anything possible). But a Labour/Greens block at 43% doesn’t have the same pressure. When you represent nearly half of all New Zealanders it’s much easier to say no. And it carries a lot more weight.

That creates an uncomfortable situation for Key. The numbers are most likely going to mean a fourth term National Government will be a National/NZ First coalition – that’s received wisdom.

That means that if the Green/Labour block – particularly Andrew Little – knock back Peters’ headline grabbing, there’s going to be more and more pressure on Key to engage with it. That’s pressure Key doesn’t want or need – he’s busy enough trying to put some shine back on his ailing liberal brand without getting caught up in debates about Muslims, or Asians, or Māori or whatever drum Peters is banging for attention this week or next.

Now I know there’ll be some within Labour who are afraid of upsetting Peters by pushing back on him occasionally, but they need to get over themselves and start thinking like price makers instead of price takers. Headline-grabbing cynicism aside, New Zealand First’s policy platform aligns a lot more closely with Labour and the Greens’ platform than it does with National. And Peters is a professional – he’s been around and he’ll make the decision on who he goes with based on the numbers post 2017 and what leverage they give him to get what he wants.

Anyone who doubts that should remember that it was only a few years ago that John Key’s dirty politics team ran a rabid and personal attack campaign on Peters that saw him exit politics for a term. A campaign that presumably had the Nats’ sign off. Key’s people humiliated Peters yet Winston can’t and won’t rule out going with them – if he did he’d lose the illusory power he has.

Things have changed with the M.O.U. They’ve changed because Andrew Little has re-staked his claim as leader of the opposition and has brought together a power base that rivals the Prime Minister’s in terms of the number of New Zealanders it represents. Having watched Little throughout his time in the union movement and in politics, I’m expecting he’ll use that power well to create change – it’s something he’s always done.

What that all adds up to, despite what some pundits have claimed, is a harder time for Winston and bad news for Key.

Rob Egan is an ex-senior advisor to two Labour leaders and co-owner of public relations firm Piko Consulting.