Gordon Campbell On The Shrinking Of Labour’s Vision

6723af49ef554b8e1f8aLabour has begun 2023 with the centre-left bloc behind in the polls and losing ground. That being so, did his colleagues choose Chris Hipkins as the replacement for Jacinda Ardern because they think he has a realistic shot at leading them to victory this year, or because he‘s the best option available for limiting the carnage?

There’s quite a difference between a victory strategy and a damage limitation strategy. That difference will determine whether Labour will go for broke and go down fighting, or merely try to batten down the hatches, jettison its problematic cargo (eg the social insurance scheme, the RNZ/TVNZ merger and aspects of Three Waters) and hope to get as many MPs into the lifeboats by mid-October as possible. Under Hipkins, Labour seems to be going for Option Two.

No surprise. For all of his perky likeability and Energiser Bunny work ethic, no one has ever accused Chris Hipkins of being a risk-taker, or a visionary. He has built his reputation around being an incredibly hard working fellow and a safe pair of hands while doing whatever Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern have asked him to do. No matter the task and whatever the workload, Hipkins has always been game. It’s a safe bet that any decisions he now makes will have been arrived at only after much consulting of focus groups, and extensive team input. To put it kindly, he’s a consensus kind of guy.

Unfortunately for Labour, politics is not a memory game. The government’s previous achievements in (a) shepherding the public and the economy safely through the pandemic, (b) managing the mosque shootings aftermath, and (c)coping with the Whakaari/White Island tragedy all now belong to history. Other problems now dominate: The cost of living, the perceptions around crime, the fears about the looming recession and a general mood of grievance and anxiety are challenges that can’t be resolved by reciting past glories and chiding voters for their lack of gratitude.

The Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff put her finger on the transition required. After praising Jacinda Ardern for her “boldness and decisiveness in pursuing a strict Covid Zeo policy that kept the country’s death toll enviably low,” Hinsliff went on to observe:

…..As other countries started opening up post-Covid while New Zealand did not, the domestic mood turned mutinous. Rising crime, a persistent housing crisis and a series of angry anti-vaxxer protests that culminated in violent clashes outside the country’s Parliament all took their toll. By bowing out now, [Ardern] is perhaps recognising not only that she has exhausted her own reserves but that her party’s best chance of retaining power this [northern] autumn may be under a leader free from the painful baggage she had accumulated over the last few years.

Fine. Except obviously, Hipkins can’t credibly embody a break from the Covid past. For the first 18 months of the pandemic he was the public face and Minister responsible for the Covid-19 response. Many of the public now want to put those Covid years behind them, even if that means ignoring the weekly death toll that the virus is still racking up.

So… Is it possible to think of any policy area where Hipkins could change the political landscape in the unlikely event he feels motivated to do so? Let’s assume – if only for arguments sake – that there are still avenues open to him in this year’s Budget for taking more than a “business as usual but with better explanatory footnotes” approach. We can all dream that Labour might finally use its parliamentary majority to enact radical change, can’t we?

Left, and Right

Easy to forget in this moment of canonisation, but Jacinda Ardern had critics on both sides of the political divide. With good reason, her readiness to scrap a meaningful capital gains tax (CGT) and her refusal to consider a wealth tax both drew strong criticism from the left. So did her refusal to extend access to Working for Families to beneficiary families, even though this move would have alleviated child poverty In effect, Ardern and Robertson have squandered the unprecedented mandate and Parliamentary majority won by Labour in 2020. They did not take the once-in a lifetime chance for the left to enact significant change.

Given the same power, a centre right government would have created a flat tax rate, privatised welfare, sold off every last state asset and ransacked the Super Fund for the Mother of All Tax Cuts. Theoretically, Hipkins is no longer bound by the confines of what Ardern and Robertson have deemed to be politically viable. Assume for a hallucinogenic moment that Hipkins might want to take Labour in a more populist direction, while inspiring Labour’s base in the process. He says he wants a fairer tax system. So in the Budget this year, will he – for instance – scrap tax entirely for those subsisting on incomes below say, $25,000?

