by Phil Duncan

Well, according to the media – and there seems to be quite a consensus – the answer to the question above is a resounding ‘yes’.  According to Tim Murphy, co-editor of Newsroom, policies adopted at last weekend’s Green Party AGM have “placed the Greens on the risky side of radical. Probably just where they want to be.”

According to TV1 political editor Corin Dann, the Greens have made “a bold statement on social justice”.  On Spin-Off, Simon Wilson suggested, “For the left, which was looking like it was going to watch another election slide by, it was the most impressive statement of the year.”  Columnist Stacey Kirk argues, Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei, is “counting on New Zealanders to not only voice concern over inequality, but to collectively do something about it that may go against the nature of their very core.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most hyperbolic response has come from veteran left columnist Chris Trotter who reckons the reform platform adopted by the Greens is not merely radical but “revolutionary”.  Turei’s declarations at the weekend, in his eyes, “will have the same electrifying effect as the cry which swept through Paris on 14 July 1789 – ‘To the Bastille!'”  Yes, he actually did compare the Greens’ platform with the start of the French revolution which cut off the heads of much of the ruling class there and ushered in a whole new social order.  And the Greens, well Metiria Turei in particular, has “set the 2017 election on fire”.*

So what are the Greens proposing?

Well, let’s dispense with poor Chris first.  There is no call to storm this country’s Bastilles or physically eliminate the ruling class.  What the Greens want to do is raise social welfare benefits by 20%, increase the tax rate for the highest income earners so that any income above $150,000 will pay a 40% tax rate on that additional money, while the tax rate for those on the lowest incomes will go down from 10.5% to 9%.

The minimum wage would be lifted to $17.75 (it’s currently $15.75) and eventually to two-thirds of the average wage.

The In-Work tax credit, which is currently only paid to people in employment, will become a tax credit that pays out to all low-income families with kids, regardless of whether they are beneficiaries or in paid work (or somewhere between).

People on benefits can currently only earn $80 gross a week before having most of their work earnings taken off their benefits; the Greens would raise the threshold to $200.

They also want to remove WINZ’s policy of sanctions against people who infringe its very tight rules.

Why are they proposing these measures?

As political commentator Bryce Edwards has noted, the Greens have seen the success of Bernie Sanders in the States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and their redistributive proposals.  Of course, Sanders didn’t win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the presidency, and Corbyn didn’t win the British election; however, they did energise a significant voting base and a new layer of young people in particular.

If the Greens did half as well in September, they could probably double their seats in their parliament.  That would make them Labour’s go-to party in terms of a coalition government and leave Winston Peters and NZ First out in the cold.

The Greens’ new-found ‘radicalism’ also comes after economically ‘radical’ pronouncements by Peters.  The Greens clearly want Labour to themselves and not to have to share them with NZ First, let alone be left out in the cold as Helen Clark unceremoniously did with them when she formed a Labour-NZ First government.

Moreover, Metiria Turei and James Shaw know full well that the more far-reaching of their proposals will be vetoed by Labour anyway.

After all, are we supposed to believe that the party which, when in government, threatened to take benefits off people who continued to live in unemployment ‘black spots’ and never raised social welfare benefits despite year-after-year of government surpluses will agree to remove all WINZ’s punitive measures that treat beneficiaries as second-class citizens, for instance?

And what about the ‘Fiscal Responsibility’ pact between Labour and the Greens?

Are the Greens’ proposals radical?

Well, we actually need a long view here.

Let’s take wages to start with.  In 1907 the Arbitration Court in New Zealand, following the Australian example, adopted the idea of a living wage – yes, living wage – as a principle.  This wage was to be sufficient to keep a breadwinner, a spouse at home and three children.  This, then, was massively higher than anything in terms of wages proposed by the Greens.

Now let’s look at tax, just going back to the Muldoon era.  In October 1970, as minister of finance, he brought forward a mini-budget where the top marginal tax rate was 69.75% for the following eight months, when it was returned to 60% – this is 50% higher than the Greens’ proposed highest marginal tax rate.

What about social welfare?  In the early 1970s, under the second National Party government, a commission was set up on social welfare, the McCarthy Commission.  Its 1972 report, which was endorsed by both National (then in power) and Labour, which won the general election at the end of that year, advocated that everyone in New Zealand, including those on benefits should have enough income to be able to participate meaningfully in society.

Are we supposed to believe that the Greens’ proposal to increase, say, Jobseekers Allowance by 20% – ie take it from $210 a week to a b it over $250 a week – would enable people on it to be able to meaningfully participate in society and enjoy the same basic access to stuff that wage and salary earners do?

