Government looks transitional rather than transformational

Jacinda Ardern promised a “government of transformation” in her Speech from the throne in November, but so far it looks more transitional, according to Colin James.

I hear  some transformational talk but mostly see tinkering walk.

ODT: Govt looks transitional at this stage but could yet be transformational

Jacinda Ardern’s Speech from the Throne in November promised a “government of transformation”. After six months in power, it looks more like a government of transition – to the post-baby-boom generations.

The last transformational government was Labour’s in 1984-90: an independent foreign policy, a start towards biculturalism, renovated environmental and constitutional law and a market economy open to an economically globalising world – and abruptly to a much more unequal society, a tax system favouring the well-off and an electorate so angry it changed the electoral system for the better.

Ardern insists her transformation will avert the 1980s damage and insecurities. Also, she said in Berlin last week, it was not just a transition to younger generations but a “just transition” to the 2020s, when technology would kill many jobs.

Is she on course?

Far more talk than walk so far, and much of the talk is vague.

Next month’s Budget provides a platform. It will restate the fiscal parameters and will devote large sums to begin to address funding gaps after Bill English’s “more with less” turned to “less” last term, particularly for health, housing and infrastructure.

Critics say Robertson is exaggerating, echoing all new Cabinets’ “discovery” of a “fiscal crisis”. Actually, Robertson talked up the “crisis” pre-election.

But fixing shortfalls is not transformation – or even transition.

Neither, so far, are the dozens – or scores, depending what you count – of reviews, working groups, strategies and so on. They open issues up rather than open up “bold” (another Ardern word) new vistas. For example, the education review reads more like adjustments to the 2010s than anticipation of the 2020s “gig”, “sharing”, robotised and artificial-intelligence economy.

So, too, for the tax working group. Its terms of reference – and Sir Michael Cullen’s 2000s “third way” background – rule out some big matters, including a real land tax and fixing the mess of tax, rebates, allowances and phase-outs at the bottom end.

They skirt around wealth, the core factor in embedded inequalities through the privilege it confers via untaxed inheritances. Likewise, the distortions that drive people to invest savings in houses and the attack on disposable income a high GST imposes on those at the bottom.

So, fix-it, not transformation.

The tax and welfare system has become a complex behemoth. Tinkering with tax with as many exceptions and targets is at this stage looking nothing like transformational.

And plans on welfare reform have been hinted at but are yet to be revealed.

But what if Cullen’s report next year lists those gaps and suggests a “phase 2” deeper rework of our 1980s tax system to gear it to the 2020s?

A tax “phase 2” could point to a transformational second term, if Ardern, Robertson and co really mean it.

Also transformational would be real policies that step on to the path to net-zero-carbon emissions by 2050. The ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration (Ardern calls it a step along her “just transition”) is gesture, not transformation, since pumping could go on for decades.

The budget will give a better picture of how much transforming rather than tinkering the Government is prepared to initiate, but we will also have to wait until the many working groups and committees have reported back and decisions made.



Colin James on journalism

On his retirement from “his relentless weekly scribblings” Colin James provides some good insights and advice on what may sadly be a dying craft, journalism, in A lifetime learning. There comes a time.

Journalists live two lives: the inner and the craft.

Journalists are close in to events but never part of them. They meet the powerful and the celebrated. Some are seduced into thinking themselves their equals. They are then lost to journalism.

Journalists make no momentous decisions. Celebrity ill-becomes them. They are a channel through which the powerful and celebrated talk to the people and the people talk back.

To others, the journalist seems greatly privileged to be alongside power and stardust. And the journalist is privileged. But not in the way most non-journalists think.

The privilege is to spend a lifetime learning.

I suspect that many modern journalists don’t understand that privilege. Some of them are too much in it for themselves, fancying themselves too much as celebrities. This is a problem that has been largely introduced by commercial television, where money and brands and attention seeking become more dominant.

A journalist can ask questions of almost everyone and almost all will answer: the powerful and celebrated, the knowing and skilled, the repositories of arcane science or ways of thinking and the “ordinary” guardians of understanding of a community or of a simple truth or of a good way to live an “ordinary” life.

They are all at the journalist’s call. They all teach a journalist who listens.