At the other end of the income scale, a wealth tax would be a popular option, whatever the blowback from the commentariat. (It would offer more immediate political gains than an expanded CGT.) Elsewhere in the world, calls for a wealth tax have now entered the political mainstream. Only last week at the annual gathering of the rich and powerful in Davos, Switzerland, a group of 212 millionaires and billionaires made the case that a wealth tax was morally, socially and economically imperative. Their joint statement entitled “The Cost of Extreme Wealth” can be found here.

The received wisdom in New Zealand however, is that a tax increase of any sort would be politically radioactive, even if all the revenue was tied to providing an essential public service. I’m citing a wealth tax as merely one (unlikely) option if Labour ever felt inclined to come out of the gate fighting under its new leader, and go for broke. Instead, it looks far more inclined to pull up the policy drawbridge and hope that the voters will be merciful. They may not be. Appeasement gestures are never an attractive look.

In sum, the signs are not good that Labour has come to fight. At his first press conference as the incoming PM, Hipkins indicated that Labour was going to focus on the ‘bread and butter” issues from now on. In Hipkins’ opinion, many people think Labour had been going too far, too quickly (!) and the Cabinet will be re-acting accordingly:

I know that some New Zealanders think that we are doing too much too fast and I have heard that message. Over the coming week, Cabinet will be making decisions on reining in some programs and projects that aren’t essential right now.

Those comments herald a retreat, back to the fabled core issues. So far, this seems to consist of Hipkins repeatedly saying how deeply and sincerely Labour understands and empathises with the public’s struggle to make ends meet. Plainly, Labour also intends to refrain from doing anything at all in future that smacks of cultural elitism. Suitably chastened, the government seems about to throw the policy non-essentials overboard, and get the life-boats ready. No doubt, several Labour MPs who were swept to electorate victory by the red tide in 2020 will lose their seats this time around. That’s political life. But they probably won’t be saved if – for fear of ACT’s racist dog-whistling – Labour now backs away from the stewardship principles that are central to any substantive forms of co-governance.

Without being maudlin about it… For the past five years, New Zealand has had a leader able to demonstrate here at home and on the world stage, that there is a better way of doing political leadership. That era is over. Under new management, Labour seems intent on glorifying the view from the Hutt Valley, and from the Westie part of Auckland. That marks quite a change. Instead of a global vision of Aotearoa New Zealand, Chris Hipkins appears to be offering us large helpings of Kiwiana instead. The milky bars are on him!

Dissing Ardern

What will the loony right do now that it doesn’t have Jacinda Ardern to hate? For years, journalists like Pearl Going in NBR, Kirsty Johnson and Michelle Duff have drawn attention to (a) the double standards in the coverage of Jacinda Ardern and (b) to the gleefully ugly and threatening comments being directed at her.

Talking of which …Wouldn’t it have been great if Federated Farmers had shown some moral leadership and denounced the toxic things some of its members were doing and saying about Ardern in the name of the farming community? It would have been equally great if some of those progressive farmers that we keep on hearing about had put their heads up, and done the same.

The abuse directed at Ardern has been so extreme its easy to think of it as a new phenomenon. In fact, Ardern has had to deal with gendered hostility for her entire career. Remember the “Battle of the Babes” framing of the 2014 electorate contest in Auckland Central? In 2015, former rugby league coach Graham Lowe famously dismissed Ardern as a “pretty little thing… If she was Prime Minister at some stage, she’d look good.” When Ardern expressed mild irritation at this comment, she was lectured by pundit Matthew Hooton in these terms:

In his [Metro] column, Hooton accused Ardern of having “no political acumen at all” based on her handling of the situation. “As a politician, she judged expressing offence in the instant to be more important than the 100-year connection with Labour’s league-playing voters. As a feminist, she lost an opportunity to engage positively with Lowe on his language about women,” he wrote.

