Making sense of politics in 2016

Andrew Tait gave this presentation to the International Socialist Organisation Hui-a-tau in Auckland last month.

2016, in New Zealand, has not been marked by major struggles or economic disasters or booms. The Key crew, masters anyway of administering sleeping gas, have managed to avoid major scandals or divisions. On the contrary, one of the worst of a bad lot, Judith Collins, has been rehabilitated after the Oravida scandal and retaken her place on the front bench. Bill English and Paula Bennett inherit a remarkably stable and strong government.

Although overshadowed by National, the reformist left have made some interesting moves – promising first to work together to replace National (a position the Greens have long avoided taking before an election) and then cementing that with a double-pronged attack on immigration tailor-made to dovetail with New Zealand First, the likely third party in any post-Key government.

In a year where there have been (in New Zealand at least) no major changes it is tricky to find a point to focus on. But although little has changed on the surface, immigration and the shifting attitude of politicians towards it, suggests future lines of struggle.

To start with parliamentary politics: In the past we have criticised the Greens for remaining theoretically open to a coalition with National. Greens activists said it was just smart bargaining. We argued though that it reflected their conservative wing – well-heeled upper-middle class voters and the conscious “post-class” politics of many veteran Greens – as oppose to their younger, more left-wing activist base.

Now the Greens have nailed their colours to the Labour Party’s mast and set sail boldly in the wake of Winston Peters. The centre left have formed a common front on reactionary grounds. The effect of this is to give New Zealand First the mic on all immigration-related questions.

Peters was quick to crow: “The Greens have always stood on a pedestal, looking down their noses, claiming the high moral ground as New Zealand First warned that immigration was strangling our public services, cutting Kiwis out of jobs, and helping push house prices up . . . What a turnaround we saw today. The party that claims it’s for as much diversity in the population as we can get reveals there are problems with a soaring population. Who will call who racist and xenophobic now?”

It’s important to acknowledge immigration is running at record highs. According to Stuff (worryingly an increasingly unreliable source), last year’s 2.1% population increase is the largest since 1974, driven by record immigration. According to Paul Spoonley, New Zealand has the highest inflow of workers and new residents of any OECD country. About 27%, more than one in four, New Zealanders (including myself) were born overseas – and almost one in two Aucklanders.

I think it’s good to acknowledge this. I think it’s good to celebrate this. Immigrants are usually working class or join the working class here. They bring with them traditions of struggle that can benefit us all. The Irish a century ago added a strong touch of anti-imperialism to the labour movement, while Pacific Island immigration since the 70s helps us recognise Auckland is not just the biggest city in New Zealand but the economic centre of Polynesia.

Its worth remembering too the largest group of immigrants are New Zealanders returning from Australia. This trans-Tasman trip is nothing new for the New Zealand working class. The first leader of the Labour Party was Australian-born and, with around 400,000 New Zealanders in Australia, there would be few of us without family across the ditch.

So rising immigration is a real trend but defining it as a problem was a conscious choice by Labour

and the Greens. It is disappointing and will be disorienting for the wider left and the working class. It is doubly disappointing because the successes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the USA and the UK have demonstrated that there are votes to be had to the left. Labour and the Greens have both deliberately chosen to move right.

The economy

The reason they have chosen to do this is because of the failure of the capitalist system to deliver jobs and housing. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 5% despite the supposed successes of the economy. Youth unemployment is higher again.

A June IMF study of 60 countries found house prices, which dropped in 2008, have risen to become the most unaffordable (on the basis of price to income). Housing scarcity has allowed speculative returns on capital that productive sectors of the economy cannot match.

In both housing and unemployment, migration has been blamed by Labour and the Greens. National has suggested in the past that immigration has “dampened wage inflation” but on balance created growth, which created jobs. Now they too are blaming immigration.

The idea there is a natural level of population growth (the Greens suggest 1%) is nonsense. The housing bubble is caused by speculation that could be controlled by Government regulation and building state houses (which could also reduce unemployment). These are simple arguments we can easily make but unfortunately we are swimming against a tide of innuendoes, half-truths and stereotypes that gush from politicians, TV shows and editorial writers.

