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No Excuses: Historic New Zealand Election Challenges Labor Movement

“No Excuses!”

That’s the phrase union activists in New Zealand have been repeating since the Labour Party’s landslide victory in our national election on October 17.

Led by charismatic and media-savvy Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Labour took over 49 percent of the popular vote. The party will now have 64 of 120 seats in parliament. This is unheard of in New Zealand, where since 1996 we have had a mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system that has always led to multi-party coalition governments.

This result will likely realign New Zealand politics for a generation. The National Party, our major conservative party, has often been referred to as the “natural party of government,” reflecting the “born to rule” mentality of the New Zealand right wing. This momentous defeat, which saw them lose in former strongholds, could change that perception.

It is a decisive result compared to the 2017 election, when Labour narrowly defeated the National Party by forming a coalition government with the Green Party, whose policies sit well to the left of Labour, and the populist anti-immigrant party New Zealand First.

This time around New Zealand First failed to be returned to parliament, getting only 2.7 percent, less than the 5 percent minimum threshold. The Greens, on the other hand, raised their total vote share from 6 to 8 percent, and will now have 10 members in parliament, up from eight. This is noteworthy as no minor party has ever been able to increase their vote after being in a coalition government.

New Zealand even had its very own AOC moment as 26-year-old Green candidate Chlöe Swarbrick upset Labour’s Helen White in the Auckland Central seat. Auckland is the biggest and most culturally diverse city in the country, with 39 percent of its population born overseas. Swarbrick defied poll predictions—which had the moderate White easily winning the seat—on the back of increased youth turnout. This was one of many results that demonstrates the real appetite among the public for progressive change.

TRANSFORMATIVE GOVERNMENT?

It is important, however, to throw cold water on the idea that the Labour government will enact this change without being pushed.

After the 2017 election, the Labour-led coalition government promised to be a “transformational government” that would “lift up those who have been forgotten or neglected and … build a truly prosperous nation and a fair society.”

Unfortunately, the government’s actions did not match their rhetoric. It ignored official recommendations from its welfare advisory group to increase baseline benefit levels to alleviate poverty. It also reneged on a promise to institute a capital gains tax, leaving New Zealand as one of the few countries in the OECD without a capital gains or estate tax.

For union members, it was a term of disappointments and excuses, with Labour continually citing their coalition partner, New Zealand First, as a handbrake on implementing their election promises.

GOLD-STANDARD RESPONSE

But when COVID-19 came to our shores disappointment quickly turned into relief and appreciation, propelling Labour to unparalleled popularity. Unlike comparable countries, the Labour-led government acted quickly and effectively to lock down New Zealand to stop the spread of the coronavirus. A wage subsidy was made available to workers and businesses who needed it.

At the same time, the government also scaled up the public health system and established a robust test-and-trace program to prevent the need for further nationwide lockdowns. So effective was New Zealand’s response that many now view it as “the gold standard” internationally.

For the first time in a long time, people acknowledged the positive presence of government in their lives. Not only that, New Zealanders were able to see a meaningful distinction between Labour and the National party, with the latter joining the right-wing media in continual calls to prioritize reopening the economy over public health concerns.

By going hard and early to stamp out the virus, Labour put people before profit. Consequently, New Zealand has virtually eliminated Covid-19.

The lesson is that broad-based politics rooted in providing for people’s material needs can cut through a media and political landscape that is skewed to favor the powerful. This was reflected in the increase in turnout for the election from 79.8 percent to 82.5 percent—the highest turnout in more than 20 years and especially noteworthy in the midst of a pandemic.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan liked to say, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” If there’s a lesson to be learned from New Zealand in 2020, it’s that just the opposite is true: those could be the most comforting words.

This translates beyond the pandemic. If Labour wants this win to be enduring and not a flash in the pan, it will need to pursue policies to make life better for working people in New Zealand. All the evidence of this election shows they will be rewarded for it.