Yet the journalist need not be expert or knowing or complete. The journalist needs understand only so much of a topic as readers-viewers-listeners want or need to know. The journalist has only to light on and illuminate an idea or project or nation or technology.

No other occupation offers that intense opportunity — to learn but not to have to know, to learn a little and move to the next learning.

A journalist is sceptical, alert to lies, deceit, backside-covering and charlatanism. But not cynical. A cynic has stopped listening and learning. A journalist is open. If not, the communication channel that is the journalist will choke.

It must be difficult to keep cynicism aside as a long time political journalist.

For some, expression is journalism’s pleasure. They are would-be writers and journalism is as close as they can get.

For me, writing it down was the grind. Words shuffled off the keyboard or sat stuttering. They often said to readers different things from what I thought I had said. Words, I found, are wilful and wayward.

And in politics, words can be wilfully be distorted, exaggerated and misused by politicians.

People with an interest in politics (that excludes most people) often seem to have their minds before they read something, they want to only see good in their favoured politicians, and seem to only see bad in unfavoured politicians and parties. This is despite an observation from James:

Almost all in politics mean well.

That includes journalists. Some do better than others.


Colin James taking leave of his relentless weekly scribblings

I’ve known of Colin James for a long time. He has been a relatively quiet but thinking political journalist.His work wasn’t about him, it was about his subjects.

He is retiring, and talks a bit about himself and his job in his last post, A lifetime learning. There comes a time.

Journalists live two lives: the inner and the craft.

When David Lange died and the Greens stood in his memory opening their 2005 election campaign, I the journalist stayed sitting while I the inner person behind the journalist secretly stood. There was the same wrench when the Council of Trade Unions conference in 2015 stood in memory of the fine Peter Conway.

The privilege is to spend a lifetime learning.

For a half-century I have had that deeply enriching privilege.

The utu is to listen with respect.

For some, expression is journalism’s pleasure. They are would-be writers and journalism is as close as they can get.

For me, writing it down was the grind. Words shuffled off the keyboard or sat stuttering. They often said to readers different things from what I thought I had said. Words, I found, are wilful and wayward.

Nevertheless, for five decades generous editors and readers encouraged me in my attempts at this exacting craft. They privileged me to go on learning.

So I have had a working life beyond any of my youthful imaginings. It usually scarcely felt like work. I often pinched myself: surely I can’t be here doing this.

My beat was politics and policy, a high privilege. Since politics is power, I met those in power and their advisers and came to understand and respect them, even those I could not admire. Many I the inner person came quietly to like.

Almost all in politics mean well. I learned they are different: they see, or affect to see, only one side of each many-sided story the journalist sees.

And since politics seeps into almost every corner of a nation’s life, I met thousands of interesting people from nearly every walk of life.

Almost all were thoughtful and courteous. The tiny few who were angry or abusive almost all recovered the courtesy and decency that is in everyone when I replied with courtesy and respect.

Courtesy and respect seem to be sadly lacking in a lot of our politics and media, which is a real shame.

The Otago Daily Times set me on this path when young and in my twilight took me in again. It is 50 years since I first left the ODT, shortly afterwards to perch, perchance, in the parliamentary press gallery.

Now, as politics takes a fresh turn, into the post-baby-boom era, it has come time for this baby-boom fellow-traveller to take leave of his relentless weekly scribblings.

Thank you for having me.

Thanks to Colin for contributing and informing us about New Zealand politics so well and for so long.

UK and NZ polls similar

Matthew Hooton claims that the non-public UMR poll has National on 44% and Labour on 28%.

That’s still a big lead for the Conservatives in the UK and Labour there has a lot of ground to make up to be competitive in their election to be held in a month.

There’s still over four months until New Zealand’s election.

National on 44% (they were 43.5% in last month’s Roy Morgan poll) is in risky territory. At that level of support they would have to have NZ First support, either in a coalition or from the cross benches, to form a government.

They could recover some support, depending a lot on how well this month’s budget is seen by the public, but they could just as easily slip back more.

Labour at 28% seem stuck in the high twenties. They were 29.5% in last month’s Roy Morgan. Unless they improve substantially it will be difficult for them to form a government.

These poll numbers are supported by Colin James’ column this week.

