At RNZ: How did we get here?

I was asked by Radio NZ to give my thoughts on the rather dramatic political events of yesterday – which I certainly was not expecting! Here’s a taste:

… those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and Labour has spent nearly a decade doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The prevailing myth of Labour Party strategy since Clark has been that we (for I can’t deny I am, indeed, a Labour Party Insider) must “look like a party ready to govern”. And this has translated to buying into the proper, grown-up, governmental ways of doing things – promising endless reviews or well-costed schemes.

It doesn’t inspire people. It doesn’t feel like a real alternative. The proof of the pudding is in the polls.

Here’s the link to the whole thing.

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Getting more women into Parliament

Natwatch posted recently at The Standard about National’s difficulty finding enough women to put into Cabinet, and EEO Commissioner Dr Jackie Blue, herself a former National MP, has also called for actual action on getting more women into Parliament:

“If anything, the Cabinet is the ultimate board in New Zealand, and if women on boards is now being accepted as good for business, it bloody is going to be good for New Zealand,” Blue told The Nation.

“So I don’t want to hear these sort of measly, ‘Oh, we appoint on merit’…

“We have to have that debate. I mean, we’ve asked nicely, we’ve implored, we’ve pleaded, not much is happening. Women’s representation in Parliament has gone static.”

National is the party of capitalism. Of course they’re also going to be the party of patriarchy.

But Labour’s meant to be better. Not just because of its progressive principles, either. In 2013 the party passed a conference remit mandating that after the 2017 election, 50% of caucus would be women.

So with another party conference done, candidate selections underway and the list moderation process looming, I did the math on how the party can meet its commitment.

Labour currently holds 27 electorates and five list seats (Little, Ardern, Parker, Cosgrove, Moroney). There are 12 women MPs – 37.5%. The Party was meant to achieve a 45:55 split in 2014, and even despite the horrible showing, we only needed 2 more women to make it in.

Most Labour seats are pretty safe. Michael Wood winning Mt Roskill doesn’t affect the count. In a best-case scenario – Jacinda Ardern taking Auckland Central, Ginny Andersen maintaining or increasing Trevor Mallard’s majority, and perhaps a woman candidate in New Lynn? – we get 13 out of 28 electorates held by women. 46%.

In a good result for Labour, Duncan Webb wins Christchurch Central, giving us 13 out of 29 – down a little to 45%.

So it’s over to the list to get women into caucus. Andrew Little as leader obviously takes the top spot, so our starting point is 29 electorates – 16 men, 13 women – plus Little. 43% women.

From here, Labour needs to hold 34 seats to get gender parity, from four additional women coming in off the list. That’s doable on just 28% of the party vote – but of course we’re aiming a lot higher than that.

At 35% party vote, Labour gets 42 seats, with four men and eight women coming off the list.

At 40%, being super optimistic (and certainly not wishing any ill on our comrades in the Greens) we get 48 MPs all up: 16 men and 13 women from electorates, eight men (including Little) and 11 women from the list. It doesn’t look too out-of-whack – but the fact remains that multiple women need to be up high on the list to give Labour a realistic shot at the gender equality its members want.

It’s simply a historical, structural issue. A lot of safe Labour seats are held by men. That’s not surprising if you have even the faintest clue we live in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who don’t seem to get that – and as soon as you even think of putting a woman into one of those safe seats, they start screaming bloody murder about quotas and reverse sexism and “what about merit!”

I was at the party conference in Auckland, and let me tell you, Labour is not wanting for women of merit, qualification and principle. They’re not expecting a hand up or an easy go of it (they’re women in politics, guys). They just know, as anyone with any sense of the world knows, that we live in a society which doesn’t treat women as the equals of men. It doesn’t even treat qualified-but-problematic women as the equals of unqualified-and-actually-monstrous men.

hillary-clinton-unimpressed

We don’t set gender equity goals because women need help. We set them because our institutions need help, to step out of the past and be fit for the future. It’s nothing to be frightened of. It makes us stronger, not weaker, when we acknowledge the problems of the past and take action to rebalance the scales. So let’s ignore the squawking, and get some damned good women and men into Parliament next year – and not just on a Labour ticket either!

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.

Nick Smith stands by slumlords, basically

Today Andrew Little’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill will get its first reading in Parliament. It requires all tenancy agreements to guarantee that the property being let meets minimum standards for heating and insulation, to be set by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The Government doesn’t like this bill. The Minister for Housing, Nick Smith, is especially concerned that imposing such standards will result in a large number of rental properties being removed from the market. And by “especially” I mean he mentions it a lot.

In 2014 he announced a Housing Warrant of Fitness trial, but warned

We need to be cautious of removing houses from the rental market when there is a shortage.

In 2015 he exempted 100,000 rental properties from meeting the 1978 standard for insulation, because

removing them from the housing stock would cause a major housing shortage.

And just this week, he railed against Little’s bill, for a familiar reason.

“It requires properties to be insulated at a pace that is totally unrealistic and would simply involve properties being removed from the rental market at the very time we’re having shortages of homes.”

