A Spurious and Culpable Neutrality? To stand to one side and do nothing while injustice is taking place before your eyes is to participate in that injustice. David Shearer and Labour must speak out against the Port sof Auckland management's plan to sack its entire workforce - or share their guilt.
WHY SO SILENT, Mr Shearer? Why has the Labour Party not voiced its solidarity with the Maritime Unions of New Zealand? Why have you not spoken out against the Ports of Auckland CEO’s outrageous threat to sack his entire workforce? What’s the matter with you, man?
The white sands and Pohutukawa blooms of Northland are beautiful at this time of year, and God knows you’ve earned a break, but you must know a politician is never truly on holiday. Time and the twenty-four-hour news cycle wait for no man.
The story unfolding on the Auckland waterfront has political implications far beyond the winning and losing of a single industrial dispute. Ultimately, it’s about whether or not the Labour Party stands for something more than an alternative set of political managers. And, if it does, then what, in the Twenty-First Century, is that “something more” about?
You are fond of telling us, Mr Shearer, about that transformative moment in the Sudan when you looked over the side of the truck you were travelling in and witnessed half-starved children scrabbling in the dust for the scraps of food you had casually tossed away. It’s an arresting image: redolent with all the sub-texts of injustice, wealth and poverty, and the inevitable conflicts to which scarcity gives rise. And the clear implication of your story is that not only did you perceive the intrinsic moral squalor of the scene being enacted in the fly-blown Sudan dust, but that you decided then and there to do something about it.
It’s why you’re the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shearer. Your United Nations “back-story” of “doing something” about poverty, war and injustice is what inspired your colleagues to make you, rather than David Cunliffe, leader of the Labour Party. An essential element of that back-story, in case you need reminding, was your celebrated Kiwi approach; your ability to get alongside all the parties involved in a conflict and help them identify the common-ground. It’s what you’re supposed to be good at.
So, I ask again: Why so silent on the Ports of Auckland dispute?
Is it because you’ve been listening to Trevor Mallard, Mr Shearer? I sincerely hope not. Because Mr Mallard and his ilk are the very last people you should be listening to at the moment. They are, when all is said and done, the people who devised the campaign strategy which culminated in Labour’s worst election result in more than 80 years. The people whose political counsel is dictated by opinion polls and focus-groups. The sort of people who purport to lead by following. The people who would have asked those Sudanese children scrabbling in the dust which variety of scraps were their favourite.
Or, perhaps you’re recalling the example of “Side-line Stan” Rodger – Minister of Labour during the darkest days of Rogernomics. Mr Rodger made a virtue out of staying on the side-lines of industrial relations and refusing to involve the Government in settling strikes and lockouts.
St Paul would have recognised the tactic. He recalled the time, before his encounter on the Road to Damascus, when he had held the cloaks of those involved in the hot work of stoning a Christian martyr. But, after Damascus (and the Sudan?) St Paul and you both understood that to stand on the side-lines while injustice is taking place is to participate in that injustice. If you opt to “hold the cloaks” of the Ports of Auckland management while they stone their own employees – then, damn you Mr Shearer, you’re as guilty as they are.
Which brings us back to the central question: Is Labour something more than an alternative set of political managers? And, if it is, what is that something more about?
Ultimately, isn’t it about answering the question: “Who is strong enough to stop the stone-throwers?” The men and women who formed the Labour Party in 1916 decided that the answer to that question was the State. If the State could be made to stop working for those who already exercised power, and began instead to work for those who were powerless, then a political party seeking to put an end to poverty, war and injustice would have a fighting chance.
Labour was formed to create a State that wasn’t neutral; a state that never stood on the side-lines when working people were being threatened and abused. Labour was about intervention: constant, massive, intelligent and creative intervention on behalf of the weak and against the strong.
It’s time to bid farewell to the white sands and the Pohutukawa blossoms, Mr Shearer, and come on down to the Auckland wharves. It’s time to cast aside the gathered cloaks of a spurious and culpable “neutrality” and place yourself and your party between the stone-throwers and their victims. It’s time to end the silence.
This letter was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 17 January 2012.