Labour in congress — needing a stronger story

The “Jacinda effect” appears to have wisped away. Here and there in the Labour party one can hear glum whispers of three more “long years” in opposition.

Likewise from “coalition” partner, the Greens — who, by the way, got far more in election donations in 2014 than Labour.

“Nine long years”, Labour grandee Steve Maharey used to intone in 1999 before Labour’s win that year. Stuart Nash intoned it last week with the same hope of release.

But will it be “12 long years”? That question will hang over this coming weekend’s pre-election congress (conference).

Labour’s poll average has sunk from over 30% in March to under 28%. Was the lift it got after making Jacinda Ardern deputy leader a blip? (National has also slipped but is still around 45%.) 

Every ‘game changer’ tried by Labour seems to have been no more than a blip. The closer ties with Greens, and attempting to combine Labour and Green poll support so they look competitive with National, has failed to lift anyone by NZ First.

A lot could happen over the next four months. Both National and Labour will be hoping that NZ First isn’t the main beneficiary.

James on tax thresholds

In his column today (ODT and emailed) Colin James Budget time — and some signs of policy movement – he discusses PAYE tax and thresholds.

Joyce also dangled tax adjustments, insisting he hadn’t made final decisions. He talked more of raising thresholds than cutting rates and fed in raising thresholds above which the Working for Families rebate is cut.

Thresholds are important because as wages rise through thresholds taxpayers pay proportionally more of their income in tax. It’s called bracket creep.

Those hit by bracket creep and the Working for Families cutoff are the sorts of people Joyce wants to keep inside the National tent or at least outside the smaller Labour+Greens tent.

Other thresholds impose high effective marginal tax rates on people on various benefits or rebates who work. The can be a cogent reason not to work or to earn too much more.

That is directly counter to National’s mantra about getting people into work.

…Go back to the tax thresholds.

First, the thresholds will need to rise significantly to make good the extra tax Joyce is raking in through bracket creep than he would have if the thresholds had risen with wage inflation since the last tax reset in 2010.

Just making this adjustment would account for a bit north of half a billion dollars of any “cut” announced on budget day, a point ACT’s David Seymour is making very loudly.

Second, the rebate and benefit-related thresholds underline the fact that in rich New Zealand large numbers of people in fulltime jobs, let alone part-time ones, cannot sustain themselves on the wages they are paid.

Those low wages are a result of government policy: a highly deregulated labour market. So highly profitable companies like Restaurant Brands, run by a lavishly remunerated chief executive, pay pittances.

Another government policy, the import of tens of thousands of people on holiday working visas, helps keep wages low in the cafe, hospitality and some other sectors.

Key issues of any election are employment and tax. Bracket creep played a part in Clark’s and Cullen’s downfall in 21008.


Neoliberalism, 1999, and ‘brat pack’ revisited

I don’t remember neoliberalism being a thing until the last few years, but it was talked about last century (when I only had a superficial interest in politics).

In 1999 Colin James wrote about how New Zealand had “energetically espoused neoliberalism” in the 1980s but bu the late nineties was “still far short of neoliberals’ high-wage, high-performing ideal”.

Here are exerts from an address to the University of Maryland in 1999 – The New Zealand economy and politics: the revolution and the future” (edited):

Just as a vigorous flowering of the arts in the 1980s signalled New Zealand’s true emergence as an independent (decolonialised) nation, it energetically espoused neoliberalism, the third radical policy shift in its 160 years of Anglo-Celtic rule.

This third “New Zealand model”, which attracted considerable international interest from economists, businesspeople and such diverse politicians as the government of Mongolia, the Japanese House of Councillors and Vice-President Al Gore, is now embedded in policy.

But, while the economy is undoubtedly more flexible and robust, it is (for various historical and contemporary reasons) still far short of neoliberals’ high-wage, high-performing ideal and it has left most citizens political “outsiders”, at odds with the “insiders” in the business, bureaucratic and political establishments and this has destabilised politics.

Indeed, the story of New Zealand’s century can be written as one of models we think the world might envy and emulate: the social policy innovations of the 1890s, the world’s first comprehensive welfare state in the 1930s and 1940s and the world’s most determined application of the neoliberal economic model in the 1980s and 1990s.

We then embraced neoliberalism. The pre-1984 administration (an awkward marriage of conservatism and populism) had tiptoed into these waters with some minor liberalisations in the late 1970s.

