by Phil Duncan
We are only in the early days of the English-Bennett government, but it still feels we are living under the Key-English government. Nothing has changed and nor is there likely to be dramatic change. When Key and National won the 2008 election we were among the very, very few people on the left to make a correct assessment of the incoming regime.
While most of the left continued their pre-election scaremongering that Key was some kind of ideologically-committed new right politician who would pick up where Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson left off, we pointed to the fact that NZ capitalism needed more ‘new right’ economics like it needed a hole in the head, that the Key-English government would be a middle-of-the-road one, and that most of the left were making themselves look both stupid and hysterical with their idiotic denunciations of Key.
As the first term of Key-English drew to a close, with nary a ‘new right’ policy in sight, the crank elements of the left shifted gear and said Key was just trying to lull us all and the attacks would come in the second Key term. Well, the second Key term came and went too, with nary a glimpse of ‘new right’ economic policy in sight. For some, the penny began to drop. Part-way through the third term of Key-English, Mike Treen, something of a weathervane in terms of the wider non-contemplative left, did actually admit that Key was far from the new right devil he had been painted as. In fact, as Mike pointed out, some of Key’s policies – borrow and spend during recession – were far more Keynesian than ‘new right’.
Bourgeois economists and political commentators, so often a few steps ahead of ‘the left’, had already noted years before that Key was a highly pragmatic, middle-of-the-road politician.
We, meanwhile, had not only noted that Key-English were not ‘new right’, but that that whole era in NZ had climaxed and petered out years and years ago. And, as Marxists, we didn’t merely describe – we explained why.
While much of the left has, belatedly, come round to our view, the miserabilism and petty-sectarianism which dominates so much of their behaviour has prevented any of these folks from noting that we got it right or trying to find out why (we applied Marxism, instead of anti-National kneejerkism). However, at least, the egg on their faces over Key has meant they have been a lot less hysterical in denouncing the English-Bennett regime that has succeeded Key-English.
English-Bennett to continue broad strokes of Key-English
English has indicated that the broad strokes of Key-era government economic policy will continue. And, reflecting the fact that National is an urban liberal party, English has even changed his views on gay marriage. While he still seems m ore at home at a sheep-shearing contest than at the Big Gay Out, English now says that if the gay marriage vote was being held today, he’d vote for it.
Meanwhile, to return to economic policy, New Zealand capitalism remains in a fairly weak state. It is dependent on dairying and tourism and the state of the Chinese economy. The saving graces for NZ capitalism are connected to the small size of this country. Because NZ capitalism only needs a certain level of GDP, employment etc to maintain stability, it can achieve these through finding niches in the global economy; there will always be just enough people abroad who want dairy products, there will always be enough people with enough money to come as tourists to NZ and even a notable decline in the Chinese economy won’t shut off their desire for milk and tourism products from here. While the basis of the NZ economy is quite narrow, this is an imperialist country getting good prices for its exports, not a poor Third World country struggling to get by on low export prices and super-exploitation by the First World.
This, then, is the context for the English-Bennett government. A weak economy but one that can still get by at enough of a level to keep enough people happy enough not to make trouble. Although Bennett couldn’t be described by any stretch of the imagination as one of the sharper knives in the drawer – she seems to be more one of National’s affirmative action promotions – she and English, and most certainly English and the other key players, are well aware that with budget surpluses predicted for the next decade, they can easily afford to bestow some of the largesse on the working class.
Key-English raised social welfare benefits for the first time in 43 years, passed legislation which substantially cut away at zero-hours contracts, and kept the retirement age at 65 – all things which put them well to the left of Labour. National has also consistently raised the minimum wage. Blue-collar workers understood all this and voted for National in larger numbers than they voted for Labour in 2014. Such workers simply didn’t share the continuing illusions chunks of the left have in Labour nor the widespread left prejudices about National. Even if only at a fairly visceral level, many workers understand that Labour is not some kind of workers party that stands to the left of National. Indeed, Labour and National are the sibling parties of the NZ ruling class.
Some stamp of his own
Following on from Key-English, the new English-Bennett government are likely to continue raising the minimum wage. They may even raise benefits or introduce some other measures to put more money in the pockets of the poorest sections of society. It also seems that they will maintain the current retirement age, despite pressure from Treasury, the Retirement Commissioner and various right-wing pundits now that Key has left the prime ministership and will soon be leaving parliament altogether.*
Moreover, English will want to put some sort of stamp of his own on NZ politics, especially after the humiliating drubbing he took as leader of the National Party in the 2002 election. English has always been on the ‘wet’ end of the National Party in terms of economic policy, so it will be interesting to see what money he throws at the electorate, including the poorest sections of NZ society, in the first budget of his prime ministership. Especially given that he quite a bit of money to play around with now. Plus it’s an election year.
Thus in his first statement upon becoming leader, English declared, “This will be a Government supporting economic growth and ensuring the benefits of growth are widely shared.” He even included trade unions as one of the groups his government would support to achieve “a better job of changing lives”. Moreover, in relation to beneficiaries: “we will support those who are dependent on Government income. We won’t put them in a worse position, we will work to get them in a better position.”
In short then, expect the economic policies of the Key-English era to continue, with English even being keen to do a bit more redistribution than Key.
Further reading: Key and After Key
* Shortly after this article went up English announced that the retirement age would be raised to 67, but not until. . . . 2040. So no immediate raise, but one a generation away! Moreover, his main coalition partners, United Future and the Maori Party, are against raising the retirement age, so English indicated that he may change his mind! Since he also may need NZ First after this September’s election, and Winston Peters has always been firmly against raising the retirement age, this policy may go by the board. It looks more like a rather weak attempt to differentiate himself from Key, especially in a situation where a bunch of disgusting liberal journalists, along with the well-heeled Retirement Commissioner and the Treasury bureaucrats, have been pushing on the issue since Key resigned. So, no immediate or short-term change in the retirement age and 23 years in which the next generations can campaign against any increase. Meanwhile it is a telling indication of the clapped-out nature of capitalism that, a century after the 40-hour week, capitalism now apparently can’t survive without lengthening our working time.