There’s a storm brewing

What the local elections foretell

I am one of the large majority who did not vote in the recent mayoral and local elections in New Zealand – not because I was confused by the postal voting system, nor because I’m “not yet ready for a Pasifika mayor,” nor because I am uninterested in the local elections in general. I didn’t vote because there was not a single candidate for whom I could vote in good conscience. There was not a single candidate who represented the interests of the working class, not one who even claimed to represent working class interests. (It is true that a handful of candidates ran under the banner of the Labour Party, but the “labour” designation here is understood by all to have nothing but a ceremonial function, as a sentimental reminder of that party’s distant past.)

Workers driven to desperation by homelessness and housing shortages, inflation and the erosion of their real wages, breakdowns of urban infrastructure and services, had no one they could vote for. This is the real reason for the record low turnout these elections – about 36% nationally, higher in rural areas (but with an even bigger drop compared to previous elections), and only 21% in the mostly working-class Manukau ward in Auckland. The low voter turnout has generated much hand-wringing in ruling circles. And they should be worried!

Newly-elected mayors: Left, Wayne Brown in Auckland with his wife Toni,
right, Tory Whanau in Wellington

In New Zealand, local elections are held a year before the national elections, and often there is more public interest in the outcome than in actually voting, as people look for what the results might foretell. This local election unmistakably signaled a looming electoral disaster for the ruling Labour Party.

A storm is brewing. There is a growing discontent, formless and leaderless but nonetheless real, which has two constant elements: a widespread rejection of the politics of liberal paternalism which has characterised the last two terms of the Labour government, and paralysis and disarray within both of the principal ruling parties. These were precisely the political conditions which raised Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States in 2016.

Today the closest international parallel is with the situation in Canada, where the government of Justin Trudeau (left) has a similar liberal-paternalist character to Ardern’s. Trudeau invoked the anti-democratic Emergencies Act to crush a truckers’ Freedom Convoy in Ottawa in February 2022, at about the same time that the Ardern government in New Zealand launched a major police action to evict demonstrators from Parliament grounds in Wellington. The popularity of both governments has plummeted in the months since then. Trudeau faces a challenge from Pierre Poilievre (right, with wife Anaida) a vocal supporter of the Freedom Convoy. Photos: BBC

It was clear even going into the election that the central government had a major problem on its hands. Amid a deepening decay of the water and drainage infrastructure that will require huge investment to repair, the Labour-Party-led central government proposed a drastic reform of the administration of water services. The reform involves setting up a giant unelected bureaucracy which would take control of water supply, sewage and urban stormwater drains out of the hands of elected local councils. It was poetically named Three Waters (the three waters being drinking water, sewage, and stormwater). Plans for this reform are already quite advanced; the legislation is making its way through the parliamentary process. But many local councils have united to oppose the reform, and many of the election candidates made opposing it a central part of their campaign. Never have the central and local governments of the country been so squarely at odds on an issue of great importance.

Warning of sewage spilling into Wellington Harbour. Failing water infrastructure was a major issue in local elections across the country

While the crumbling water infrastructure has led to some of the most spectacular failures – broken water mains and long-term water shortages plaguing the largest city, sewage spills, fatal outbreaks of disease caused by contamination of drinking water and more – it is far from the only aspect of infrastructure and social services in a state of advanced decay.

Urban transport systems in the big cities have been cancelling services, unable to find enough drivers for buses and trains; the electricity network was recently brought to the brink of failing by a brief cold snap. Hospitals and aged care facilities are permanently overstretched and understaffed, with overworked nurses suffering burnout; ambulances queue outside emergency departments because of a shortage of beds and cases have been reported of patients dying due to the long wait times at Emergency departments.

Housing remains a major problem, with rents that tracked up to record levels during the speculative binge of the period of low interest rates staying sky-high even as house prices fall slightly. School attendance rates have never recovered from the periods of school shutdowns in the Covid pandemic; petty crimes by young people in Auckland in particular – sometimes very young – are spiking. Ram-raids on jewellery shops and small convenience stores, sometimes in broad daylight, are reported daily in the news media.

