Gordon Campbell on Labour’s policy resurgence, and Alex Chilton

For much of this year, almost all the diversity in politics has been down at the retail end, where apparent differences reside in the tone, and in details. Up at the wholesale end – in the economic settings that drive the engine of politics – the story has been of convergence, exemplified by Labour and the Greens signing up to the Budget Responsibility Rules.

The excuse for this has been that hey, in this time of surpluses, there is still going to be plenty of room for social spending on traditional centre-left causes post election, so… no problem. Even if that means an embrace of the Blairite, Third Way economic policies now sliding into disfavor almost everywhere else, and especially in Britain. Yet what happens when the business cycle turns down, and the centre-left has signed itself onto the dotted line for the next bout of budget balancing and belt-tightening? Fair weather leftism isn’t the real thing.

However, and only three months out from the election, there is finally some genuine good news. Twice this week, Labour has released policy that has well and truly gotten up the nose of the sort of lobby groups that it has spent most of 2017 trying to cultivate. First, Labour’s freshwater policy has been denounced by Federated Farmers. Now its workplace relations policy has been attacked by the Employers and Manufacturers Association. Yay. It seems Labour may finally be doing something right…or more to the point, left.

The battles over freshwater policy are being waged on several fronts e.g. over (a) the wasteful and environmentally harmful taxpayer subsidies for irrigation, (b) the oversized national dairy herds, (c) the resultant levels of pollution in the nation’s rivers and lakes etc etc…. Back in February, the government released a Clean Water Plan that promised to make 90 per cent of the country’s waterways “swimmable” by – wait for it – the year 2040.

Absurdly though, the government’s Plan allows for weaker gradings of e coli river than the 2014 National Policy Statement (NPS) it was supposed to replace. Evidently, even the officials have had considerable difficulty with it. Emails released under the Official Information Act have just revealed that soon after the government policy was unveiled, Environment Ministry staff were frantically emailing scientists here and in the United States, asking for “thoughts or suggestions” because “we are struggling to explain the science in easy-to-understand terms for the general public.”

OK…so Labour freshwater plan isn’t perfect, but it is better. Labour’s 12 point freshwater plan aims to improve water quality and make rivers and lakes “genuinely swimmable” within a five year period, rarher than a 23 year period . The policy would also include overt action to clean up some of the country’s most grossly polluted rivers and lakes. More controversially, the Labour plan would crack down on intensive farming by requiring all heavily stocked farmland situated near waterways to be fenced within five years, and would regulate the run-off allowed from the so-called ‘ spray and pray” methods currently in practice Local councils would also be required to report on compliance within their regions.

Not all that surprisingly, Federated Farmers has already weighed in against the Labour plan to cap stock numbers – calling such moves “ bizarre” and likely to jeopardise rural economies. However, on this issue – as on climate change – public sentiment now seems to that our waterways problems are now of such severity that they will not fix themselves. At its heart, this relatively new political imperative for change rests on a strong feeling that swimmable rivers and lakes do form a key part of the nation’s identity. Simply put, people who used to swim in rivers want their children to still be able to do the same, without them being made sick in the attempt. On a more hard-headed level, the potential economic cost to New Zealand’s clean and green tourism image also outweighs the likely costs of compliance.

Tourism aside though, it is this inter-generational aspect of waterways policy that makes it such a potentially powerful election issue. Can the drive for short term profit by farmers be allowed to undermine the natural legacy that’s available to our children ? It doesn’t help National that Nick Smith – one of the Cabinet’s poorer performers – is the Minister defending its case.

