Change Partners

An interview with Internet Party leader Laila Harre
by Gordon Campbell
Photographs by Melanie Hamilton

Many of us would have no trouble recognizing the world described recently in Salon by Thomas Frank, the current editor of Harpers magazine.

When the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse and the newspaper pundits were like street performers miming “seriousness” for an audience that had lost its taste for mime and seriousness both. It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in….

Out in the community a desire for change exists, Frank maintained, but change never quite arrives. Even critics of the status quo – such as Barack Obama, whose entire presidential campaign was based on him being seen as the angel of hope for systemic change – end up as little more than impotent custodians of the old order. As a result, many potential voters feel they have nothing to lose. Others, trying to hang onto a job and a lifestyle and an income sufficient to protect their families, feel little allegiance to those who have delivered them into their current state of anxiety.

Frank might have been talking about the America of Barack Obama, but the New Zealand version has recognisable features in common. For 25 years, Labour and National have been in virtual agreement about the basics of economic policy, and differed mainly on how to go about managing its social consequences. Such is the power of the economic orthodoxy that when opposition parties arise – say, in the shape of the Greens – their “credibility” is measured by the extent to which they give the appearance of learning and abiding by the ruling consensus.

The tension between the desire for change – and the inability of the current political framework to deliver it – creates openings for populists of all stripes. It is what has made the emergence of Internet Mana so interesting. Kim Dotcom, Hone Harawira, Annette Sykes and Laila Harre are connecting with the mood out beyond the walls – even the NZ Herald recognises that something is afoot – and they pose a deliberate threat to the Beltway consensus. Primarily because, as Internet Party leader Laila Harre explains in the interview below, the party she leads has no allegiance whatsoever to the current economic priorities.

Neither Obama nor Helen Clark, Harre believes, took full advantage of the leadership platform they had. Both failed to outline a programme of radical change, much less tried to lead public opinion to embrace it. If Harre and her crew get into Parliament, it will be interesting to see how far they can go. Because they do aim to alter the terms of the political debate, and they already have a mandate – from the people packing into community halls all around the country – to shake things up.

Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell interviewed Laila Harre for an hour on Monday July 21st

Campbell : Years ago, I remember you describing Parliament to me as a soul-destroying place, and that the aggro had worn you down. Now you’re trying to get back to it. Has Parliament got a lot nicer, or have you got a lot tougher?

Harre : I think I was probably commenting about the last year in the Alliance. What was soul-destroying was the fact that something we had given so much to – that I had certainly invested all my energy, life, over a period of time – had come to such an ugly end. And I Ieft Parliament with a broken heart as a result of that. Because of what I felt had been the loss of such an enormous opportunity, from what had been built in the Alliance.

I’m interested in why you might think this time will be any different. During the Clark era, Labour wasn’t a generous senior partner to its allies on the left. Why should we expect a Labour-led government to behave any differently this time around?

I’ve learned a lot in the last 12 years. I’ve been back in the trade union movement, in very senior positions dealing with some pretty difficult industrial issues, both in the public and private sector. I’ve learned a lot about organizing and negotiating in that time. I’m not saying we didn’t make huge gains in that [earlier] period : I think we did. But I have a sense of self-confidence now that was somewhat lacking at that time… I’ve also lived with my two sons growing through adolescence in the community where you see the reality of live for kids in ordinary neighbourhoods. And I feel more committed to delivering to those communities.

Right. Labour also says it feels concerned about the extent of social injustice in those communities. Yet here’s the problem. Basically, isn’t Labour still committed to much the same economic policies that have given us food banks, and damaging levels of income inequality?

I think that’s a fair criticism. My assessment is that even Phil Goff – and certainly with David Cunliffe in the Finance Minister’s role – did move things a little bit further, in a progressive direction. We saw the policies of introducing the capital gains tax and heard for the first time an analysis of the Reserve Bank and current monetary policy that was much closer to a social democratic analysis. So I think we have seen some movement in the Labour Party on economic policy over the last six years.