The economist Bernard Hickey has explained how the deliberate running down of urban infrastructure to the tune of $100 billion has been a key element in the profit-boosting strategies of successive governments over at least two decades. (Hickey calls it “juicing GDP growth.”) They planned to live off the fat built up during earlier periods of prosperity. Now, he says, the problems remain, and the fat has all been burned. Hickey explains that the purpose of Three Waters is to provide a means for the government to extract new tax revenue, in the form of water charges, without overtly “raising taxes.”

Coming out of the pandemic period, the central government has appeared completely paralysed in the face of these mounting problems. Their attempts to stimulate the building of affordable housing ended in fiasco. Fighting talk about challenging the price-gouging of the supermarket duopoly produced investigations, reports, more fine words, and… business as usual. While entire communities face the necessity to re-locate in the near future because of rising sea levels and changing rainfall patterns, the government offers only the carbon-credit-trading pantomime, a tax on farm vehicles, and more new taxes on pastoral farmers to punish them for methane emissions by livestock.

“Howl of a Protest” convoy of 500 tractors and utility vehicles, precipitated by the tax on farm vehicles and other impositions on farmers, Nelson, July 2021.  Photo: RNZ

In this context, running for election on the Labour Party ticket became a major liability. There was no mayoral candidate running under the Labour Party banner in either Auckland or Wellington, the two largest cities. Late in the campaign, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her endorsement of Efeso Collins in Auckland and Paul Eagle (a sitting Labour Member of Parliament) in Wellington. Her endorsement appeared to be the kiss of death: Collins lost in a landslide to property developer Wayne Brown, while Eagle came fourth in the Wellington race.

Across the country, newcomers and challengers won out against long-established incumbents and anyone associated with the government parties. It was above all a vote for those who promised to ‘fix it’ against those who tried to defend their records in office. Wellington stands out as an exception to the national trend, although here too the incumbent was defeated. The new mayor elected is Tory Whanau, a corporate lobbyist who was endorsed by the Green Party.

Wellington city is slightly unusual in its class structure: since flat land on the shores of Wellington Harbour is limited, most manufacturing developed north of the city in the Hutt Valley, and a large proportion of workers’ housing further north still in Porirua, both of which fall under different city administrations. The central city itself, as the centre of government, finance and two university campuses, is left top-heavy with the administrative middle class. Tory Whanau’s “exception” reflects this class structure: in these layers the politics of liberal paternalism are not yet entirely exhausted.  

In a gesture that demonstrates the monumental smugness of this layer, Tory Whanau took out a half-page advertisement in the Auckland paper a week after the election, in which she invited people sacked – or disgusted – by the new mayor of Auckland to move to Wellington.

In the absence of any working-class voice, it is the conservative and right wing of bourgeois politics which steps forward to capture the inchoate moods of resentment and position themselves as the only opposition to the liberal paternalism of the Jacinda Ardern government.

The incoming mayor of Auckland, Wayne Brown, has spent his first week in office consolidating his popular support, issuing a directive to the Council to halt all further participation in Three Waters, and calling for heads to roll among the high-salaried leaders of the bloated Council bureaucracy. But sooner or later the fix-it men will face the same problem facing the incumbents – the problem that Bernard Hickey describes. Their solution will be the same as that of their predecessors: to take it out of the hides of working people.

Meanwhile, criticism of the Three Waters plan by the Act Party and others has been focused on the least objectionable aspect of it, namely, the very modest provisions for co-governance of the proposed Regional Representative Groups of the Water Services Entities by iwi Maori. “Co-governance is divisive, it’s dangerous, it’s totally inappropriate to give up a seat at the table just because of who their ancestors were,” Act Party Local Government Spokesperson Simon Court said, echoing similar statements by Winston Peters of New Zealand First. Protests by farmers against the methane and vehicle taxes have included rightist and conspiracist elements, to the frustration of the protest organisers. There is also a strong undercurrent of the most disgusting hatred of women in many of the attacks on Jacinda Ardern that appear on social media.

