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New politics of equality reins New Zealand

Forget the flag. Forget the trusts. Forget the Internet Party…oh you already have.

Where are the real battle lines to be drawn this September and the real issues that will decide the election?

The February ‘One News’ Colmar Brunton Poll suggests that Kiwis care most about education, health, jobs, child poverty and wages.

A recent New Zealand Herald editorial was bang on: “This September it is going to be all about the economy.”

This is not to say that New Zealanders have suddenly become a nation of hard-nosed economists with a passion for growth forecasts and interest rates. Rather, a growing economy first means more employment opportunities and money for people and businesses, which secondly (through the magic of tax) creates a bigger pile of cash for the government to spend on the things that directly affect most of us like the healthcare, education and welfare systems.

But aren’t elections always about the economy? Stupid as it may sound, sadly it has been a non-issue in recent times.

For the past three elections at least, National and Labour have had an uneasy truce on economic issues. Besides a few skirmishes on the side like asset sales, the Left raised a white flag many years ago, largely conceding a century-old tradition of redistributive class politics and awkwardly embracing the market and the inequalities inherent within.

New politics

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s landmark Free Trade Agreement with China underscored this. This was not just surrender, but a defection to the other side.

How did this happen? As Dr Bryce Edwards, Politics Lecturer at University of Otago chronicled in 2010, behind the shroud of identity politics, the market rose to uncontested status:

The ‘old politics of equality’ has been superseded by ‘the new politics of equality,’ which rejects the previous goal of economic egalitarianism in favour of an emphasis on anti-discrimination legislation and rights for identity groups. This might be termed the victory of ‘identity politics’ over class politics.

Social chasm

It was as if a social chasm widened between parties as an economic bridge closed the gap. Moral, social and foreign policy issues took centre stage, while backstage, the liberal economic agenda was rushing apace.

Dr Edwards noted how in the 1980s Rogernomics was met with surprisingly little resistance from the Labour Party that was distracted by nuclear-free New Zealand.

The Clark Government continued the trend, more interested in legalising prostitution and civil unions and stopping smacking than sticking it to capitalism.

One major exception to this is Working For Families, arguably the only major reform inherited by National that was true to Labour’s traditional economic values.

Fiscal armistice

Here, the Key Government seems to have upheld their part of the fiscal armistice by accepting middle class welfare as the new normal for an otherwise free market-friendly New Zealand. The truce held. Until now, that is.

We are starting to see some real gusto from the left on economic issues. Inequality in all its guises is firmly back on the table, with implications for child poverty, employment and welfare just to name a few.

More than any time in recent memory, Labour has reclaimed its vigour for the workers and the downtrodden and is mustering for a Braveheart-esque charge into the political fray. But for this year, as the Herald editorial notes, the shouts of equality must not only be heard, but resonate with voters too.

Labour prospects

The Labour Party’s prospects will depend not on questioning the overall economic wellbeing but on convincing enough voters that some boats will not rise on the incoming tide. It must argue persuasively that many people will not share in the prosperity, through wage rises, job opportunities, and decreasing inequality. This, in effect, will be a situation where the rich get richer and there is little in it for many people who bore the worst of the belt-tightening over the past few years.

We are in prosperous times, this is almost beyond debate.

National has thus far proven to be a steady hand on the economy. The economic darling of the OECD, our growth forecasts are solid and we have just lifted interest rates, the first country to do so since the financial crisis.

Both business and voter confidence is sky high too.

In this environment, the left cannot afford to simply say us too on the economy.

Whether they are right or not about inequality, and I certainly have serious concerns on some of the policies offered thus far, for even a hint of electoral success they must offer an alternative way forward.

Their economic vision may end up way off the mark, but putting a vision out there sparks real debate about what the economy and the prosperity it brings is actually for. Reflecting on this question is good for all of us.

Politics has been described as an “authoritative allocation of values,” and for me, I am glad to finally see some real economic values being debated.

Let the battle begin.

Kieran Madden is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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