Gordon Campbell on Winston Peters’ troubled tango with the ACT Party

5a6c82a3cbc6026d7990In line with its ideological mission to destroy any and all of the creative partnerships between the state, business, science and public health, the ACT Party yesterday announced its plans to gut MBIE of its staff, institutional knowledge and core programmes, presumably in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy, and handouts to landlords.

Among the items lined up for the chopping block: fees-free tertiary study, water infrastructure reform, Callaghan Innovation, RMA reform, the He Waka Eke Noa partnership between government and primary industries to reduce climate change emissions, the regional skills leadership initiatives etc. etc. Plus ACT aims to get rid of this scientific research development programme, and this one too….

Obviously, this slash and burn exercise would reduce New Zealand’s capacity for innovation, technological advances and the access to opportunity for all NewZealanders. Clearly, ACT is happy to impose fees from the moment they began their studies… Because, hey, the privileged white kids in the ACT Party can always borrow their tuition fees and running costs from the bank of Mum and Dad, right? Newsflash: ACT do not resent the rich.

Yet compared to Australia, New Zealand is already miserly when it comes to making university study affordable. Kiwi graduates have to start repaying their student loans as soon as they are earning $NZ22,828 or more, a year. In Australia, by stark contrast, graduates need to begin making student loan repayments only after they have begun earning $A51,550, and even then the interest payable is capped – eventually hitting 5% only for those earning in the $A84,000-$89,000 income band. ACT, by contrast, wants to expose Kiwi students to the full blast of tuition fees costs from the moment they start studying, and before they begin earning. Yikes.

In a similar vein…. Scrapping the production grants and rebates for the film and gaming industries would gut both of those high-tech, growth industries. This would drive the major projects and skilled technicians built up over the past few decades offshore, starting with the Avatar sequels. Could Weta survive an ACT/National government? Probably not. One could go on: ACT’s hostility to the state playing a positive role in wealth generation, infrastructure building and climate change mitigation extends to abolishing several R&D funding programmes and Callaghan Innovation to boot.

To take just one example: ACT’s proposals to cut back on R&D makes absolutely no sense. At 1.47% of GDP, our current investment in R&D is already lagging well behind the OECD average of 2.7%. Japan at 3.4% and Germany at 3.3% of GDP plainly see the value of investing in a country’s capacity for innovation, including in those research areas to do with public health. ACT, not so much. In the latest figures, the corporate sector in New Zealand funded slightly less than 60% of this country’s investment in R&D last year, with tertiary education providers (24%)and Crown research centres (17%) doing the bulk of the rest.

Keep in mind that as well… As mentioned in this column before, the centre-right is also proposing to freeze the minimum wage for three years, to re-introduce 90 day fire-at-will employment trials, to reduce workplace personal grievance protections against harassment, to give landlords a multi-billion dollar tax break by letting them write off the interest payments on their rental properties, to allow landlords to evict tenants at will, to invite people to rob their future by using their Kiwisaver savings to pay their rental bonds, to spend extra billions on Defence, to impose a five year lifetime limit on welfare support for the jobless, to impose cashless welfare cards on long term beneficiaries, to create more charter schools able to expose kids to unqualified teachers, to permanently lower the tax burden on the wealthy, to scrap Fair Pay Agreements, to abolish the Maori Health Authority, to spend millions on sending young offenders to punitive boot camps known to fail, to bring back Three Strikes, to re-open the export trade in live animals, to reduce the sentencing discretion of judges, to raise the retirement age, to give farmers an extra five year holiday from changing their climate damaging practices, to remove sanctions on dairy farming’s pollution of our lakes and rivers, to reduce healthy homes protections.

Oh, and a centre-right government would also freeze government payments into the Super Fund, and… If Seymour has anything to do with it, it would probably sell off Kiwibank and the state’s remaining shares in Air New Zealand and the country’s major energy companies. What business does the state have in owning public assets? In short: We’re headed back to 1989, and seem set to be making all of the same ideologically-driven mistakes all over again.

Whither Winston?