Many of the attacks on Jacinda Ardern circulating on social media include a strong element of hatred of women

The recent campaign launch by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters deserves close attention. Peters denounced the government’s methane tax as “woke, virtue-signalling madness, again. All to make our climate activists feel good about themselves.” On the Three Waters co-governance issue, Peters said “Labour, the Greens, and the Māori Party would rather prioritise their separatist agenda, pursue policies of apartheid, obsess with revisionist history, and, without any mandate, change our constitution and the very essence of our democracy.” The government’s agenda was driven by “malignant paternalism” and “inverse racism,” he said.

This mish-mash of phrases, combining elements of truth with deep-running and widely-held prejudices, will strike a chord among broad layers. And other forces further to the right, like Brian Tamaki of the Destiny Church, are waiting for their moment.  

Left: Winston Peters, New Zealand First Party. Right: Chris Luxon, National Party.

Least able to profit from the government’s isolation is the National Party. Leader Chris Luxon trumpets the long-standing National Party programme of tax cuts for the rich and cutting ‘wasteful spending.’ He must be casting a nervous glance at the United Kingdom, where Liz Truss has just become the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history by attempting to implement exactly this programme.

Cartoon by Guy Body in New Zealand Herald sums up National Party’s problem

There is one significant difference between New Zealand and the United Kingdom: in the UK widespread mass union actions by workers have already begun. (This is the never-mentioned fact underlying the British ruling class’s sudden crisis of confidence in Liz Truss and her programme of tax cuts.) But it is only a matter of time before workers in this country catch up and join the fray. And when they do, it will be not just through union action in the economic arena: they will also force their way into the political arena from which they have been largely excluded for at least thirty years.

UK rail workers on strike June 2022 Photo: Guy Smallman, Getty Images

What would a working-class political programme look like? What would a government based on the producing classes – the wage workers of city and countryside, and the working farmers – actually do? It seems like decades since anyone seriously advanced a political programme that places the interests of working people ahead of the profit demands of capital.

Here are some of the lines along which the working class could begin to fight politically today:

  1. For annual state-mandated pay rises, equal to the rate of inflation, for all wage-earners. Workers’ wage demands are not the cause of inflation – we should not be made to pay the price for it in eroding real wages.
  2. Support unions as our first line of defence – solidarity with union struggles and drives to organise the unorganised workers. For union control of health and safety on the job. Full union and residency rights for all immigrant workers, including citizenship for migrant workers who choose to stay.
  3. For a massive programme of state house construction to meet the housing shortage, with rents capped at 10% of the income of the occupants.
  4. For a concurrent programme of public works to build and repair hospitals, repair the crumbling roads, fix the decayed water infrastructure, eradicate invasive pests and weeds, and so on, to be administered by publicly elected local government boards with special representation for Maori. Not one more cent for the Three Waters behemoth!
  5. Fund these public works through a steeply progressive income tax and profit taxes on big businesses. No income tax at all on welfare benefits or incomes below $80,000.
  6. Defend freedom of speech against the censors, both state and self-appointed. Defend scientific thinking, while also defending the right to express and disseminate unpopular ideas, including false, unscientific, conspiracist, racist and other objectionable ideas. Workers need full freedom to confront and debate all ideas and shades of opinion, including those they reject. The last thing we need is politicians, academics, and other capitalist ‘experts’ and ideologues telling us what constitutes ‘misinformation.’
  7. Defend the rights of women. Defend the right of women to single-sex public toilets and changing facilities. No male-bodied people in women’s sports. Prosecute rapists to the full extent of the law.
  8. Support Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty – Russian troops out now! No support for AUKUS, NATO or any other imperialist military alliance.
  9. Ditch the Emissions Trading charade and the practice of carbon-credit farming that feeds off it. Nationalise the energy corporations – electricity generation and fossil fuel production and distribution, as the first step towards beginning a rapid transition away from carbon-based energy. No special taxes on farmers.  

If any candidate in next year’s election steps forward with this working class programme, or something like it, they will get my vote. Better still, if anyone organises a political campaign in the streets along these lines, they will get my active support. When the working class moves into action, alongside our class allies, the farmers – who have already begun – we can begin to confront the mounting problems.

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