This piece originally went up on the site back in September 2012.  Since then there has been increasing discussion about poverty in New Zealand.  A new OECD report has just confirmed the growth of poverty in this country over the past few decades.  So we’re reprinting a few pieces that are highly relevant, beginning with the discussion between Max Rashbrooke, one of the people most responsible for highlighting poverty and inequality here, and veteran activist Don Franks.

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Max Rashbrooke and Don Franks discuss inequality in New Zealand in a series of emails reprinted here:

Dear all,

I’m writing to you because I think you share my concern over the growing income divides in New Zealand – which, as was revealed last week, are now the highest in recent history.

As you may know, I’m coordinating a major book on exactly this subject, to be published by Bridget Williams Books next year. As the first step in raising awareness of the issue and the book, I’ll be hosting two talks at Te Papa on inequality in coming months.

The first is a few weeks away, 6.30pm on Thursday, 13 September, and will be a thought-provoking introduction to and discussion of inequality in New Zealand, looking at why it poses such a great threat to our society, economy and collective well-being. More details here.

The second talk, on Thursday, 4 October, will look at ways that New Zealand could change course and create a fairer, stronger society that has smaller income gaps and makes greater use of everyone’s ability. More details to follow.

If you can’t make it on the 13th, but would like to submit a question to one of the speakers, or just show your support for the event, you can do so through the event’s Facebook page.

I’m also going to be writing regularly about inequality, and will be sending out a weekly email to keep people abreast of the debate and my progress on the book. Please encourage people to sign-up for these emails by directing them to

I think growing inequality is one of the greatest issues we face, and I hope you’ll support me in trying to do something about it. Come to the talks, get in touch – and please do forward this around your networks as well.

All best,

Max Rashbrooke

Hi Max

Thanks for the email.

But it’s not “our society”  or “our economy”.

Low paid casualized workers, migrant workers and generationally unemployed working class people have no stake in New Zealand society. They have no more say in the operation of the economy than our family’s pet cat.

The growing masses of people trapped into a miserable life of poverty have nothing in common with those who have seized its surplus value.

I submit that any serious discussion of inequality in New Zealand needs to address the opposing class interests of its inhabitants. And then, take sides with the dispossessed.



Hi Don,

Thanks for the e-mail.

You’re right in identifying the fact that the book/talks don’t employ a Marxist framework! It’s probably a slightly different project. What I’m trying to do, in general, is point out that both people in the middle and the working classes lose out because of increasing inequality, while only the truly rich benefit. The idea being to draw together middle and working class to tackle the issue, which I suspect has a greater chance of success than focusing solely on the working class.

Would be great to see you at the talks, but will understand if not, given that the book’s approach is unlikely to be as rigourous as you might hope for…


With all due respect Max,  the idea of drawing together middle and working class to tackle the issue of inequality is not new. It has been the predominant approach to resolving inequality in New Zealand since colonial days. 

 For decades, the oldest political party in New Zealand claimed to embody that approach. In recent years, although they sometimes use a few union loyalists as stepping stones, Labour has shed any last pretense of serious effort on behalf of the poor. That gave birth to the Alliance, now history. The latest variation on the hoary theme is Te Mana Movement. 

All through these experiments, social inequality has grown. Workers’ lot today is increasingly caualisation, de unionisation and low pay, with no end anywhere in sight. 

A sustained class attack in on inequality, based on a thoughtful honest analysis of New Zealand conditions and rooted in the working class is the one solution which has not actually been attempted.


Hi Don,

I don’t think something has to be new to work. And it’s not true that inequality has always increased: in fact, the figures show that it decreased steadily from the 1950s until 1984 – because, in part, of a widespread agreement about the importance of a (relatively) equal society.

When it comes to de-unionisation, casualisation and low pay, there’s going to be a chapter in the book by Nigel Haworth from Auckland University, addressing exactly those issues, and talking about the need to give power back to workers through a range of means, including stronger collective bargaining, and greater workplace democracy. Not socialism, exactly, but a big step towards tackling some of those issues.

Nigel will be talking at the second Te Papa talk on October 4, by the way.



Max, New Zealand prosperity for a couple of decades last century was not about ” widespread agreement about the importance of a (relatively) equal society”. It was about the realities of political economy and balance of class forces.