The environment

The Greens have based their xenophobia on the idea of a “sustainable” level of population growth – 1%. It sounds very reasonable and moderate, except for the fact that the dairy industry boasts that it alone feeds 100 million people worldwide. NZ Trade and Enterprise more modestly claims 40 million for all New Zealand exports. Either way, why waste time and coal drying millions of litres of milk every day to ship milk powder halfway around the world? If we already sustain 40 million people, why would it be unsustainable for them to live here? If sustainability was the criteria, shouldn’t the Greens argue for a 1000% rise?

The growth in the dairy industry since 1990 has resulted in greenhouse gas emissions increasing by over 20% and made us the fifth highest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita in the world.

Farmers like to boast that they are the only unsubsidised sector in the world but this is rubbish. They are heavily subsidised through government research, generous support in case of adverse weather and most importantly, through their freedom to pollute the land, water and air. The source of the campylobacter water contamination in Havelock North has not been identified. The very silence of the authorities and the media accuses dairy farming. 5530 were infected, 45 people were admitted to hospital and 2 died. They are, most likely, victims of our “unsubsidised” agriculture.

The regional council elections this year, which are gerrymandered to strip representation from the urban working class, are a reminder of the way the land pays the price for “unsubsidised” farming. When voting for Environment Canterbury, a Christchurch city vote is worth a third of a rural vote.

Because the Greens are committed to winning power within the nation state, they know they cannot ask these fundamental questions.

The price of this destructive industry is not only paid in Aotearoa, but in places like Indonesia (the fire-ravaged source of palm kernel feed supplement) and Vanuatu, which was hit by a cyclone last year. NZ offered $2.5 million in aid – half the price of one average dairy farm.

Climate change is predicted to hit the Pacific Islands hard.

The unions

Ni Vanuatu, people from Vanuatu, (and from Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands) have been increasingly hired by NZ employers in seasonal industries like fruit picking since the “Recognised Seasonal Employer” scheme was introduced by Labour in 2007.

Its expansion and extension to include other island nations has been opposed by CTU economist Bill Rosenberg because, he says, “increasing the number of people on these kinds of schemes does undermine the paying conditions of New Zealanders, trying to get decent jobs in those industries”.

Certainly there is truth in this. Migrant labour has been used as long as capitalism has existed to undermine pay and conditions. The dispossessed Irish peasantry were a second-class workforce in Victorian Britain. Rural Chinese are controlled by internal passports now. That is not to say that NiVans are poor deluded dupes. In many island nations, communal land ownership ensures people a level of security and freedom to move for work that unemployed people renting in New Zealand, paying off student loans, credit cards or fines, and battling constantly with Winz do not have.

But the reaction of Rosenberg is wrong because it cuts against the only sure cure for exploitation here – working-class solidarity. Whether we are working alongside Gujarati fry chefs in MacDonalds or Filipina resthome workers, it is dangerous and damaging to our strength on the shop floor for union leaders to talk about restricting immigration.

The decline in union numbers continued in 2016 – I was completely unable to find any figures at all on strikes – but only marginally: 0.7%. Total union membership as of 1 March 2016 was 357,120 (17.7% of employees in the labour force). Of the unions that provided gender details of their membership, 57.9% of members were women. The 10 largest unions had a combined membership of 291,226. Importantly, a Victoria University study of collective employment agreements released in August this year showed yet again that people who are part of a collective get better pay rises, especially in the private sector. Between 328,700 and 410,300 workers are on CEAs.

The union officials position is shaped by their frame of reference – parliament and the nation state. The experience of Kiwi Australians should give them pause for thought. Across the Tasman, the government has reacted to a slowdown in the economy by harsh penalties against New Zealand citizens, many of whom have lived in Australia all their adult lives. The use of Christmas Island detention centre as a holding pen for deportees is nothing less than state terror.  If you accept the logic of “Kiwi jobs for Kiwi workers” you have no right to complain when the Aussie state says “Aussie jobs for Aussie people”. We do not accept that logic. We believe New Zealanders in Australia should have the right to work, live and study, access to healthcare and all civil liberties. We believe the same should hold here.