Even so – would Internet Mana be doing much more in a Labour-led government than putting Band-Aids onto the problems being generated by the virtual consensus on economic policy?

Well, we’re not in the business of Band-Aids. With a change of government, there will be opportunities for us to influence the thinking of the government. And to bring in our expertise and our supporters’ power – through their votes – into influencing the government agenda. Parliament you know, is also a platform for building support for ideas. This is what was so disappointing about the Clark government, for me. It was the failure to utilize the platform of Parliament, the platform of government, to raise peoples’ expectations, to challenge the policy environment, among the public sector, among the politicians themselves and the sector groups within the community. There was a failure to be inventive around policy solutions.

Haven’t we seen the same thing reflected with Obama as well ?

Absolutely. You begin trading away positions before you have even tried to win support for them. Underlying Helen Clark’s dissatisfaction with the Alliance – as I saw it – was that from a psychological point of view, Labour always has felt it had to meet its own need to be the biggest deal on the Left. As a result, that actually pulls creative thinking from the Left well to the Right, before we’ve even begun to start talking.

Because what’s seen to be politically possible creates a narrow ambit for the entire policy debate ?

Absolutely. I do think too, in the environment we’re in, that the left/right nomenclature is not that useful. Because it turns people off from thinking about the actual challenges and issues are, if they are only allowed to see themselves on a left/right spectrum. There is a problem with language here. And I think there is a really strong constituency of educated, empowered people who know that we have to take a great leap forward, and that it is going to take a courageous government that shifts some resources around. And that is willing to make some pretty substantial investments in Internet infrastructure and education.

So to summarise : with Internet Mana you seem to be saying progress isn’t to be measured simply by policy wins and losses – but by whether you can shift the ground in a wider debate that your presence in Parliament would engender ?

That’s right. And I think also by developing some new methods for government to test support for these ideas. To me, its not just about what goes into a coalition agreement or a support agreement in the few weeks following an election. Its about what you agree to do, on an ongoing basis, to allow much more powerful ideas to emerge and be debated.

National in government

Looking at current polling, National could govern alone. What policies do you think would be likely to emerge in its third term? Would Working For Families be safe for instance, if National gets re–elected ?

Well, first of all, all the reports on current polling allocate the undecided vote – which is very high at the moment, 15 or 16 per cent – to the parties proportionately. What we know is that National’s actual numbers of supporters haven’t changed for a long time and I think we can safely make the assumption that they are being allocated to many of those undecided voters by the pollsters – given that those undecided are non government voters.

Arguably, that’s been reflected in the track record of the last two elections, in which National’s vote on election day was lower than what it had been polling beforehand.

Yes, and which is partly accounted for exactly that phenomenon, by the way the undecideds are treated in the polls. I think the polls , when interpreted correctly, still show a very close race.

The point of the original question was that the Opposition parties – and not the government’s track record and future plans – have been the focus of media scrutiny this year. Has that surprised you?

I think its quite hard to scrutinize a non-existent thing. At the moment, National’s plans for the next three years have not been broadcast.

So has the media been doing its job in challenging them to put their cards on the table?

I don’t think there has been enough scrutiny of National’s plans for the next three years. One can assume its going to be business as usual – so, further expansion of extractive industries, pragmatic responses to lightening rod issues as they emerge, and a continued disappearance of New Zealand further into the arms of the US foreign policy establishment, and away from carving out an independent foreign policy.

Is it likely that a National led government reliant on the Conservatives and – possibly New Zealand First – would be more socially conservative next time around?

They’ve been pretty socially conservative in this term. The number one social issue we have is child poverty, and poverty in many of our communities. The response of the government has been to take $1.4 billion out of the poorest households – beneficiary households – and to micro-manage the lives of beneficiaries in a way that has been punitive, and has not delivered improvements in employment. So this has been an extremely – not just socially conservative – but repressive government.

Yet it isn’t paying any evident price for it. The government’s track record includes some extremely unpopular policies – such as selling off state power companies, tax breaks disproportionately for the wealthy etc – and a series of ministerial screw-ups. Why hasn’t it paid a bigger electoral price for them?