The general post war boom and high prices for New Zealand grassland products provided a surplus. This was pragmatically used to deflect post war radical politics and union militancy in the form of a social contract.  This social contract included artificially full employment in many areas. During the period you mentioned I worked for a while in the Post Office, which carried a large number of dysfunctional and unproductive people. ( In my view that was a good thing, a relatively cheap and civilized way to maintain a section of people who needed some help.) When economic circumstances changed in the early 1980s, the capitalist class, via the Labour government, immediately resorted to the stick instead of the carrot.

I should add that even during the boom times, there was a significant amount of deprivation among sections of the working class. Thousand of workers expended their lives in dismal little factories on a basic wage, with little share in the fleeting golden time. I know. I was there.

I submit – there is not and can never be no such a thing as “the need to give power back to workers”. The concept is a contradiction in terms, a half baked idea with no basis in reality.

Who is to do this giving?

When they are pushed by the working class, employers and governments occasionally concede such ” powers” as an extremely limited right to strike. More often, they chip away at workers legal rights, or ignore them in practice, or remove them. The history of NZ industrial relations over my lifetime is a tale of a slowly steadily tightening noose.

Workers’ power cannot be given, it can only be grabbed, exercised and defended, by the workers themselves.  Today’s atomized and politically weakened working class will not be saved by the rosy ruminations of any university academic. We will endure worsening times until we manage to regain some of our own collective pride and organizational power.

All the best,


Hi Don,

Sorry to be slow in replying; got a bit buried in preparations for the talk etc. Happy for you to publish the exchange. I’ve added a few more thoughts below, but not bothered if you want to omit them, or respond again. Someone has to have the last word, and it doesn’t always have to be me!


I agree about the importance of political economies and the balance of forces. I do also think that it was indeed easy for NZ to maintain a relatively generous welfare state when there were few demands on it. (And I accept that life was extremely tough for some people, despite the rosy images we have of the past sometimes.)

One point where I differ is that I don’t see much space for ideas in your account. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge that ideas, independent of the economic arrangements of the time, make a difference: the ideas and feelings people had about social responsibility and individual effort, the ways in which people constructed a collective identity, their genuine and strongly felt attachment to a welfare state. Of course on some readings of, say, Marxist theory (in my limited understanding of such work), there’s a view that ideology stems from, and is not independent of, the economic structure. But I’ve never agreed with that.

In terms of ‘giving power’, can people in the bottom 20% have more power (using ‘have’ as a neutral verb) only through its being ‘grabbed’ etc? If a govt of whatever stripe created structures for people in the bottom 20% to exercise more power – eg in the workplace through co-operative companies, or whatever – would that not constitute an increase in power, though it be ‘given back’ in some form? In countries where that sort of thing goes on, e.g. Scandinavian states, it’s true that life is not a paradise, but incomes are much more evenly spread, people of all stripes earn better wages, and generally their health etc is a lot better.

Another point of difference is that I quite like working with academics, rosily ruminant or not…



  1. Don Franks says:

    “One point where I differ is that I don’t see much space for ideas in your account. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge that ideas, independent of the economic arrangements of the time, make a difference: the ideas and feelings people had about social responsibility and individual effort, the ways in which people constructed a collective identity..”

    Fair point Max.
    I don’t accept that ideas have no connection to economic arrangements, but yes, ideas certainly do pack a wallop when they are gotten together and transmitted out on the playground.

    In this regard I can do no better reply than quote from another person’s work. In my view, the very best exposition of the origin and power of human ideas.

