Gordon Campbell on TOP, and the bank inquiry

ce09a7202d7cb46dcd83The 5% MMP threshold soaks up a disproportionate share of the attention paid to the struggle by small parties to get into Parliament. By now, it should be obvious that winning an electorate seat is the only reliable path to political sustainability under MMP.

For example: Peter Dunne’s stronghold in Ohariu saw him through any number of party highs and lows. The Greens’ narrow Coromandel victory in 1999 made them serious contenders, and Chloe Swarbrick’s victory in Auckland Central has given the Greens a vital backstop. New Zealand First has lived dangerously ever since Winston Peters ceased being The Man From Tauranga.

Ironically, an ACT Party that preaches the gospel of self-reliance for everyone else was gifted its home base in Epsom – thanks, Daddy National – and from there, it took a decade of gap years before ACT finally began to earn its keep. Which brings us to TOP, the Opportunities Party that’s now being led by the former Christchurch city councillor Raf Manji.

Forget for now, the 5% threshold. Ilam is the electorate battle on which TOP’s future depends, as it fights to become the Dunne-like centrist party that could work with either major party, once safely in Parliament. To enhance TOP’s appeal to swinging voters of every ideological hue, Manji is promising to sit on the cross benches if elected, and to vote for policies on merit.

In an echo of Winston Peters in years past, Manji would almost certainly vote – on say the Budget or in any hypothetical situation where his vote might be crucial- with the elected majority i.e. the government of the day, out of respect don’t you know, for the democratic wishes of the majority of the public.

Ilam is, as mentioned, the do-or-die battleground for TOP. Building to the 5% threshold can come later. In the current battle, Manji can bring strong local credentials to an electorate contest where he faces two opponents who are not exactly party heavyweights.

Manji is up against an unimpressive backbench Labour incumbent (Sarah Pallett) and an untried National challenger (Hamish Campbell) who – even if National/ACT do win in October – would still be only a backbencher making up the numbers while he learns the ropes.

Manji has stood before in Ilam. He came second in 2017, albeit a very long way behind the then-incumbent, Gerry Brownlee. Yet those years as a city councillor arguably make him the best qualified of the main Ilam candidates to raise local voters’ concerns in Wellington. How effectively he can do so as an outsider is a different matter, but Manji does have proven skills in the art of gaining media attention.

The final shape of his tactical pitch to Ilam’s National leaning voters will hinge on where Hamish Campbell ends up on the National Party list. A high list ranking will open the door to Manji running a “two for one” pitch to centre-right voters: tick me on the electorate vote, because he’s going to be in Parliament anyway. If Campbell is lowly ranked, then the message can be: see, even his own party doesn’t rate him.

Ultimately, the success of this pitch will hinge on whether TOP’s policy package can be made safely non-ideological, and be seen to pose little or no immediate threat to the centre-right. So far, TOP’s main communications gambit has been its Teal Card, a clear nod to Australia’s bloc of “teal independents” who proved crucial to sweeping an unpopular government from power last year, across the Tasman.

Essentially, TOP’s Teal Card is a Gold Card for under 30s. It offers fully funded public transport and healthcare for under 30s,plus a $5,000 mini-UBI boost for everyone.

On tax reform, TOP is promising relief to low and middle income earners by rendering tax free more of their initial income, a change that it would pay for in large part via a limited land tax. Any of the wealthy inhabitants of Fendalton and Merivale who might baulk at a land tax can be re-assured that Manji is also in favour of providing them with rates relief by returning to local government the GST component of rates. Swings and roundabouts. Rates relief will certainly sound appealing to Ilam’s home-owners.

Presumably, Fendalton and Merivale voters will also welcome the fact that Manji opposes the Greens plan for a wealth tax. As Manji said to an Ilam electorate meeting last night: “Why would you want to tax wealth production?” Interesting. The Greens, no doubt, would respond that their wealth tax wouldn’t stop wealth production in its tracks, but would subject that wealth to some of the tax disciplines that wage and salary earners routinely experience.

