Emotional politics at Labour’s 2017 Congress

I popped into Labour’s Congress yesterday to catch up with a few comrades who were down for the big event. Literally everyone was buzzing about a couple of the speeches which had been delivered earlier in the day, from Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern and Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson.

Jacinda’s speech was livestreamed, and it’s well worth a look:

The full text is here. Some highlights:

Generation Y are the product of social breakdowns and two decades of rapid economic and global change. And what did that mean here in New Zealand? It meant that basically, they are the product of a time where WE, politics and politicians, told young people we didn’t owe them anything.

We sold their assets.

We told them their education wasn’t a public good anymore.

We traded on our environment while we polluted it for those who follow.

We stood by while home ownership amongst young people halved in a generation and is now the lowest it has been since 1951.

Generation Y have been the ones to watch inequality rise, they have been the ones to watch poverty rise, and they will be the ones who’ll see it compound even further as those who have become those who inherit.

This generation may not be having the same experiences as generations past, but just because they are different, doesn’t make them indifferent.

I was only 13 years old when my best friend’s brother took his own life. I had just started high school and was waiting for class to start when I heard the news. I can remember exactly where I was standing, just outside the science block.

Every single thing about it seemed unfair, and still does to this day. Even at my friend’s wedding just a few years ago, the sense of loss, of there being a missing member of that family, hung in the air.  He was just 15 years old when he died.

There should be no politics in addressing an issue like this, there should only be one thing- the value we place on new Zealanders of all walks of life having a sense of belonging, a sense of support, and a sense of hope. And none of that is more true than for our young people.

Grant also spoke very well. The text of his speech is here. He said:

When Andrew asked me to take on the Finance portfolio I was clear with him that I did not view the job as one that was just about spreadsheets and statistics, or share markets and currency movements.

Don’t get me wrong, those things matter.  But they don’t matter as much as people.

I still cannot get out of my head the story of TA, an eleven year old girl who was looked after by Te Puea Marae last year.  She was living in a van with her other six family members.  She was trying to do her homework by torch light.

Delegates, New Zealand is not at its best if there are children doing their homework by torchlight in a van.

Mr English and Mr Joyce, hear this- you cannot raise a family in a car.

Hearing so many of the Labour whānau rave about these speeches reminded me of last year, when I attended the Party conference up in Auckland, and the speech of the weekend was Justin Lester’s. He brought the entire room to tears talking about the benefit cuts of the nasty National government of the 1990s – not just materially, but psychologically. The son of a solo mother, he found himself adopting the beneficiary-bashing narrative of the day, and blamed his mum for not doing a good enough job. He cried. We cried.

This is what politics is missing. Genuine passion. Real stories of real people affected by politics. It can’t be any wonder that a lot of people don’t vote, and think politics isn’t relevant to them, when every discussion seems to be about costings and Budgets and abstract arguments about the role of government. But when we’re talking about young people being able to feel like they have a shot at a good life or families raising kids without enough money or workers getting a fair deal, it’s real. When our politicians show that they give a fuck about other people’s lives, in concrete and real terms, not as figures on a spreadsheet or projections in a Treasury forecast, it is immensely powerful. The right know this. That’s why they sneer at any hint of emotion in politics, and try to spin passion as a negative with their “Angry Andy” memes.

We should not be ashamed to be angry when young people are killing themselves and children are doing their homework by torchlight and mums and dads can’t even pay the rent when they’re working three different jobs. We should be proud of that anger, because it shows we care. Because it shows we don’t see politics as a fun game to play in between tobacco lobbying and seats on the board of Air New Zealand. Because people want to know we give a fuck. That’s when they’ll start to think that there are politicians worth voting for.

The surplus lie

Andrew Little delivered his pre-Budget speech in Wellington yesterday, and the pullquote everyone’s talking about was some seriously no-nonsense stuff:

…[National’s] promise was clear. Their good economic stewardship would see us in surplus.

And now they’ve abandoned their promise.

National’s talk now is about how achieving surplus was an “artificial target” and that getting a surplus is “like landing a 747 on the head of a pin.” A lot of effort has gone into glossing over the broken promise. But I see it for what it is – one of the biggest political deceptions in a lifetime.

You can quibble the semantics, of course – is it not really a lie if Treasury figures predicted we’d be in surplus? Or is it still a lie because Treasury’s predictions are often laughably optimistic and wrong (when National is in power, anyway)? But come on, whose word can we rely on regarding the Budget if not Treasury’s?

The room to quibble is what makes it a lie.