But after the second oil shock in 1979 it retreated into controls on wages, prices, rents, directors’ fees and interest rates in a desperate attempt to plug the gaping holes in the dyke through which the tides of international economic change were by then pouring.

The incoming Labour administration of 1984 did not have an option of more regulation. The limits had been reached and there was a financial crisis. It had no option but to pick up the 1970s deregulatory ideas.

This was clearly evident to any halfway attentive observer of the party’s public pronouncements and internal debates before the 1984 election. But no one guessed beforehand how far and how fast these heirs to welfarism would drive deregulation.

In seven years this administration and the National party government which replaced it in 1990 transformed the economic policy framework from one of the most regulated in the OECD to one of the most deregulated.

The main objectives of this radical economic policy shift were to lay bare price signals and so shift investment and labour from low-yielding to high-yielding, internationally competitive activities, to make economic governance “transparent” and thus reduce transaction costs. The ultimate aim was to enhance consumer choice and welfare.

This became the third “New Zealand model”. It attracted great interest from economists (and the august London Economist magazine), business leaders, bureaucrats and politicians all the way up to the government of Mongolia, the Japanese House of Councillors and Vice-president Al Gore. Special interest was shown in the innovative and largely home-grown state sector management reforms. Former politicians (including two of the main architects of the reform, Sir Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson) and senior public servants travelled the globe, running seminars and advising governments. We were the showcase of the new neoliberal orthodoxy – and, for two years in the mid-1990s when growth was 5%-6% we were touted as the living proof of the merits of the free market and rational policymaking.

This new orthodoxy is now embedded in policy. The argument in this month’s election is about refining the new policy environment, not rejecting it.

But far more than economic policy was changed. Every other policy area came under radical assault.

• Environment and resources policy was re-based on “sustainability”. New Zealand is still the only country to have done this.

• Foreign policy was shaken free of its client status to the United States. New Zealand adopted a “nuclear-free” policy against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Applied to warships and warplanes, this effectively ditched the Anzus (Australia, New Zealand and United States) treaty.

• The Treaty of Waitangi, under which sovereignty was ceded to the British Crown in 1840, was rescued from the legal “nullity” to which a colonial court had consigned it in 1877, elevated in rhetoric to “the founding document of the nation” and given some legislative recognition, including the establishment of a process for redress of breaches of the treaty by successive governments. Nearly 800 claims are before the tribunal.

• The electoral system was changed and parliamentary processes reformed. Freedom of information legislation passed in the early 1980s was given very liberal interpretation, such that the New Zealand government is now perhaps the most open in the world.

• Targeting to need and user part-charges were introduced into social policy, together with some decentralisation of education administration and part-commercialisation of the publicly-funded health system.

Taken with the economic policy reform, this amounted a policy revolution, almost all of it carried out very rapidly between 1984 and 1992.

Why such an upheaval? To some extent New Zealand was simply doing what everybody else was doing: the neoliberal tide was flowing throughout the Anglo-Celtic world, green values were gaining ground, the cold war was loosening the bloc mentality, indigenous peoples were demanding recognition and redress in many countries and winning it in some, electoral systems were in contempt and/or turmoil and the welfare state everywhere was in review.

Also, in common with other Anglo-Celtic countries, New Zealand had been through a values revolution in the 1960s as young people won moral and social freedoms and these people were moving into positions of influence by the 1980s.

But why so far and so fast in New Zealand?

  • In the economy we started from farther behind, with an economy more tightly controlled than any other in the OECD. Just to match early-1970s orthodoxy, let alone join the move to the emerging neoliberal orthodoxy, required a giant leap. In 1982, for example, the Minister of Finance could and did freeze or set all prices, wages, fees, rents and interest rates by decree.

One of the first points most New Zealanders make is that the economy has failed to live up to the neoliberals’ star billing. We do not have a high-wage, high-energy economy.

We are constantly reminded that Australia has done far better during the 1990s: with the exception of the two New Zealand boom years in the mid-1990s, Australian economic growth was consistently higher than New Zealand’s; notably, while New Zealand reeled from the Asian crisis and drought, Australia sustained 4%-plus growth.