Because they’re carefully managing an uncertain middle class. People who are holding it together who have a level of economic security, who feel OK in their jobs and who are managing – sort of – to achieve their goals are still on tenterhooks when it comes to what life is going to be like a few years down the track. The underlying psychology of National’s middle class supporters – the ones who could shift – is really to do with a fear of change. So National, ironically, are reaping the electoral benefits of the tenuous hold that those people have on their current stake in society.

For the last few years we’ve been told to tighten our belts and dial back what we should expect from government, by way of health and education services etc. Have these cutbacks in government spending been enforced to enable National to afford a tax cut bribe – if they should need it – during the election campaign?

Well, they’ve had to do this to pay for the bribe they already delivered on – the two preliminary rounds of tax cuts.

So if they do offer tax cuts as part of their policy package for this election, it will make a mockery of the “tighten our belts” message ?

Yes it will. I wouldn’t hold my breath for an announcement of tax cut package. I think the ground has shifted on the inequality issue to the extent that even a pragmatic National government would be pretty cautious about dishing out tax cuts.

New Zealand First

Many of the centre-left are still counting New Zealand First as a potential ally. Realistically, do you think Winston Peters would join a centre-left bloc, post election?

If anyone could read his mind, they’re doing a pretty good job of things. I’m one of those who think it quite likely that New Zealand First won’t make the threshold, and therefore any votes for them will be wasted. I think the most important thing that those of their supporters who want a change of government need to hear is the importance of giving their vote to a party that will bring about that change.

Right. Because otherwise, and as I think you’ve said before, those people who do truly want to put New Zealand first, could well see their votes go into aiding and abetting the third term of a Key government.

Look, I think that has to be a realistic scenario. The bottom line is Winston Peters is completely unpredictable in terms of which way he’d go. I think that he has an obligation to say whether he will support Labour or National as the principal party in government. If his supporters are prepared to give him the kind of leash they’ve given him before, they will be supremely disappointed if he does go with National. I think there is a core of New Zealand First supporters who will trust in Winston whatever judgment he makes – however, I think that core is considerably smaller than five per cent. My concern is with the extra three, four or five per cent that consider him to be an option, but whose reasons for doing so have to do with thinking that he’s a battler, and is someone prepared to challenge the government on issues like sovereignty and economic independence. I would strongly advise those people to support Internet Mana, or consider other options where there is a guaranteed change of government.

At the risk of piling fairy castles on fairy castles…if Internet Mana is a barrier to Peters joining a centre-left bloc and New Zealand First is essential to Labour being able to form a government…doesn’t that put quite a lot of daylight between your ability to influence the social policy agenda of a Labour-led government ?

I think that reflects on Peters, not on us. Whatever the arrangements may be for the formation of the new government, we are going to be extremely effective in promoting our policy agenda, building public support for the agenda and in continuing to shift the government in support of that agenda through ongoing campaigns and advocacy.

Internet Party.

If there is no change of government is there life beyond September for the Internet Party ?

I absolutely believe a change of government is still the most likely outcome…

Point being, will things grind to a halt once Dotcom’s money runs out ?

I think the Internet Party will grow, whether in opposition or in government. There is real momentum behind this. And behind the relationship between the Internet Party and the Mana movement. I’m confident we will continue to have the kind of resource support that we need, that will expand beyond Kim himself…but with my experience, I also know how to use the platform of Parliament to continue to build support. We did it ion the Alliance very successfully from 1996 to 1999. Ewe won a lot of battles from Opposition, and I think I’m going to be even better at that, this time.

So you’re up for three years in Opposition?

I was looking at a ten year project. And that’s my minimum.

What’s the evidence that you’re expanding the vote and not simply taking votes off other progressive parties?

