Waiting For The Punchline: If "energy generation" isn't even on the "closed list" of state-owned assets David Parker is determined to keep in public ownership, then everyone collecting signatures and marching in protest to save the energy SOEs has just become the butt of a very bad Labour joke.
IF LABOUR’s a “joke”, as the Prime Minister insists, then I’m not laughing. Now, my sense of humour has always veered toward the traditional, so it’s possible that what we’re dealing with here is a very esoteric variety of black humour. Perhaps Labour’s finance spokesperson, David Parker, was pitching to this darker side when he told the following side-splitter to the corporate head-hunters at Robert Walters Finance:
We also think infrastructure assets with monopoly characteristics are especially important to the functioning of the wider economy. Labour published a closed list of assets that we believe ought to be run in the New Zealand interest because they have monopoly characteristics - assets such as electricity line networks, water and airports.
The list excludes telecommunications and electricity generation.
If you enjoy your humour at other people’s expense, that’s quite a punch line. What Mr Parker was telling his audience of top-level banking and accounting talent spotters was that Labour does not include electricity generation on its list of “infrastructure assets” that ought to be “run in the New Zealand interest”.
So, all those people standing on street corners with clip-boards collecting signatures for a Citizens Initiated Referendum on asset sales; all those thousands of people planning to march in the “Aotearoa Is NOT For Sale!” protest this Saturday; all those hundreds of Labour Party members who’ve been reassuring their workmates and neighbours that the Caucus is rock-solid against the sale of Mighty River Power and Genesis Energy; all of them are wasting their time. Because “energy generation” isn’t even on Labour’s “closed list” of assets that should never be sold.
While we’re on the subject of Mr Parker’s speech, it’s worth noting the language he uses when talking about state assets. Rather than saying that industries and businesses with “monopoly characteristics” should be ‘kept in public ownership’, or ‘remain in government hands’, Labour’s finance spokesperson says that they “ought to be run in the New Zealand interest”. Could a former state owned enterprise be “run in the New Zealand interest” by a private New Zealand company? His audience undoubtedly thought so.
Mr Parker’s repertoire of drolleries was not confined to the fate of New Zealand’s publicly-owned assets. Consider these statements about the nature of the Labour Party:
Labour is a progressive party: fundamentally it is the party of change, the party that is willing to make structural changes when necessary ..... It’s always up to Labour to make the case for why change is needed, and why the status quo isn't working. So the difference between [Labour and National] is not that the Government is pro-business, and we are anti. Nor are we talking about ‘tax and spend’, or ‘cutting the pie differently’. Those are tired clichés. What we are talking about is the need to modernise because we can’t keep going as we are. We need to take some hard decisions and shatter some orthodoxies that are past their use-by date.
Who do you think Mr Parker was more likely to have been channeling when he wrote those words: Mickey Savage or Roger Douglas? And what sort of “change” does Mr Parker have in mind? The sort that empowers working people? The sort that gives them more say in their workplace? More security of tenure in their rented home? A better set of outcomes for their children from our health and education systems?
What I’ve laid out for you is a comprehensive sweep of modernising reforms across superannuation, pro-growth tax reform, help for innovation and exporting, and modernising our savings and investment policy.
Once again, that sounds a lot more like Roger than Mickey!
What’s truly unfunny about Labour at the moment, however, is that Mr Parker is not the only senior member of its caucus who is talking like this. The Leader of the Opposition, himself, has picked up the same 1980s dialect of economic modernisation and sweeping structural change.
On 12 July, Mr Shearer addressed the Arbitrators and Mediators Institute of New Zealand. After regaling them with tales from his time as a United Nations administrator, he moved into a peroration that had more than a little of the “short term pain for long term gain” about it:
If we don’t make big changes, we stand a fairly good chance of becoming a 21st century peasant economy. And this is where you have to ask a fundamental question about leadership. Is it fair to people to go on doing what we are, when you know that what we’re doing is not enough? The Prime Minister said in a lecture last week that it's not constructive politics to get ahead of people – that if you don’t take them with you, your reforms will run out of engine power. That’s right, as far as it goes, but the lesson I take from that is that leadership is also not being timid and giving people only small and imperceptible change. The lesson I take from it is that you should listen, find the right words and the right arguments to paint the picture or vision of where we should be – and set out where we could be if we’re prepared to make big changes.
Once again, we are left wondering about the precise nature of these “big changes”. Unfortunately, Mr Shearer does not spell them out. And it is here that the difference between the Labour Party of Mickey Savage, Walter Nash and Norman Kirk stands in such stark contrast to the party of David Shearer and David Parker. Theirs was also a party of change – radical change. But it was also a party which spelled out in the clearest terms how the policies driving that change would work, and how working people would benefit from them.
With the bleak example of the Lange-Douglas Government before it, the electorate has every right to feel a shiver of dread run up its spine when it hears a Labour leader talk about leadership “not being timid”. After all, it was no less a Rogernome than Richard Prebble who used to talk about how brave the Fourth Labour Government was: about how much courage it took to defy the will of the people and sell Telecom.
In his speech to the Arbitrators and Mediators, Mr Shearer spoke movingly about how important it was to “understand as much as you can about the person on the other side of the table … If you can put yourself in their shoes, if you can imagine how the world looks through their eyes, you’ll have something solid to work with.”
If the Labour Leader were to do that now: if he were to try and understand how his words might sound to an electorate grown wary and weary of politicians who think there are more important political priorities than taking the people with them; then he might begin to understand why so many of us disagree with John Key.
Because when Labour talks like this the joke is usually on us, and when it’s all over nobody feels like laughing.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.