If pain is supposed to lead to gain, most New Zealanders feel they are still waiting.

Even so, New Zealand did not ride through the crisis as comfortably as Australia, which awarded itself the accolade of miracle economy. Even though, according to a widespread consensus among economists, we are now heading into a period of firm growth of between 3% and 4% over the next three years, there are some serious structural issues.

If the pain has not yet led to the gain neoliberal reformers promised, it is at least partly, and arguably mostly, because of these structural issues.

  • New Zealand is still largely a “quarry” economy, living off the land and the sea.
  • The trade and services deficits are contributing to a dangerously high balance of payments deficit, likely to exceed 8% of GDP sometime in 2000 and put us at serious risk of being dumped by foreign portfolio and fixed interest investors.
  • We are becoming a “branch” economy and a “nursery” economy. An increasing number of foreign companies run the operation in New Zealand as a branch from Australia or Singapore.
  • We have not adjusted to our diminished economic status.
  • And there is a political and social fallout from the new economy. As in all countries which have adopted the neoliberal reforms, incomes have become more unequal: a “significant” increase in inequality of after-tax disposable income was confirmed in a Statistics Department report in February on income changes in the 15 years since economic reforms began in 1984.

We may be on the verge of passing political power to this next generation. The National party has promoted four young ministers aged 34-40 to high prominence in its cabinet: the most prominent, Bill English (38), is the Treasurer and the acknowledged heir to the leadership.

These four ministers, known colloquially as the “brat pack”, take the economic policy framework as given, not as something that must constantly be fought for and protected as do longer-lived ministers who went through the revolutionary phase. They have therefore a less doctrinal attitude to policy – an appropriate attitude as the neoliberal intellectual wave breaks and the debate moves on.

For the “brat pack” deregulation and asset sales are deemed desirable but not, as with the revolutionaries, because they conform to the “right” doctrine. The “brat pack” judges policy initiatives case by case by whether they will produce desirable outcomes (lower costs to business and greater international competitiveness).

Social policy reform is deemed necessary not just to hold spending but to improve the quality of delivery of social services to a public that demands the same quality from its public services as from its private sector services.

Moreover, the “brat pack” accepts that substantial cuts in the 25% of GDP that goes on social services and social security are politically impossible and in any case are necessary for social order.

One of those brats is now Prime Minister leading us into the 2017 election.

Bill English delivered the first real increase in benefit payments since before the neo-liberal changes in starting in the 1980s.

And his Government has just agreed to a substantial increase in wages for mainly female rest home workers.

It seems that a neoliberal revolution has never been fully happened, and adjustments tend to be moving further towards social necessities and away from economic ideals.

Social media and Martin Luther

Colin James looks at the connections between social media, Martin Luther and a secular Easter

…six months from now will come the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous, and fabled, nailing of “theses” to a church door which sparked a revolution – via the still newish medium of printing.

Luther’s door-notice proposed a seminar on the church’s sale of “indulgences” which, for a price, allegedly got people more quickly into heaven through purgatory, where one purged one’s earthly sins. Luther, citing Augustine of Hippo, reckoned the decision on where one went after death and how quickly was for God alone.

This was a wrathful God, angry at humans’ disobedience, but also a merciful God, redeeming chosen repentants through Jesus Christ. The church had interposed as intermediary and the cash fed the clergy better.

At the time upstart communities of friars such as the Dominicans and Franciscans had church bigwigs fearing they might lose control. They turned on Luther and demanded obedience.

As often in such circumstances, as some autocrats learn the hard way, this was a counterproductive overreaction.

A counter productive reaction is now referred to as ‘the Streisand effect – “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.”

A stubborn sort, Luther instead expanded his inquiry into the clergy’s other ungodly activities.

Working with an artist friend and writing in straightforward language, he published short pamphlets with jazzy front pages questioning aspects of doctrine.

These quickly caught on. They were bought and read, then read out to others – an early sort of social media.

The result was fast popular ferment. In today’s parlance, we might say Luther went viral.

And some of this resulted in the opposite to what Luther campaigned for.

Ironically, Luther’s version of Christianity and its derivatives led many to doctrines as narrow as, or narrower than, what he protested against.

The way people behave hasn’t changed much, it’s just the means of behaving that has advanced. Because of simple and instant mass communication things can happen faster but are often very fragmented and short lived.