Balancing a government budget is nothing like balancing a chequebook, and not just because ordinary citizens can’t print their own money at will. There are so many moving parts, so many tricks, so many points which can be manipulated ever so slightly

That’s why it was ridiculous for Bill English to say even a $1 surplus would count as “significant“. When you’re managing nearly $100 billion in revenue and spending, there’s infinite room to tinker. You can make all kinds of assumptions about how much tax will be collected. And we’ve seen the tinkering: the delay in lowering ACC levies. The interest-free “loan” to the NZTA which conveniently counts as an asset, not spending. The assumed cuts to EQC’s insurance liabilities.

The lie isn’t really about whether-we-achieve-surplus or whether-we-don’t. The lie is everything that National’s constant promises of surplus implies: that a surplus is objectively good; that a surplus proves their superior economic management abilities (but a deficit is all Labour’s fault; they had nine long years to deliver surpluses for Bill English); that a surplus proves things are back on track, the economy is doing fine, things can’t be that bad – so obviously inequality’s a myth, there’s no housing bubble, Christchurch is hunky-dory, we don’t need state houses or workers’ rights or any of that rubbish, and if you’re very, very good you’ll get jam tax cuts tomorrow.

A surplus proves National are right about everything.

That’s the lie we’ve been sold, time and time again, by this government. And given the harm it has done and is doing to the New Zealanders who can’t afford a first home, much less an investment property, who can’t find secure employment or buy the kids a new pair of winter shoes, who are living in cars and queuing for foodbanks at 3am – I don’t think it’s too strong to call it one of the biggest political deceptions of our lifetime.

Little: ACC levies need to come down

Most of the attention on today’s episode of Q&A focused on the two biggest issues in NZ politics at the moment – the Northland by-election and Nicky Hager’s most recent GCSB revelations.

But in Andrew Little’s interview with Heather du Plessis-Allan – amongst her blatant, failed attempts to get him to say “I’m telling people to vote for Winston” and “I support 90-day trials” – he raised another issue which highlights some of the weird hypocrisies of our present government.

Labour has an independent report which estimates that business and workers are being collectively overcharged about $350 million every year in ACC levies. ACC is currently running robust reserves, much of which is invested overseas. If some of that unneeded cash were returned to the pockets of people and businesses, it would create enough economic activity to generate 700 new jobs.

For workers at the bottom of the heap, or small businesses running on tight margins, even a few hundred dollars extra per year could be a significant factor in keeping their heads above water.

The irony is this: the Government’s repeatedly had advice – from that well-know communist thinktank, the Treasury – that ACC levies are too high. They’ve taken baby steps towards it, with cuts totalling about $115 million coming into force in April.

This is the National Party – the party which slashed the top tax rate during a recession so its wealthy backers could buy more investment properties, the party which campaigned hard on the idea that Labour wanted to introduce “FIVE NEW TAXES!!!!” – refusing to cut an unnecessary cost which would actually help families, businesses and the wider economy. Purely by coincidence, those unnecessary levies (as Grant Robertson did back in February) are probably helping to keep the Government’s books in surplus.

It kind of tells you everything about their priorities, doesn’t it?

(Repost) The end of the inequality debate?

Originally posted at On The Left.

Inequality has become a central political issue in New Zealand and around the world. But there’s always been some argument, from the right, that inequality just happens, or provides an incentive for people to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps.

Now, a new OECD report is fairly straightforward about the issue:

New OECD research shows that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. One reason is that poorer members of society are less able to invest in their education. Tackling inequality can make our societies fairer and our economies stronger.

New Zealand gets a specific mention:

Figure 2 shows by how much the GDP growth rate would have increased or decreased over the period 1990-2010 had inequality not changed between 1985 and 2005 (The most recent inequality trends since then are not taken into account as they affect future growth patterns).

Rising inequality is estimated to have knocked more than 10 percentage points off growth in Mexico and New Zealand…

As Grant Robertson put it on Morning Report, “This isn’t the Socialist International. This is the OECD – the conductor of the Trickle-Down Economics Choir – saying that the show’s over.”

So you might think that’s the end of it – surely this is an unequivocal explosion of the trickle-down economics theory, and we can all turn to finding actual solutions to reverse inequality and the real harm it causes in people’s lives.

But unfortunately, our Minister of Finance has taken the John Key line of saying he doesn’t accept the findings of the report. It’s one of the great strategies of this government, acting like there’s no such thing as objective fact and the only thing that matters is how you frame something.

We’re not going to see any kind of shift in their behaviour or policies (though I’m sure we’ll definitely hear them talk about inequality more, as we did in the lead-up to the election.) But what this report gives us is another tool to use against the National/ACT narrative – that the right are pro-growth, that tax cuts and penny-pinching will lead to prosperity, that there’s no alternative to their mean-spirited policies.