Gordon Campbell on National’s divisive plans to heal our divisions

divthumbAs we wait for crime to cease, rents to fall, and food prices to plummet, how does the Luxon government propose to heal the divisions that have come to divide this divided nation? Allegedly, these divisions have been caused by the twin hobgoblins of (a) co-governance and (b) vaccine mandates that infringed on our God-given right to put our fellow workers, patients and students at greater risk of catching a deadly disease. So far, the people complaining about how divided we have become don’t seem to be feeling under any obligation to make concessions or compromise so that the healing can begin. Funny that.

Instead, there seems to be a widespread belief that the new government should simply drive those divisions underground, back where they used to be. Under Labour, workers were encouraged to think they could be trusted with a limited ability to bargain collectively to win fairer pay and better work conditions. Quelle horreur. How divisive.

That sort of thing got in the way of employers, landlords, the farming community, the drug companies, and the transport, tourism, and hospitality sectors. Honest folk striving to optimise the profits from their hard work and/or relative wealth and privilege without being ensnared in red tape and regulations that made them share the proceeds, comply with health and safety standards, protect the environment and do all the other nonsense dreamed up by the liberal elites.

Its rhetoric aside, Act/National will not be ushering in an era of small government. For those on the receiving end, the intrusive and punitive powers of the state are about to suddenly increase. Rehabilitate criminals? Why go to the bother, when you can simply build more prisons, lock’em up and throw away the key. Once again, employers will be able to impose 90 day trials on new workers – who can then be fired just before they qualify for basic pay entitlements, and just before the personal grievance protections against harassment would kick in.

What I’m getting at is that there’s precious little in the National/Act change programme that’s likely to heal our social divisions, and plenty that will make those divisions even worse. The tax cuts will be socially regressive, thus widening the gaps of wealth and opportunity. Other policies will significantly increase the power imbalances that already exist between employers and workers, landlords and tenants.

For example… Landlords will once again be allowed to evict renters from their homes without needing a reason, and will no longer face regulatory pressure to make their properties healthy and habitable. Meanwhile, those reliant on benefits – including the sick and disabled – will be forced into taking low paying jobs in workplaces where unionisation is discouraged, and where collective bargaining rights have been scrapped.

Big government will also require Pharmac to increase drug company profits by shifting their funding priorities away from buying so many generic medicines, and towards buying more of Big Pharma’s wildly expensive new drugs, even if they offer only limited benefits to relatively few patients.

Shorn of the upbeat rhetoric of change, this is how the centre right is proposing to “heal” the existing divisions in society…. By further empowering the already advantaged, and reducing the capacity for dissent, especially in the workplace. In other words, it aims to pay back its big donors. “Strong and stable” government is being promised during the coalition talks in order to achieve stability. Once that stability is locked in, the “strong” state will be free to impose its retro agenda without significant opposition. For most of us, it’s going to be a rough ride.

Springboks tours, older divisions.

For the record, the polls had indicated at the time that vaccine mandates were seriously opposed by relatively few New Zealanders. Far more serious social divisions had arisen – for example – during the 1951 lockout, and 1981 Springbok tour. Down the years, the wider significance of the 1981 tour protests has been somewhat over-stated, despite its impact on the participants. Mythology to the contrary, the 1981 protests marked only a small step on the world stage towards the eventual fall of apartheid.

Arguably, the protests that broke out across New Zealand in 1981 barely compensated for our rugby tour of South Africa in 1976, which took place while black children were being shot down in Soweto. Our role in 1976 has been expunged from the collective memory. Yet on that tour, the All Blacks entertained white South Afticans while the townships burned, thereby lending tacit support to the regime. Five Maori members in the team received “honorary white” status.

That 1976 All Blacks tour led directly to the Montreal Olympics being boycotted that year by 25 African nations (and by a number of other countries in the Middle East, Asia and South America) in protest at the presence of the New Zealand team in Montreal.

No doubt, that Montreal boycott legacy did help to energise the anti-tour campaign in 1981. Ultimately though, the fate of the apartheid regime was sealed by the UN socio-economic and cultural boycotts and by the activist pressure put on US corporates to dis-invest. Eventually, those dis-investment campaigns overwhelmed the last ditch attempts by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to “creatively engage” with the apartheid regime, and buy it a bit more time.

It was the dis-investment campaign that also convinced the big South African corporates (e.g. the Anglo American mining group) that the jig was up. Currently, a similar “boycott and divest” movement is being waged (with some success) against Israel, in protest at the neo-apartheid regime that it has imposed on Palestinians. In the spirit of 1981, and in the light of current events in Gaza, that economic and cultural boycott of Israel deserves more support from the New Zealand public, and from its government. As the horrors unfold in Gaza unfold, it’s the least we can do.

Footnote: Even a smidgeon of hindsight would indicate that the 1981 experience was not enduringly transformative for many of the individuals involved. As one Canadian reviewer of the current 1981 tour-related film Uproar has noted:

As South Africa’s rugby team tours New Zealand, protests break out at every game to denounce Apartheid––a noble act if not for the reality that those same people fighting for Black Africans they’ve never met are also ignoring the fact the land they occupy was stolen from the Māori people currently being oppressed upon it.

Those parallels, dramatized by Uproar with 20/20 hindsight, seem evident to the Maori participants. Meanwhile, many of the white middle class who did march for justice in 1981 also (barely three years later) voted the neo-liberal Lange/Douglas government into power. Some profited from those reforms.

The subsequent ravaging of Maori communities by the market-driven policies of the Lange government led directly to the current problems the wider society is now facing with crime, drugs,and predatory gangs, all culminating in the alienated rage and despair felt by many rangatahi. On the upside, this social legacy recently inspired calls for affirmative action to belatedly try to close the gaps of income and opportunity fostered by the market reforms.

That’s why it has been depressing this year to see the aging members of Generation Springbok Tour rejecting affirmative action and co-governance as separatism, or even regarding them as exercises in racism. After 180 years, it should have been obvious that the policies of assimilation don’t work, not for Maori at least. On this issue and others, the new government has succeeded in re-defining solutions as problems.