Obviously, the only evidence will be the election results themselves. But the evidence should be that our aim is expanding the vote – and that’s all the evidence we can provide at this point. In the next week or so we will be announcing another major initiative to mobilise young voters. We have announced yesterday the Disrupt campaign – which is an Auckland based youth voting campaign led by King Kapisi. Our road trip has brought out hundreds of people – literally – at every meeting so far, most of whom who represent low-voting communities. We started in the north, and we packed halls in Kaitaia, Kaikohe, Kerikeri, Whangarei. The overwhelming demography of the people in the room were representative of low-voting communities…

Eventually – and this may be retracing some of what you’ve said already – is a parliamentary presence the be-all and end- all of what you’re leading?

I don’t think you have to make a distinction between a social movement and a political party. All our existing political parties – those that have succeeded long term – have been generated by social movements. They have come from constituencies of people who’ve been organised on the ground. In the case of the National Party from farmers and Auckland business. In the case of the Labour Party, from trade unions and other loosely worker-oriented organisations. So traditionally, political parties have represented social movements. And its quite hard to do it the other way around, and turn a political party into a social movement.

To me, that was the strongest critique of the Alliance and I’ve also had this critique of the Greens – in that they’ve allowed themselves to become agents for the party. They’re small, they’re very much focussed on parliamentary politics. They may network with other organisations, but they aren’t owned by the community. The Alliance was never owned by a wider community, and I don’t think the Greens are, either.

There’s a simpler question on that point. If you’re a voter motivated by social justice and concerns about income inequality – why should such a person vote for you, and not for the Greens?

Because the kind of leadership that we need to tackle this problem at its root is available – I think – within those of us who are in leadership roles within the Internet Party, and from the expertise we have in our membership. And also critically [we] are informed by our relationship with Mana. For me, this comes to the reason why this was the right formation for tackling some of these issues…

Even if that was so and you do derive some special status by dint of being grounded in Mana as a Treaty partner – given that there’s a sunset clause to that relationship, doesn’t that kill part of your argument ?

Well, what the agreement has is a clause that means we’ll review the arrangement after the election because we don’t know what position we will be in and we need to regroup at that point and work out how we operate together, in Parliament. So there’s nothing sinister, no intention to discontinue the relationship.. In fact, anyone who is elected off the list we will be Internet Mana. We’ve got a joint party list. We carry each other’s mandate.

Before, it sounded like you were saying that you’ve got better leadership, a better internal structure and a relationship with Mana. And that, in sum, is why people should vote for you and not the Greens. Is that it?

No, that’s not my intention to say that. To me, its about an absolute focus, in our case, on the development of the sort of, physical infrastructure and the social infrastructure that is needed to transform us, and to create full employment. And I don’t see that as an unequivocal priority in the other party.

They would see the green economy as doing exactly that.

There are some great policy solutions, but this goes beyond policy. There’s nothing original in the Greens policy. A lot of that was captured in the Alliance policy. There are good people and good parties that have talked about this for a long time. What is missing is the appeal to a wide enough constituency of people to actually make it happen, and to build the base. We need that in the mix – and its not a replacement for what the Greens have done. Russel [Norman] has done a fantastic job over the last few years of changing the public perception of the Greens and presenting an economically credible opposition and so on. I’ve got no criticism of that at all.

But we do need an organisation, a part of the political eco-system that is uncompromising about what it will need to take us into the next phase of New Zealand’s development. And I don’t see that in either Labour or the Greens policy priorities. I’m not saying they don’t agree with it, or that they don’t believe in it. But I think that there’s a level of – what’s the word – of having to be politically acceptable that we are not bound by, as a party.

What, actually, are you saying? Are you claiming you can talk the talk and walk the walk in a way that’s better able to reach the audience that needs to be re-enfranchised ?

That’s my hope. And I mean we know, from the hard evidence of voter participation, that those constituencies have not been attracted to Labour or the Greens. It doesn’t mean that Labour and the Greens aren’t good parties. But they have failed to motivate those constituencies.