Unfortunately, instead of building on their pandemic response as one example of how government can work for people, Labour is pivoting rightward. The party spent the campaign appealing to center-right voters and put forward only the most moderate policy proposals, such as raising the income tax from 33 to 39 percent on earnings above $180K ($120K USD), which would increase revenue by a paltry $550NZD million annually, a drop in the ocean when you consider that the New Zealand Covid Response and Recovery Fund alone was $50 billion NZD. For reference, those in the same income bracket in Australia pay a 47 percent income tax rate.

New Zealand is not a socialist paradise. We have all the problems plaguing other wealthy developed countries. This makes it all the more disappointing to hear Labour saying they will not be going “as far and as fast” as their supporters hope on issues like climate change and inequality out of respect for former National voters who ticked red for the first time this election.

This rightward shift by Labour is strange considering that poll after poll shows a public ready for real change.

A RENEWED MOVEMENT IN NEW ZEALAND

Despite Labour’s reluctance, social movements and unions are in a position to win meaningful victories under this new government.

The Greens’ impressive showing means that new and radical voices are headed to parliament. As we write, the Greens are currently in negotiations to form a government with Labour. While Labour has an outright majority and does not need a coalition partner, the Greens still have leverage to extract real gains, as Labour will want to avoid a left opposition in parliament.

For the Greens, either way, there is power in opposition to Labour or in government. The decision of whether or not to go into government with Labour will be made democratically by the party membership. Members are having robust debates about the benefits and pitfalls about making a deal with Labour.

This is exciting because it means union activists have a larger bullhorn to advocate and organize for workers’ rights. On our priority list:

1. Raising the minimum wage, currently $18.90NZD ($12.57 USD), to a living wage of $22.10NZD ($14.70 USD).

2. Legalizing solidarity strikes, to allow workers to take industrial action in support of workers at other worksites.

3. A progressive tax policy that would include a millionaires’ tax: an additional one percent tax on net wealth over $1 million NZD and two percent on assets over $2 million NZD.

4. A guaranteed minimum income of $325NZD ($215 USD) per week for students and people out of work, no matter what.

5. Large-scale public housing projects to provide homes for all.

6. Climate legislation with strong enforcement mechanisms, like ending subsidies to the fossil fuel sector, ending coal use by 2030, and building a large intercity rail network.

7. Increasing annual vacation time from four to five weeks.

We know that unions have a big role to play in pushing politicians to act in the interests of the working class. If any of the above demands will become a reality, it will be because union members will have channelled their militant “troublemaking” predecessors and become fighting, democratic organizations once again.

MEMBERS READY FOR ACTION

In 1991, legal protections for workers and provisions for unions were gutted and union membership plummeted overnight. Since then unions have relied on lobbying the Labour Party for minor concessions. Today, union density hovers around 19 percent (it actually rose slightly this year during the pandemic), and most New Zealand unions remain stuck in a service model approach which cannot deliver big wins.

Things are changing at the grassroots, however, with a growing militancy developing among rank-and-file members who have grown tired of years of retreat and risk aversion among union leadership. In 2018, health care workers and teachers went on a series of strikes and won big for the first time in decades.

Union members at the Auckland District Health Board, where we both organize, are ready for action.

In recent months, nurses, healthcare assistants, sterile supply technicians, and others have been running worksite campaigns, lobbying their members of parliament, and confronting hospital management over issues of personal protective equipment and workload during the pandemic.

Small increases in union membership and electoral victories alone will not translate into big wins for working-class people. It is now on us to rebuild our movement.

The opportunity is there, if we take it. No excuses.

This piece first appeared in Labor Notes.

Ian Hoffmann is an organizer with the Public Service Association Tē Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi, New Zealand’s largest union, representing public sector workers. Justine Sachs is an organizer with New Zealand Nurses Organisation and a member of the Green Party. All views expressed here are entirely their own.

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