    “Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking. Once the correct ideas characteristic of the advanced class are grasped by the masses, these ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world. In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures. Countless phenomena of the objective external world are reflected in a man’s brain through his five sense organs — the organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. At first, knowledge is perceptual. The leap to conceptual knowledge, i.e., to ideas, occurs when sufficient perceptual knowledge is accumulated. This is one process in cognition. It is the first stage in the whole process of cognition, the stage leading from objective matter to subjective consciousness from existence to ideas. Whether or not one’s consciousness or ideas (including theories, policies, plans or measures) do correctly reflect the laws of the objective external world is not yet proved at this stage, in which it is not yet possible to ascertain whether they are correct or not. Then comes the second stage in the process of cognition, the stage leading from consciousness back to matter, from ideas back to existence, in which the knowledge gained in the first stage is applied in social practice to ascertain whether the theories, policies, plans or measures meet with the anticipated success. Generally speaking, those that succeed are correct and those that fail are incorrect, and this is especially true of man’s struggle with nature. In social struggle, the forces representing the advanced class sometimes suffer defeat not because their ideas are incorrect ! but because, in the balance of forces engaged in struggle, they are not as powerful for the time being as the forces of reaction; they are therefore temporarily defeated, but they are bound to triumph sooner or later. Man’s knowledge makes another leap through the test of practice. This leap is more important than the previous one. For it is this leap alone that can prove the correctness or incorrectness of the first leap in cognition, i.e., of the ideas, theories, policies, plans or measures formulated in the course of reflecting the objective external world. There is no other way of testing truth. Furthermore, the one and only purpose of the proletariat in knowing the world is to change it. Often, correct knowledge can be arrived at only after many repetitions of the process leading from matter to consciousness and then back to matter, that is, leading from practice to knowledge and then back to practice. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge, the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge. Among our comrades there are many who do not yet understand this theory of knowledge. When asked the sources of their ideas, opinions, policies, methods, plans and conclusions, eloquent speeches and long articles they consider the questions strange and cannot answer it. Nor do they comprehend that matter, can be transformed into consciousness and consciousness into matter, although such leaps are phenomena of everyday life. It is therefore necessary to educate our comrades in the dialectical materialist theory of knowledge, so that they can orientate their thinking correctly, become good at investigation and study and at summing up experience, overcome difficulties, commit fewer mistakes, do their work better, and struggle hard so as to build China into a great and powerful socialist country and help the broad masses of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world in fulfillment of our great internationalist duty.”

    by Mao Tse Tung

  2. The clarion call “Liberty, equality and fraternity” has resonated from the time of the French revolution to the modern age. These days “liberty”, or freedom as it is more commonly styled in the Anglo-Saxon world, takes pride of place. The concept of “equality” is more hedged around with limitations and conditions, and “fraternity” is given little regard at all. These ideas need to be critiqued. What exactly does equality mean in the context of a capitalist economy and a democratic polity? They do exist, but fleetingly. The citizen abstracted from the reality of the socio-economic system enjoys moments of apparent equality (such as in the casting of a vote, or the choice of an employer) which are nothing more than the prelude to extended periods of real, institutionalised inequality for the citizen as worker and subject in the systems of production and administration of the state. Inequality is a necessary condition for an effective system of social control and an efficient economy. At the same time equality is a necessary condition for a vibrant, innovative, coherent and happy society. In my view these contradictions can only be resolved by a society which obtains a sensible balance between the conflicting ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Perhaps Max could take it upon himself to analyse the real scope of the concept of “equality” within the present social context before beginning to come up with practical solutions to the problem of “inequality”.

  3. Don Franks says:

    I thought the name Nigel Haworth rang a distant bell. The expression ‘strawberries and cream’ came to mind and enabled me to dig up this article I wrote in 2004, when I was an AUS member.


    As we go to press university staff across New Zealand remain in dispute with their employers. Many lecture theatres were left empty on July 20th as more then 6,000 staff at six universities took strike action. Workers were demanding a national collective employment agreements and higher pay. The universities affected were Auckland, Waikato, Massey, Victoria, Canterbury and Lincoln. Staff at Otago voted to accept a proposal from their Vice-Chancellor to increase salary rates by 5 percent from 1 May. The Otago Vice Chancellor had also said he’d consider entering a multiemployer agreement if all other universities did. AUS deemed this package good enough to recommend the planned Otago strike be turned into a paid stopwork meeting. Clearly, they were hoping for a national resolution along these lines. At the Victoria university AUS action committee meeting two days before the strike,AUS leader Helen Kelly said that last minute meetings with Wellington and Auckland universities might possibly alter the need for a strike.

    “If a good number of big sites made ( suitable) offers we’d have to ask what a strike would achieve”, she said. “ The tripartite group gives us national bargaining already in that it is a fund raiser.”

    At a Wellington AUS members meeting before the strike AUS National President professor Nigel Haworth stressed the importance of a securing a national agreement,. He noted that this was the first national university strike in New Zealand and insisting on the importance of all staff supporting it.

    Haworth then went on to claim that the government, had been won over to the AUS cause by “merciless lobbying”, by himself and others. Mallard, Cullen and Clark now apparently all “recognise that there’s an issue” with tertiary education. Haworth reported that National had said clearly they’d spend no more on tertiary education, while Trevor Mallard and the AUS were “All hunky dory ” ;”The government and the AUS are like strawberries and cream together.”
    This has led to the tripartite talks being set up, between AUS, The Vice Chancellors and government representatives. The AUS President described this as a “stunning victory”

    In the AUS leader’s eyes, the present government can do no wrong. While the “intransigent” Vice Chancellors stood for “individual enterprises in bitter competition with one another”, the present government has “a policy of cooperation.” Haworth concluded by claiming that AUS was “the last bastion opposing the red in tooth and claw competitive model.”