Upgrading the Net

OK, that’s a little bit clearer. Yet to some voters, the Internet Party are mainly a single issue party based around Net freedoms. Well, 25 years of market forces in telecommunications put New Zealand firms and households at the mercy of a virtual private monopoly in the 1990s , culminating in what is now the slowest and most expensive broadband in the developed world. Do you think the government’s UFB policy is at least a step in the right direction?

The option of having broadband rolled out nationally is a step in the right direction. The process for doing that – the limitations of the rollout – mean that we have a fundamental critique of the whole UFB programme. The fact that me – someone who lives two kilometres from the CBD in Auckland – who shares a house with an Internet dependent business and can’t get more than 7 megabits is ludicrous…. Its not just market failure, its also government failure because government pledged to take control of the market to deliver this outcome and they have dismally failed.

Its bad enough in central Auckland. If you then look at the impact in provincial New Zealand, its crazy. I mean, we visited one community in Northland….whose school has got fibre now into the school. It’s a provincial, rural community in Northland and it has not been able to organize an Internet Service Provider to put them up. So they’re not even using the fibre that’s in their school. For what would be literally just a few hundred dollars, you could boot the fibre that’s there through wireless to provide connection to the neighbouring households. Are they allowed to do it ? No, they’re not. So..we’re all waiting until this virtual monopoly delivers a rollout that has been way too slow.

OK, you’ve mentioned the problems with the Net in metropolitan areas, and provincial New Zealand. Will Internet Mana also be addressing the digital divide, of those households unable to afford to be online ?

Definitely. One of our first targets is on households with school-age children. We have 69,000 households with about 200,000 school age children that do not have an Internet connection. Some of those couldn’t get an Internet connection – Northland is a good example. For others, it is simply unaffordable. There may be great deals for $70 a month for broadband. You try telling that to somebody for whom that’s half the food bill. There has to be a direct government subsidy to enable school-age kids – as an absolute priority – to have Internet at home.

Reportedly, Internet Mana is scaring moderates who might have otherwise voted Labour, right back into the arms of the government. Is that a prospect that keeps you awake at night?

Firstly, there’s no evidence anyone is being scared into the arms of the government, because National’s vote hasn’t increased. What the polls show is a large group of undecided voters who have traditionally supported non-National parties. Also.. I’m confident that our communication strategy – which is very much about getting into communities through the road show and other direct communication – will settle the horses down a little. The reality – as you will know – is that those voters have been lead to have concerns. These are not concerns that derive directly from us. It is about the ways that the mainstream media have presented the options to them. And our job is to get around that theme. And I think we are changing it. As John Armstrong discovered [in the NZ Herald] you couldn’t come to one of our road show meetings and not see that this is about a whole lot more than Kim Dotcom.

And more than just about a bunch of privileged Internet nerds?

Absolutely. There’s a real hunger out there for a vision.

If we can go back to the old left/right axis for a moment, doesn’t it also suggest that the bulk of New Zealand is situated well to the left of what they’ve been told is the mainstream of credible economic and social policy?

Well, we know that, don’t we? We know that any analysis of New Zealand values would be judged – if you were going to attach the traditional labels – that peoples’ values are aligned to the left. And if you ask any human being – with the possible exception perhaps of John Key and his Cabinet colleagues – what their actual desires or dreams for their country are, I think you would find a huge affinity with the kind of values that the left represent.

OK. But rightly or wrongly though, some have seen the Internet Party as a means for Dotcom to save his bacon when it comes to extradition. Yet, given that the Clark government’s Immigration Minister – who at the time was David Cunliffe – would have deported Ahmed Zaoui given half a chance, what makes you think that a Labour Immigration Minister wouldn’t deport Kim Dotcom ?

I have no idea, and its not my business to have any idea on that. What I’ve made really clear if the courts find in favour of extradition and it then goes to final stage – which is a Minister’s approval – that is something that I will have absolutely no involvement in. I don’t want to speculate on what a Labour Minister might do in that situation. All I would do is advise anybody who might be involved in this process to keep their mouths shut, and that goes for John Key and Judith Collins as well, I have to say. Key has been very liberal with his views about Kim Dotcom –

As Helen Clark was on Zaoui.