Much the same story goes for the workplace relations as well. Again, Labour’s proposals are not perfect, but they speak to fairness issues, and they address how this should apply across the generational divide. Basically, Labour is promoting Fair Pay Agreements that would set basic employment conditions across an industry. As the NZCTU has already pointed out:

If bus drivers in New Zealand were covered by a Fair Pay Agreement they would have some certainty. But as things stand, Wellington bus drivers face pay cuts and casualisation. The problem with the current model is that it allows for, and even encourages, employers to drive wages down in order to increase their own profit margins. This model is outdated and unsustainable. Fair Pay Agreements are most certainly the way of the future. The huge success of the recent equal pay settlement shows how this approach can significantly improve the lives of working people…

Other elements of the workplace policy include a commitment to introduce Living Wage pay rates to the public service within 12 months of gaining office. Labour also propose to introduce unjust dismissal procedures into the 90 day employment trial period ie. this heralds a welcome attempt to correct the imbalance of power the current government has fostered in the workplace. Not surprisingly the dinosaurs of the right have attacked this move on “ flexibility” grounds. According to the EMA, having no protections for yo0ung workers “gives the employer and the employee the flexibility to gauge if they are the right fit, without the risk of litigation.”

Yeah, right. Workers are not nuts and bolts that can be screwed in, and tossed aside if they don’t “ fit”. The greater risk is that they will be screwed, period. Good employers have nothing to fear from what Labour is proposing, and young voters have a stake in putting these proposals into effect. In an election that has been looked short of core differences between the centre right (National) the far right ( Act) the fellow travelling right ( the Maori Party) the soft right (Labour) and an environmental right (the Greens)…there are some glimmerings of hope emerging on the left hand side of the policy ledger.

Minimum wage hikes

As Labour talks up the Living Wage, much of the press coverage this week on the offshore impact of minimum wage increases has focussed on the Seattle experience, where a large minimum wage pay hike ( from $13 to $15 an hour has reportedly had negative impacts on the earnings/employment of the workers affected.

It should be noted that a different study by academics at Berkeley contradicts the negative conclusions on minimum wage hikes and is more consistent with previous studies of the impact of such pay hikes.

The experience of Denmark has had less coverage and can be read two ways: critics of government-imposed minimum wage hikes ( eg the EMA) will point to the drop in employment that routinely kicks in once young workers in Denmark reach the age of 18. Those on the centre-left will point to the fairness and productivity arguments that should count against this kind of “flexibility” being left to the mercies of the market, and/or the goodwill of employers:

Denmark has laws making age discrimination illegal but these do not apply when a young person turns 18 and firms may legally search for under or over-18 age workers.

A variety of restrictions mean that under-18 age workers can do less than adults (e.g. they can’t legally lift more than 25 kilos or have a driver’s license.) Thus, productivity increases at age 18, making the employment loss at this age even more dramatic. The authors can’t tell for certain if workers are quitting or getting fired but there are few other obvious discontinuities around exactly age 18. Students are eligible for certain benefits at age 18 but the authors are able to look at sub-samples where this objection doesn’t apply and the results are robust.

Alex Chilton

At a time when we’ve had the 50th anniversary re-issue of St Pepper yada yada….I’d like to point to one of the rare recent examples where the re-issue (plus out-takes) process has been more than a mere cash-in. The 3 CD Complete Third will come as a revelation to those who love the Alex Chilton/Big Star album that’s variously known as Sister Lovers and the Third Album. The Complete Third packages all the demos and out-takes and mixes the album went through and in a linear narrartive. By doing so, it up ends the folklore that’s grown up around this legendary example of artistic self destruction. The core tracks ( Kanga Roo, Holocaust, Night Time, Blue Moon, Femme Fatale, O Dana, Strike It Noel) have fuelled the perception of Chilton’s disintegration occurring in the studio, on the mike.

Not so. The voice tracks on the demos are not miuch different from what ended up on record. Meaning : this was more like an artistic depiction of self-destruction, no doubt triggered by Chilton’s troubled relationship with his muse, Lesa Aldridge. But hearing the 3 CDS in sequence, its hard to sustain the legend that it was a real meltdown, accidentally caught on record.

Here for example is the demo of “Kanga Roo” which initially was called “Like St Joan”….

Then here’s the final finished product.

Both are great. But Chilton knew exactly what he was doing, all along. Which only makes this great one-of-a kind album seem even more of an achievement.