If you’re getting the impression that Nick Smith is more concerned about the profit margins of landlords who own substandard housing than he does about ensuring every New Zealander has a warm, dry home to live in, you’re not alone.

And this tells you something pretty sinister about his and the National Party’s priorities and perspective on housing.

Because every time I hear Tories claim that implementing basic standards for houses people have to live in is terrible because it would “remove” hundreds of rental properties from the market, I do a little word substitution. It’s highly illuminating.

“We can’t pass this food hygiene law, it would remove heaps of [poisonous] food from the supermarkets!”

“We can’t pass this car standards law, it would remove hundreds of cars [which have NO BRAKES] from the roads!”

“This law regulating indoor heaters is terrible, it will stop people being able to buy heaters which will literally explode!”

Because what National leave unspoken, every single time, is the fact that these properties are not properties fit for human habitation. This isn’t Paula Bennett’s mythical beneficiary, turning up their nose at a free house because the birds are too loud. We’re talking about water oozing down the walls, curtains turning black with mold and children dying from preventable illnesses.

To say that it’s acceptable for people to live in these conditions because “the market”, and the government, have failed to provide adequate housing is appalling. You don’t tell people, “sure this car has no brakes but it’s the only one left and you have to drive it.”

But that’s what National are telling us: if you are poor, you should be grateful for any housing, even if it’s cold, damp and literally killing your children. When they say heating and insulation standards are impractical, they’re saying nothing can be allowed to get in the way of landlords profiting off people who have no other options.

No one wants to live in a cold, damp, moldy rental. They’re forced to, because wages are too low, houses are too expensive, and people need to live somewhere. But there’s money to be made exploiting that need, and when the choice is between ensuring everyone has a decent standard of living, or letting a greedy few keep on making money, we know which way the National Party will go.

Easter trading

Easter Sunday is one of the three-and-a-half days a year when (most) shops have to be closed. That could be changing. From Denise Roche of the Greens:

The new rules would supposedly protect people’s rights to say no to shifts on Easter Sunday or to apply for annual leave for that day. But that just shows how out of touch National is with the real situation for many working people.

Imagine you’re a young person going for your first or second job in retail, and in the job interview the boss asks you how you’d feel about working on Easter Sunday. You’re hardly going to say no, because you want the job.

Or maybe you’re a single parent, juggling childcare and work. The person who does the rostering for the shop where you work is already annoyed at you because your commitment to your kids means sometimes you need to change the roster. Are you going to risk annoying your boss even more by asking not to work on Easter Sunday?

Unfortunately, I think, it seems to be a line some in Labour will accept:

Labour leader Andrew Little has expressed favour in allowing shops to trade on the weekend, but he had a few concerns.

“I wouldn’t object to a law that allowed trading on Easter Sunday, providing the right of the worker to genuinely opt-out,” he said.

Allowing employers leeway with words like “reasonable” and “genuine opt-out” probably works fine in some situations. It’s like the Danish “flexicurity” model which is being bandied about in the Future of Work conversations that are happening at the moment. Flexicurity gives employers huge leeway – in a context of massive collective strength for workers. Chris Trotter already joined the dots on this one:

New Zealand and Denmark have many similarities, but in 2016 they also feature a number of vital differences. In relation to flexicurity, the most important of these is the respective level of union density.

As the official Danish website puts it: “The development of the labour market owes much to the Danish collective bargaining model, which has ensured extensive worker protection while taking changing production and market conditions into account. The organisation rate for workers in Denmark is approx. 75%.”

The organisation rate for New Zealand workers in 2014 was approx. 19%.

In fairness, Little did say:

“The bottom line is you’ve got to protect the right of workers to genuinely opt-out and not be subject to stigma and pressure.”

But this is a bit of a paradox. The employer/employee relationship is inherently unbalanced. One side starts off with all the power and money. The power to hire in the first place. The power to take the job away. The money to hire the best lawyers and drag out court proceedings over disputes and weather a long lockout. There will always be stigma and pressure on a worker to accept the deal they’re offered.

The power imbalance is only mitigated – not cured – when the people who do the work can stand together in solidarity, and when a basic set of good employment standards are entrenched in the law and enforced adequately.

This is labour relations 101. Look where the power lies. Look at the context. Right now, the context is that workers in New Zealand aren’t even guaranteed a minimum set of rest breaks during their shift. Operations like Talley’s AFFCO are literally threatening disciplinary action to make people work on public holidays.

In this environment, with that level of power imbalance, the idea of giving employers more and more of the power as long as they promise to be “reasonable” is so Pollyanna-ish that Pollyanna would look at it and think “damn, that’s a little optimistic”.

It would be so great to live in a world where workers and employers can have truly healthy relationships. Where people can have the flexibility to take or work on holiday weekends, where pay is fair and jobs are secure. We don’t live in that world. We live in the world where people like Peter Talley get knighthoods.

So let’s not dismantle the very last scraps of workers’ rights just yet.

~

Labour is allowing a conscience vote on the issue. It might be interesting to see where the lines are drawn.