Well, but that puts him [Key] in a very difficult position if they are re-elected, to be the boss of a Minister who is going to be making this decision.

But the point I’m making is that whether it is a Labour-led or a National-led government, ministerial discretion is unlikely to be exercised in Dotcom’s favour.

I honestly can’t express a view on that.

Personal career

You set up the HR unit in Auckland’s Supercity transition

I did more than that. I managed the whole employment transition.

So what do you say to people who feel this collusion with “the bosses” was a betrayal of all you’d fought for in the Nurses Union ?

Ask the PSA and the workers who were involved in the process that question. I supported the establishment of the Supercity so was really keen to help on the project. Also, given the chance by Mark Ford I wanted to make sure that the establishment of the Supercity wasn’t at the expense of good jobs and good conditions.

HR is usually a euphemism though for smoothing the pillow while you euthanise the jobs..

The outcome was that there was a transition process which despite being very short and very difficult and disruptive, resulted in no personal grievances and in a single collective agreement for each of Auckland Council and Auckland Transport – which represented extremely good terms and conditions for employment. So I feel very proud of the role I played in that transition and if you talk to those involved – Richard Wagstaff and so on – you would get a pretty good endorsement of the work I did there.

Should the Greens have had a restraint of trade clause in their contract with you ?

(laughs) I resigned from the Green Party. I was the issues director for the Greens. I had decided to take a year off this year. I agreed to stay on in a voluntary capacity on the campaign committee, and I think I made a really positive contribution in the time I was in the Greens. I discussed with the Green leadership and obviously with a lot of members who approached me about the possibility of standing for the Greens this year, but it was a decision I decided not to pursue.

The accusation has been that you’ve walked out the door with some of their policies in your briefcase.

But I dont know who is making that accusation except for some troublemakers in the media.

Isn’t it a bit like copyright – that we’re all standing on the shoulders of others when it comes to policy formation, and nobody can claim sole authorship of this stuff ?

No, of course they can’t. And no-one has a monopoly on ideas. I contributed plenty of ideas and drive to the Green Party while I was there, and I learned from my experience e in the Green Party – just as I am learning a whole lot from the policy work I am doing with the Internet Party. I’ve only heard this [the accusations of policy pilfering] from the media. I think I’ve proved myself over a long time in politics as being somebody with a very high level of personal integrity. There is no way I would mis-appropriate – if that were possible – the strategy of the Green Party. If they’ve got a trust issue, I don’t reciprocate it. Its silly, in my view.

Despite the stereotypes about Internet Mana, they fail to square with the realities. Your husband runs a medical research company. You co-own an organic winery in Waiheke, you’re You’ve invested in an upscale Italian restaurant in Mt Eden. That’s not exactly the stereotype of a leftwing extremist, is it ?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a left wing extremist. I think it’s the profile of people who have tons of good ideas, who have always worked in innovative areas. Who are Green to the core. And who take on risks.

And in February, the NZ Herald did raise the issue about how many of the restaurant staff – four out of six, back then – are being paid the living wage.

Yeah, we’re on track to have everyone on the living wage [$18.60 an hour] this year. We’re minority shareholders in the restaurant, but when we bought it with our former neighbours from Te Atatu, one of the objectives we set right at the start was to be a living wage restaurant. Its been financially quite difficult for them to pay a wage, let alone a living wage – and I can assure you there has been no profit made. But we are now in a position where we can achieve that in the next couple of months.

A month ago, Martyn Bradbury was picking 3.5% as a realistic figure that Internet Mana might achieve. The way things now look was he undershooting on that?

I think so. I mean, who knows? We’ve got nine weeks to go. But I feel with what we’ve got in place that we can break 5% . Certainly, that’s what I hope. Because 4.5% will also bring Chris Yong and Miriam Pierard into Parliament, and that will give us an awesome base.

And it would allow you to say that your representatives are representative of the people you’re trying to motivate ?

Absolutely. And they are excellent, cool people. And I’d love to train them up as effective MPs.