A few pockets of resistance and despair still lament and flail against ‘neo-liberalism’ but the many don’t care, they have moved on to their own bubbles in social media.

Over the three decades since the radical economic deregulation of the 1980s, policy that originated from intellectual analysis of economic imbalances has increasingly come to resemble doctrine, especially, as indicated here last week, in monetary policy.

It is a doctrine from which a few benefit handsomely, the middle gets by and a large swathe of people are trapped in indigence. Think ultra-low interest rates and high house prices and rents, for example.

Interest rates used to be low before ‘neo-liberalism’, until Muldoon’s money manipulations went mad.

A modern Luther might nail “theses” to a Facebook page or blog or tweet demanding an end to an arrangement that privileges a few and offends public decency.

The difference now is there are ‘theses’ being nailed to Facebook every day. It’s difficult for anything to be seen outside small bubbles, unless they happen to get a viral lift – but that is more likely to be inane claptrap, the Nek Minit phenomenon.

And if, as 500 years ago, this modern Luther were to apply ingenious design, clear messages and new technology to spread a message fast and wide, the doctrine might suddenly be overturned – a 21st-century Reformation.

Something similar was touched on in Jesus Christ Superstar:

If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication

That seems very unlikely, unless the message was delivered via a nude selfie. I’m sure there will be modern wannabee Jesuses and Luthers nailing theses all over the Internet. But the market has changed, as has the competition.

Politics seems to be well down the popularity charts but James suggests that if it were to happen it could then take one of two courses.

One is what is going on in rich northern democracies, a descent into populism or populist-distorted policies defensively adopted by established parties.

The other is a rethink from first principles by cooler minds responding sensibly to 2010s conditions that are very different in many ways from the 1980s – a rethink that leads not to schisms and conflict but a constructive 2020s future.

The second is much harder to do, as Europe found 500 years back.

And it seems a remote possibility – what are the chances of our politicians working together on “a rethink from first principles by cooler minds responding sensibly”?

Not in election year.

Not in the year after the election, when the new Government will be intent on delivering on it’s campaign promises and bribes.


Luther’s Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences

Labour at 100, reborn or a cot case?

The Labour Party will be celebrating it’s 100th birthday this week. New Zealand, politics and the party have all changed hugely over the last century.

Colin James looks at this in his weekly column: Labour at 100: dotage or revitalisation?

There is global turmoil and the forces on Labour’s side of politics are divided. Answer: get together, to build a voice against a conservative coalition.

The year: 1916. Come to 2016: there is global turmoil and Labour and the Greens have got together to build a voice against a conservative coalition.

Is this book-end history or a phase? That is the question for those celebrating Labour’s centenary this week.

We won’t know whether the Labour-Green get together will have been successful until later next year.

What it seems to acknowledge though is that Labour on it’s own is a spent force.

On Friday a day-long seminar will include a keynote assessment of the 100 years by former historian, acute intellectual and formidable 1999-08 minister Michael Cullen.

Cullen was chief whip, then a minister in the 1984-90 government which, though it boosted social assistance, banned nuclear ships and Springbok tours and set us en route to a bicultural society — all true to Labour — ripped the party apart with un-Labour radical market-led economic reforms.

This compounded Sir Robert Muldoon’s 1970s pitch to “ordinary blokes” which siphoned off wage worker votes.

Since then, like social democratic parties in other liberal democracies, Labour has not worked out how to rebuild a broad social base.

Helen Clark’s and Cullen’s capable cabinet masked this erosion, helped by a credit-fuelled boom and skilful coalition management to creditable low-40s votes in 2002 and 2005.

Labour certainly seems to have lost it’s way, lost it’s mojo, lost capable leadership, and has lost the last three elections.

Hence Labour’s disastrous 25% vote in 2014. But, unlike National after its disaster in 2002, Labour chose not to do a root-and-branch shakeup.

Apart from frequently changing leaders, changing the way that leaders are selected effectively giving unions the deciding vote, changing their minds on past policies without replacing them with much, Labour has done little to shake themselves up.

Labour will take a step on Saturday afternoon with a special conference to adjust the list selection process to preferential membership-wide regional selections and a smaller-than-2014 committee to finalise the national list.