Right. In other words, Ardern was being told to treat her values as entirely transactional and regard the sensitivities of Labour’s league-playing male supporters as her over-riding concern. She was also being told to accept “as a feminist” that the onus was always on her to engage patiently and constructively with misogyny, while taking care not to hurt the feelings of the bigots while doing so.

In similar vein in 2015, Chris Trotter had offered these pearls of wisdom from the alleged left:

It is simply not enough for a political leader to be in possession of high intelligence and finely-honed communication skills… She is being assessed as a potential party leader well in advance of her settling on something more substantive to offer the news media’s relentless interrogation than a fetching physiognomy.

Right. A fetching physiognomy. Looks again. The interesting thing there being the insistence on (ideological?) substance above and beyond the evidence of intelligence and communication skills – as if a woman being conventionally attractive requires her to over-compensate, and show that she’s read her Marx. So it goes and so it went.

Consider the contrast. Christopher Luxon has not been marked down by the mainstream media to anything like the same degree, despite repeatedly demonstrating his lack of intelligence, and despite his lack of communication skills once he’s exhausted his clipboard list of soundbites.

Quite the genderised double standard, right? Because

Luxon’s comments have been allowed to vanish down the memory hole, in an election year it is worth repeating the awesomely stupid things he said about public transport:

Public transport needs to stand on its own feet, it can’t be subsidised or underwritten right? It has to be able to build its own case.”

And Luxon’s explanation for this idiocy, in his own words? ”I haven’t thought too deeply about it, to be honest..” As Werewolf said at the time:

If a female politician said something as laughable as Luxon’s proposal on transport subsidies and defended it on the basis that she hadn’t thought about it too deeply, she would never survive the fallout. She would be roundly damned as a scatterbrain and a show pony, and deemed plainly unfit for higher office.

Yet because Luxon is a man in a suit, and because he is the leader of a National Party that has always been suspicious of conspicuous intelligence, he is being enabled to continue on his bumbling way. Jacinda Ardern on the other hand, is held to a different standard.”

Like pornography, misogyny is prone to mission creep. Meaning: the content has to intensify in order to deliver the same hit. That’s why the vile turn to the verbal abuse of Ardern was also the logical end point of what had come before. She was patronised and belittled before she achieved power, denigrated after she gained it and resented because of how she used it. Ironically, the most poisonous expressions of hostility came not only from the sectors that had benefited from what she did, but also from some of the people whose livelihoods (and lives!) had been saved by her government. Go figure.

Ardern, as I’ve indicated above, was not perfect. As she said herself, she is “human.” That aside, it would be deeply annoying if Chris Hipkins now chooses to be at all apologetic about her legacy. Besides, a belated bout of cringing will do nothing for Labour at the ballot box. For many of its core supporters, the problem has always been that Labour did too little, too slowly.

The Wallace Chapman Files of Fogeydom Entry # 5,358:

Here you’ve got a guy who feels very comfortable in a black hoodie, very comfortable in a hat and wraparounds. I mean, [that’s] quite something…” (The Panel, 23 January, circa 4.15pm.) Good grief.

Harmony in triplicate

A few days ago, the killer trio known as boygenius released three new singles at once. Here’s Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker (does anyone still use the term’ supergroup”?) on the standout track:

In more melancholy mode… The lyrics to “True Blue” sound like a Lucy Dacus composition, given the grounding in a specific time and place, and the knotty content. The song is a grudging recognition that love can endure, despite differences that in an earlier phase of the relationship, would have been deal breakers. Yet the song also acknowledges the daily cost involved, even when those limits are accepted:

There are also sharply felt – and ambivalent – lyrics on this pretty, folk-inflected final track. “Emily I’m sorry/ just make it up as I go along/ yet I can feel myself becoming /someone only you could want.”