    But “recognising that there’s an issue” is a far cry from taking sides on that issue. If the government really had a “policy of cooperation” with the workers they would insist on the setting up of a multiemployer agreement and provide funding for wage claims. But this has not happened and the “intransigent” Vice Chancellors continue to hold sway.

    If a handful of Vice Chancellors can hold the whole tertiary staff of the country to ransom, that can only mean one of two things. Either the government are powerless to govern, or, whatever nice words they say on tripartite committees, in practice Labour go along with the “red in tooth and claw competitive model.”

    University staff members can only make real progress towards a national agreement by recognising and acting on a truth that AUS leaders don’t want to face. The Labour government is a willing manager of capitalism and will obey its laws. Faith in the Labour party is a distraction from the full on participation in the industrial action required to win.

    Don Franks

  4. Admin says:

    Professor Haworth is also chair of the High Performance Working Initiative, which is a body set up by the Department of Labour and aims to improve workplace productivity and niceness. The problem is that sort of workplace is still one in which exploitation takes place. In fact, under capitalism, increases in productivity simply make the working class *even more* exploited.

    The reason inequality lessened in the 1950s-end of 1970s was because of the postwar economic boom. There was so much surplus-value being created that capitalists were happy enough using some of it to buy social peace. But there has never been another boom like it, and there are no signs of any on the horizon. This is pretty much as good as it gets now. So the capitalists simply cannot afford to make the kinds of concessions they were happy enough to make during the 1950s and 1960s.

    The problem with all the plans for tinkering with industrial relations, tax rates and so on, is that they simply can’t work any more. There can’t be a shift back to the ‘nicer’ times of the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘nicer’ class relations and balance of class power that existed then, because the material basis for that simply doesn’t exist any more, and hasn’t since the early 1970s when the postwar boom ended.

    Reformism is now impractical in any meaningful sense. I’m not a big fan of Tony Cliff, but I think he hit the nail on the head when he talked about today’s reformism being ‘reformism without reforms’. There just isn’t all that much that is possible within the confines of a pretty exhausted economic system.

    The main thing the system has going for it these days is not any dynamism nor any largesse to redistribute a bit; rather, the main thing the system has going is the exhaustion of the opposition. The system is worn out but so is much of the working class. So we have a situation of two exhausted boxers, both on the ground, but one of them is already the title-holder (capitalism), so they remain so.

    How long it will take the working class in NZ to recover is anyone’s guess. But it’s turning out to be a lot longer than anyone of us might have assumed back after the 1984-1991 defeats. It’s certainly taking a lot longer than it took the working class to recover from the 1951 defeat.


  5. C. H. says:

    Don mentions the leading role of the proletariat in building a movement for socialism, and alludes to the infiltration of backward, petty-bourgeois ideas into the labour movement, a source of the opportunism and reformist degeneration of social democracy. But does the author agree with Lenin’s view that the proletariat should develop an alliance with the broader, non-proletarian working masses: the urban middle strata, the intelligencia and small farmers?

    I think the authors are right to mention the importance of the subjective element. In New Zealand, the leadership of the labour movement has apparently become overrun by right-wing socialists. Nearly all the ‘left’ parliamentarians, union leaders and academics seem to be liberals whose ideas are little more than rehashed ‘Blairite’ or ‘Brownite’ schemes based on the discredited theories of neoliberalism and neo-Keynesianism. Unwinnable mediations and “social partnerships” are sought to ensure “social peace”; the class struggle is diluted. Socialism, dismissed as “old fashioned”, is off the agenda entirely. The ‘Old Labour’ social democrats and communists appear to be in disarray: isolated, out of ideas and disheartened.

    The working class can only be defeated unless it develops strong leaders with the right theoretical and practical outlook. This doesn’t seem to be happening.

  6. Don Franks says:

    “does the author agree with Lenin’s view that the proletariat should develop an alliance with the broader, non-proletarian working masses: the urban middle strata, the intelligencia and small farmers?”

    I think we’ve got to get it together ourselves first. An atomized working class is in no position to make any alliance with anyone.