Moreover, in 1991’s ‘Mother of All Budgets’, the fourth National government’s finance minister, Ruth Richardson, slashed benefits by an average of around 25%.  The current National government has become the first government of any party to actually raise benefits in over 40 years.  The increase introduced by the current National government and the Greens’ proposal combined mean that social welfare benefits would still be lower than if those draconian benefit cuts hadn’t been made.  The Greens’ ‘radical’ proposal would actually leave benefits below what they were before 1991 (in real dollar terms).

At the Green Party AGM, co-leader Metiria Turei declared, “We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against our own people.  No working person will struggle to pay the rent. No beneficary will live below the poverty line. . .

“These kids will wake up in a bed not the backseat of a car, they’ll go to school with bellies full of breakfast and a lunchbox full of lunch, they will spend their weekends playing sports not in hospital with bronchitis. That’s what we’ll do.”

These are very fine aims indeed.  We agree wholeheartedly with them.  But decades of experience surely tells us that they will not be achieved under capitalism; their achievement requires much more than tinkering around with top tax rates and minimum wages.

Meanwhile, not even raising benefits to what they would be in 2017 if they hadn’t been slashed by the National Party in 1991’s ‘Mother of all Budgets’, increasing the minimum wage to a level far below the principle set out by the Arbitration Court 110 years ago as a ‘living wage’; and increasing the highest tax rate to a level far below what it was under the second National Party government amounts to far less than a ‘radical’ programme.

One of the things that actually bugs me about the notion that the Greens have suddenly shifted left is also how narrow a view of politics is being taken here.

What about immigration, for instance?  Well, the Greens actually want to restrict it.  They are opposed to workers’ right to free movement and the right of workers to get the maximum price possible for their labour-power?

What about New Zealand imperialism?  Well, the Greens favour it as long as it has the imprimatur of United Nations officialdom?

What about refugees?  Well, the Greens oppose opening the doors anywhere near the extent of, say, even Tories like Angela Merkel and her government in Germany.

What about right-to-strike?  Well, the Greens certainly stand to the left of Labour; their industrial relations policy states, “Support the right of working people and their unions to campaign for political, environmental, social and work-related industrial issues, including the right to strike in support of these.”  But the entire industrial relations policy is framed within the key idea that the interests of employers and workers are essentially the same – or at least not inherently antagonistic.  The party wants a situation of class peace through moving the goalposts somewhat, recognise how much both National and Labour have suppressed workers’ interests.

So far, the Greens’ formal support for the right to strike has not been tested – but how many Greens show up to workers’ protests?  How much agitation have the Greens done against the current anti-strike legislation?  Where are their rallying cries to the workers to confront employers and the state?

What about the repressive institutions of the state?  Do the Greens want to get rid of the SIS, GCSB etc?  The police?

The Greens clearly would like to narrow some of the most glaring inequality in New Zealand but they oppose doing away with inequality across the board here.  They oppose doing away with the repressive elements of the state apparatus. And their policy positions support continuing global inequality and continuing imperialist intervention in the Third World.

Indeed, it is a sign that you really don’t have to stand for much to be assigned the ‘radical’ label in New Zealand today, do you?

Such labeling is also a sign of how far the working class movement and the left have lowered horizons and expectations.  It also acts as a limiting factor in terms of discussion of alternatives.  If the Greens are so ‘radical’ then anything to their left is virtually unthinkable.  Their, in reality, very limited ideas define the boundary of ‘radical’.

We need to aim far, far higher.

Radical means we need to be internationalist, not nationalist.

Radical means we need to be anti-capitalist, not simply anti-National.

Radical means we need to oppose the capitalist state, not try to wield it.

Radical means we need to expropriate the capitalist class, not move the deck chairs about through just a bit of redistributive economics.

Clearly, judging by the way Green policy has been treated as ‘radical’, we need not just a new workers’ movement but a new left as well.  A radical left.

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*Remember when Chris claimed Matt McCarten joining Labour several years ago as chief of staff for the party leader was a “game changer” for Labour when it was really a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot for Labour?

 

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Comments
  1. Thomas CSS says:

    As always the policy isn’t enough of a reason to you know, vote for the Greens – and certainly not booster for them. I think what the Greens have provided is a great example for Marxists to talk about how Marx notes that under capitalism that of the ‘two great hosts’ who meet in opposition in industry, the army with the least internal competition will often have a better position from which to bargain. So at an absolute basic level the increase in benefits reduces the competition between the possessors of labour-power, so may enable higher wages. To the extent that this may open up the ability to articulate the unity of the class – whether or not they successfully sell their labour-power – then that is a good thing. That’s the most positive spin I can do.

  2. Malcolm says:

    Nice edit.

  3. Phil says:

    Cheers. I should point out here that I originally questioned the Greens’ position on the right-to-strike, as I thought they did not support it. Malcolm alerted me to what their official policy says, so I edited the piece accordingly.