A centrist voice. An ability to engage productively with both major parties. A pitch based on his expertise in (and fidelity to) “sensible” steady-as-it-goes economic orthodoxy. Policy matters aside, Manji is making a commitment to grassroots electorate priorities likely to be overlooked by the big guns in Wellington… That is, unless the little battler from Ilam can make them sit up, and take notice.

Close your eyes, and you could almost be listening to that previous voice of the sensible centre, Peter Dunne. Flexible, to a fault.

Don’t bank on it

For the year to last December, the banking sector collectively chalked up $7. 8 billion in profits, a 17.3 % increase on the year before. In March, Labour rejected calls for a Parliamentary inquiry into the causes and effects of banking sector profit-taking levels. Belatedly, it has now announced an inquiry by the Commerce Commission into the sector, but one that will be narrowly limited to personal banking, and to customer complaints.

Meaning: We are still a very long way from an inquiry into the anatomy of our banking sector, the structural reasons for its excess profits and the impact all of this is having on the New Zealand economy.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has long been inclined to treat concerns about excessive bank profits as a public relations problem for the banks, rather than as a systemic problem for the entire country.

This approach is consistent with Labour being notably gun-shy about tackling market concentration i.e. the ways that neo-monopolies and oligopolies stifle competition. (National is even worse. It doesn’t see any need for anti-trust laws at all. It tends to treat monopoly power as a sign of business success!)

This tendency to turn a blind eye to the repeated evidence of excessive profit taking – there’s a reason why our banks are the most profitable in the developed world – is deeply depressing, all the same.

Not surprising, though. Labour has tended to act like a possum in the headlights whenever it is required to take a progressive position on excess profit-taking, anti-trust issues or substantial tax reform. It has had a panic attack when confronted with a meaningful capital gains tax, a wealth tax, a GST exemption on fruit and vegetables and calls for a windfall tax.

Yet… If recent bank profit-taking doesn’t justify a windfall tax on those profits, it is pretty hard to imagine what could ever qualify. Think about it. In the wake of Covid, the banks were saved from recession and from the rash of bad debts this would have brought in its wake, thanks to joint government/Reserve Bank efforts to prop up the economy. They owe us, big time.

Not only did the RB/government exercise in quantitative easing rescue the banks from the level of bad debts they were expecting, but the subsequent inflationary spike has been treated by the banks as an excuse to crank up their profit margins. A 10% windfall tax on those profits that taxpayers had – in a sense – underwritten and handed to them on a plate, would have been entirely legitimate.

Alas though, Labour seems to be deathly afraid of being seen to appear hostile to entrenched corporate power. Instead, it rather prides itself on being seen to be an orthodox servant of capital. See how trustworthy we are! This inquiry into banking provided an opportunity to fully investigate and penalise the undue concentration of market power in our banking sector. That opportunity has been successfully avoided by what is allegedly, a centre-left Government.

Footnote: The dogged reluctance to tackle the four big Aussie banks is not limited to government. Five years ago, the sector’s main watchdogs – the Reserve Bank and the Financial Markets Authority – issued a joint report on the banking sector that reads almost like a satire on toothless oversight.

The banks, the report concluded, needed to pro-actively work to achieve maturity on how to identify, manage, re-mediate and report on conduct risks and issues, if they are to deliver consistently good outcomes for customers. You think? Moreover:

The regulators note that some banks’ product review processes are “primarily focused on how the product benefits the bank, rather than customers.” They say this reduces the likelihood key risks posed by their products will be detected and remediated. The regulators even point out that there’s no common definition across the banking industry of what constitutes a complaint.

Gosh. Who would have thought that the banks might be so fixated on racking up profits that they forget to detect and fix customer complaints? To the point where, apparently, they didn’t even know for sure what qualified as a complaint. Hey, nothing to see here.

Banking for everyone

Oh for the days when banks were good for all of us, as this song from Mary Poppins eloquently explains to a couple of sceptical little kids…