There is no suggestion — at least not officially — of a “man ban” of the sort dumped on the hapless David Shearer in 2013 to lift the proportion of women MPs.

But the 2017 election challenges go far beyond the list.

One is to get Andrew Little connecting. Little’s strength is that he is a straight-shooter. But communications team mistakes and his own political inexperience and need to score points have skewed his aim at times and sometimes the bullets have ricocheted. Examples: an unthought-through attack that caught up Jacinda Ardern’s (innocent) father and shining a media light on a “homeless” family that was actually renovating its house.

Little cannot out-Key Key. But he needs to out-Little Little.

The current Little has failed to fire up any enthusiasm in the party let alone in the wider voting public.

Unlike past leaders who distanced themselves from negative attack politics (they used others to do their dirty work) Little has taken it upon himself to be the party’s main hit man. It is far from attractive, and has been botched too often. There are currently two defamation proceedings against him.

Labour’s second 2017 challenge is to present a government-in-waiting. In 2011 and 2014 those who wanted a change of government had no visible alternative to vote for. Labour was too weak.

The deal with the Greens potentially provides that alternative. Little was bowled over by his reception at the Greens’ conference. Little and Green co-leader James Shaw have been doing some joint business briefings. (Shaw goes over better, some say.)   

By belatedly conceding Labour is not a 45% party and can’t do command performances as National can but must have a partner, Labour has changed the electoral game.

Whether Labour+Greens can win that changed game will depend in part on how convincing the coalition looks. There is a growing understanding on both sides that they will need three or more major joint — “coalition” — policies.

There is currently no sign of substantive joint policies.

And there remains a major problem anyway, Winston Peters, who with NZ First looks to be essential to make up the numbers and Peters will not do pre-election joint policies.

Plus the Peters-Green clash is unresolved. There is no sign of Peters working alongside Turei and Shaw.

But what about the longer-term? Is Labour now forever shackled to the Greens? Might the Greens even morph into the senior partner?

There are no signs of Greens growing enough to become the senior partner, so it would need Labour to decline substantially more for that to happen.

But a 2 to 1 or less power balance between Labour and Greens is totally new territory for Labour. There is little sign yet that that are willing to share power as much as the numbers suggest they need to.

 As in 1916, Labour in 2016 is in turbulent times with big global and societal changes underway that will test it to destruction — or revitalise it.

Unlike Australia, the UK and the US, New Zealand looks very stable politically. Unfortunately for Labour it is National that looks boringly steady.

In Australia, the UK and the US much of the turbulence is within the major parties. Turbulence has also been apparent within Labour here, although that seems to have settled down.

Perhaps next year’s election, and Labour’s fortunes, will be reliant on whether New Zealand voters choose to add to the political turmoil evident elsewhere, or end up preferring the status quo stability that is currently prevalent.

It will be another year or so before we know whether Labour can become born again progressives or are cot cases destined for a rest home.

“Brexitism and Trumpism are symptoms of deep ill”

Colin James in today’s ODT column says “Brexit-ism and Trump-ism are symptoms of deep ills, reactions against all-knowing and all-owning elites who have presided over growing inequalities and other societal reshapings that have upset, disempowered, dispossessed or scarred “everyday” folk who feel left out and/or let down, outcasts-in-their-own-land”:

On Thursday Britain will vote to leave the European Union or not. In November the United States will vote to have Donald Trump as President or not.

Either would send global shockwaves.

A rocky two years would follow a “Brexit” vote as exit terms were negotiated. It would weaken the European Union, with geopolitical implications. There would be trans-Atlantic, European and wider economic impacts.

A Trump presidency’s impact at home and abroad would be unpredictable, a potentially disorderly political and economic force in an already increasingly disordered world.

Even votes to stay or for Hillary Clinton would, if the margins are narrow, cause global political and economic shivers.

Brexit-ism and Trump-ism are symptoms of deep ills, reactions against all-knowing and all-owning elites who have presided over growing inequalities and other societal reshapings that have upset, disempowered, dispossessed or scarred “everyday” folk who feel left out and/or let down, outcasts-in-their-own-lands.

Across Europe this mood has lifted anti-elite parties’ votes and installed anti-elite regimes in Greece and Poland.

