Last night saw the first of two meetings on the subject of child poverty currently being organised on campus at Otago University by the recently-founded Choose Kids group. The first meeting was designed to feature politicians while the second meeting, next Monday night, will feature experts from academia.
The parties invited last night were National, Labour and the Greens. National didn’t respond, so the third speaker was Bryce Edwards, a lecturer in the Politics department and prominent left political commentator.
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei spoke first, outlining the extent of the problem and focusing on low wages and low benefits. She said a much higher minimum wage was necessary and beneficiaries needed more income. My impression was that she is genuinely outraged by poverty levels and means well, but is stuck within the limits of parliamentary politics where no radical solutions are really on offer.
By contrast, local Labour MP David Clark engaged in quite a bit of dissembling. He pretended that Labour cared deeply about child poverty and claimed the last Labour government had addressed this with Working for Families. What he avoided in his speech was that the big growth of poverty began under the fourth Labour government and that the fifth Labour government never raised benefits, which had been substantially cut by the fourth National government, although it had nine years of surpluses in which to do so. If it cared a hoot about the poorest, why didn’t Labour, blessed with all those surpluses, raise benefits. It was actually left to the current National-led government to raise benefits for the first time in 43 years. Moreover, the Working for Families package applied only to those in paid employment, drawing a distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Clark’s speech, however, was only the beginning of his dissembling.
Clark suggested that people wanting to do something about child poverty could do so by joining Labour or the Greens and getting involved in the ‘political process’.
Bryce Edwards spoke third. He suggested that while using the term child poverty might help heighten public awareness of the problem, it isn’t the children who are poor – it’s their parents. And their parents are poor because of low wages and low benefits, something that neither Labour nor National have addressed. He also strongly disagreed that joining Labour or the Greens was at all useful, let alone part of the solution. It was far more useful building an independent movement around poverty, especially wages and benefits. Even voting wasn’t helpful, he added, if none of the parties was really prepared to make inroads into the system that seemed to create poverty.
Clark seemed quite uncomfortable during Bryce’s talk.
During the discussion Clark was challenged by rail worker activist Dave Kearns, who pointed to the record of the fourth Labour government. Dave also asked where Labour stood on free education, as did another audience member. Clark simply dissembled. He claimed that Labour supported free education, including at tertiary level, and favoured working in this direction. He offered as proof of this that Labour had removed interest from student loans.
But that wasn’t at all moving in the direction of free tertiary education – under the last Labour government, with its big surpluses, student fees continued to rise consistently. Student fees were far bigger at the end of Helen Clark’s fifth Labour government than at the start. Free tertiary education was further away than ever after almost a decade of Labour in power, with their big budget surpluses.
One wonders whether the ability to shamelessly dissemble is a necessary qualification for being selected as a Labour MP. Or is it that a few naive dupes also get selected and then find that they are expected to lie on queue and start doing so. Either way, dissembling is clearly part of the price of belonging to the club of Labour MPs.
Moreover, David Clark’s dissembling continued when he started talking about housing costs in Auckland. He defended Labour’s recent bout of anti-Chinese racism, but he did it by not talking about the ‘Chinese-sounding surnames’. Instead he said Labour was against ‘foreign speculators’ and they ‘made no apology for this’. But it wasn’t simply foreign speculators that Labour had attacked; it was specifically people with ‘Chinese-sounding surnames’. Clark claimed that National – ‘and some on the left who parroted National’ – had tried to turn it into a race issue’! He looked at Bryce as he said this, Bryce having been one of those awful lefties who opposed the anti-Chinese xenophobia the Labourites were so keen to try to stir up.
So I took Clark’s attempt to move the goalposts on this as a sign that the Labour machine has already started trying to rewrite history to pretend it was all ‘foreign’ speculators they targeted not Chinese ones.
In any case, most people in this country living in crappy housing are not in property owned by ‘foreigners’ but by NZ landlords. The mouldy, damp, cold flats so many students have lived in in Dunedin aren’t owned by rich Chinese living it up in Beijing, but good ‘kiwi’ landlords and speculators.
The biggest landlord in the country is, of course, Housing NZ, which is owned by the capitalist state so venerated by Labour. And state housing stock was in a worse condition under Labour than it is now, as National has been carrying out an improvements programme that, inadequate as it is, is still better than anything Labour did.
Having been around in political activity for a fair while, having even been in the Labour Party briefly, I’m used to lying from Labour MPs. They’re at least as good at it as their National Party counterparts, but the dissembling about Labour’s recent bout of anti-Chinese racism and where Labour stands on free tertiary education was so brazen, I was somewhat taken aback.
In their summing up after an only-too-short time for discussion, it was clear that both Metiria Turei and David Clark have no vision outside the existing socio-economic system. Turei wants to help people within that system as much as it allows; Clark simply wants Labour in power and himself in cabinet.
Choose Kids is doing some good work on the ground and the members are well-intentioned progressive students. Hopefully they will develop their range of activities and organise public protests. They certainly need the Labour Party like they need a hole in the head.
Challenging, let alone getting rid of, poverty requires activity not simply outside Labour but in opposition to them. A movement of the working class for the working class, an anti-capitalist movement.
Further reading: Labour – a bosses’ party