All this should be causing Winston Peters a few sleepless nights. ‘Twas at the Alexandra Park Raceway almost exactly 30 years ago that Peters first sallied forth into the political wilderness and launched New Zealand First, in opposition to the accursed neo-liberal socio-economic policies of Ruth Richardson. Why, the very name ”New Zealand First” was a rebuke to globalisation, and to the unfettered free market forces that David Seymour now aims to resurrect, and intends to take even further than Richardson ever dared.

To be consistent with NZF’s founding stance, shouldn’t Peters now be denouncing the Seymour/Luxon agenda on principle? Instead, he appears intent on helping it to happen. The trajectory of polling indicates that Peters will succeed in getting New Zealand First across the MMP threshold in October. If there is a change of government, Peters will (at most) be facing only two options.

In the unlikely event of being invited on board by Christopher Luxon, Peters could agree to join a formal coalition with ACT and National. It is more likely that he would sit on the cross benches, and be free to criticise the government of the day. Even so, Peters would not be able to escape being an accomplice. By dint of guaranteeing a Luxon government his support on confidence and supply votes, he would be keeping in power an extreme right wing government of the very type that New Zealand First was founded to oppose.

Moreover, such a government would probably be doing some very bad things (raising the retirement age, means-testing the pension) to NZF’s Gold Card core constituents. The only way that Peters could avoid complicity would be by negotiating strict safeguards for pensioners (at least) into the post-election negotiations. Obviously though, being seen to be held hostage by Winston Peters wouldn’t be the ideal launch pad that Luxon would have in mind for his new administration.

Further down the track, Peters could also (theoretically) trigger the A-bomb option of voting with Labour to bring down an extremist Luxon government. If so, NZF would no doubt be severely punished by the voting public for putting them to the trouble of fresh elections.

Back to the future

Given these scenarios, what on earth can Peters hope to achieve if NZF does manage to get back into Parliament.? To repeat: In the twilight of his political career, Peters is on course to becoming an accessory to a more virulent form of the very same socio-economic policies that he once denounced so strongly, so many years ago. Time really is a flat circle.

Footnote: Peters and Seymour are competing for the same anti-woke, anti-vaccine mandate, and anti-affirmative action for Maori bloc of voters. Before a packed hall of circa 400 people in Christchurch yesterday, Peters pushed a few of the usual culture war buttons. He (inaccurately) claimed that the name “Aotearoa” had been a colonial invention of William Pember Reeves. He also won loud applause for mocking the Air New Zealand “waka in the sky” commercial.

Moving right along, Peters then decried the sex education book Welcome to Sex which is intended to promote informed discussions about sex between parents and 11 to 14 year olds. Instead, Peters depicted it as a guide to relationships, to gender identity and to “anal sex” ( audible gasp from audience) for “primary school” kids. His plea to “Let kids be kids” i.e. Let’s leave sex education to parents, and (presumably) to Pornhub – also went down well with the crowd.

In short, the Peters speech was ideal fodder for anyone who feels victimised by the current cabal of elite politicians, the “communists” in the Green Party. The ivory tower academics, and the scores of arrogant journalists in the mainstream media. Luke Malpass and Janet Wilson were singled out as prime media villains. At one point, Peters led the crowd in a couple of chants of the NZF election campaign slogan “Let’s Take Back Our Country”

In context, it sounded more like a wish to take our country back, to about…. 1958. Back when kids were kids, and before the elitists started getting worked up about the bad health statistics for Maori, and their high rates of imprisonment. The good old days.

Footnote Two: In case you were wondering, Peters deftly handled his past collaboration with the woke legions of Labour and with the communist hordes of the Green Party. According to Peters, everything good that Labour achieved was done at NZF’s behest and once shorn of Peters’ wise counsel, Labour has made a mess out of everything, ever since.

Secondly, Peters began his speech by mentioning the huge number of National voters who had defected to Labour in 2020. Meaning: don’t blame Peters for his past sins of collaboration. Blame those traditional National voters who gave Labour its thumping majority three years ago, and for reasons that they should have been thanking Peters for, at the time. The voters can be so ungrateful.