So even “Bremain” or pro-Clinton votes would not be durably definitive. The post-1945 liberal-democratic hegemony of centre-right/centre-left parties in the “west” is ending. What comes next is unclear — and western-type countries alone will not decide as they have for 250 years.

There’s no obvious sign in New Zealand of anything on the scale Brexit-ism and Trump-ism or Sanders-ism or Corbyn-ism, much to the  dismay of a hardy band of revolution promoters in New Zealand.

Status quo still looks to be the most attractive option here. Probably the main reason why Labour is struggling to gain any traction or credibility is that there is too much uncertainty over whether they would be a slightly different flavour of the status quo or not.

But regardless of our ongoing stability the deep ills around the world, and political and democratic reactions to those ills, are going to affect us, possibly substantially.

A tiny country like New Zealand decides who our own leaders will be but what comes next for us is unclear and there is nothing we can do about it.

Little versus Shaw, plus the Winston factor

Colin James has made an interesting observation about Andrew Little and James Shaw in his latest column. He wonders if Little may struggle to look like Leader of the Opposition alongside Shaw.

His introduction in The workers’ flag is deepest red — and Green:

It’s Labour Day next Monday. What’s the point nowadays?

Once there was tradition: organisation and regulation for decency and dignity for those who got their sustenance from work for others.

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) is in that tradition. It held its biennial conference last week.

He discusses unions, the union of two unions into E Tu (stand tall is the official translation) and Helen Kelly and the CTU. Then he concludes with his observations of the Labour and Green leaders.

Those times are redefining how work is found and contracted: the likes of Uber and Airbnb or online auctions for specified tasks.

Can unions devise an organisational response? Can there be a legislative response, since these arrangements don’t respect national boundaries?

That poses big questions for Labour and the Greens. For Labour that goes without saying because the “labour” in Labour tags it as a party for those who work for wages.

It goes for the Greens, too. James Shaw was at the E Tu launch and spoke at the CTU conference. That parks the Greens definitely on Labour’s side, however much Shaw insists he and the Greens will work with any party.

It was obviously deliberate parking of the Greens alongside both labour and Labour.

That, along with a much improved personal and operational relationship and greater mutual respect than last year, is a plus for a potential Labour-Green coalition in 2017.

But there is a risk: Shaw.

At the CTU conference Little, the unionist among friends, scanned some important trends and future challenges in the future of work, including different ways workers will associate. But he spoke with his head mostly down, eyes on his notes.

Shaw delivered a succinct gender-equality message, making eye contact with delegates, with humour but dead serious.

The risk is that Shaw in 2017 looks and sounds to voters more the leader of the opposition than Little. That could stick a competitive edge into the relationship.

And if that went bad, it could delay the resurrection of Labour Day.

There will be tension anyway between Labour and Greens in 2017 – they somehow have to look capable of being a united government-in-waiting while competing hard from the same voting pool.

The last thing Labour wants is to have no more seats or democratic say in a coalition than Greens+NZ First.

And that’s one of the first things the Greens would like. And also Winston, who seems to quite like being seen as the de facto leader of the Opposition as well.

Peters first stood for parliament (for National) in 1975, forty years ago. He became an MP in 1978 (it took an electoral petition to overturn the election night result to do that). He successfully set up NZ First in 1993.

He missed three years in Parliament when NZ First failed to beat the threshold in 2008 but returned in 2011.

Peters has been an MP for 34 years, for three electorates (Hunua, Tauranga and now Northland) and has contested 13 general elections plus a by-election earlier this year. He has won electorate seats ten times (and campaigned and lost once).

In contrast the combined Parliamentary experience of Little and Shaw is four years, lest than one eight of Peters’ time sitting in the big House. Little has contested and lost the New Plymouth electorate twice. Shaw has stood once as a list MP, ranked just 13th by his party.

Even if NZ First only gets a quarter of the combined Labour+Green vote (about the best they can hope for) he will keep sneering at their inexperience.

Little versus Shaw versus Peters could be an interesting contest in 2017. And all three of them united have to better John Key to succeed.

Will election day in 2017 be Labour+Greens+NZ First Day? Probably not, if the get enough seats combined it’s likely to take weeks to work out a coalition. But it could happen, albeit uneasily.