Immigration and tino rangatiratanga

Overseas, anti-migrant politics has become increasingly racist. “Western” values are code for “white” values. Migrants, they argue, come from a lower level of civilisation. They cannot think, work or behave themselves like us. In fact, there is a natural order to the world where the white West must dominate the lesser races. In English-speaking countries, the far right indulge in nostalgia for the British Empire or the (in the US), the Confederacy or the Jim Crow-era South. In many European countries, the anti-migrant parties mutated from Second World War-era fascist organisations. Especially in Europe, these parties have exploited the “war on terror” to become major players. In Australia, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation constantly threaten to break through into the mainstream.

An openly racist, white-rights party is virtually impossible in New Zealand because Māori make up such a large part of the working class, and because Māori have won significant concessions from the state in the last 30 years. This is something to be grateful for. Electoral success for the far right translates into beatings in the street. In New Zealand, the closest equivalent to Hanson, Winston Peters, is Māori!

However, it is likely that because of the relative strength of Māori  politics, especially on the left, that anti-migrant ideas will be given the “Treaty treatment”, in the same way the Greens gave an environmental gloss to their border control call.

Among the Greens, Denise Roche has already suggested immigration may be a violation of the Treaty rights of Māori . Tukuroirangi Morgan, the president of the Māori Party, has made noises against immigration, in contrast to what Tame Iti has said in the past.

On the face of it, it is a powerful argument. What right does a state that is in breach of its obligations under Te Tiriti to allow immigration? More personally, what right do I, who was born overseas, have to say “welcome” to Syrians, Chinese and Italians?

Only on the left could this argument fly. John Key believes the settlement of Aotearoa-Te Wai Pounamu was peaceful. Don Brash, a respectable Establishment stuffed shirt, says Māori are a privileged elite! Only on the left are people likely to accept immigration controls because they are “pro-treaty”.

But it is left activists who are urgently needed to defend the rights of migrants. If you think it is an act of colonisation to call for asylum rights for Syrian or Pacific Island refugees, you will not turn up to a protest or make the arguments needed to save lives and stop the rise of the far right.

This argument is all the more pernicious because it ties into longstanding left nationalist currents like the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (Cafca). In the protests against the TPP, the sovereignty of the New Zealand state, the Crown, and tino rangatiratanga was deliberately blurred.

Again, the experience of New Zealanders in Australia (about one-quarter of them Māori) is instructive – “we have also been foreigners in a foreign land”. The need for work drove us to the ancestral lands of Aboriginal Australians. Is the presence of New Zealanders there, of Māori there, a bad thing? A new colonisation? Not neceassarily. It can strengthen links for anti-colonial struggle. The real enemies of Aboriginal land rights are robber barons like Gina Rinehart and the Packers. Māori workers in Australia are more likely to be allies than enemies.

Migration can be military though. The first Anzacs, the Armed Constabulary, did  not fight overseas, they fought against Māori  here and were given borderlands to occupy in payment. The “Fencibles” were another group of military settlers. The British Empire used settlers as a deliberate stage in the conquest of Aotearoa, in direct imitation of the Plantations in Northern Ireland.  Māori land was stolen and political organisation broken to make a capitalist state under a British ruling class.

This kind of military migration, that aims to install a new ruling class, is absolutely worth fighting but that is not what we are talking about.  Foreign billionaires slot seamlessly into the existing ruling class, while most migrants find their place alongside us at work, school, at sports and the supermarket. Māori land rights do – or should – clash with the rights of the farmer class but working class migrants in the city are indispensable allies in the struggle for tino rangatiratanga. For instance, if a Tongan can be a citizen of independendent Tonga as well as live and work in Auckland, why cannot her Tuhoe co-worker be a citizen of Te Urewera? Migration, by undermining the nation state, can suggest creative and radical solutions.

Law and order

Most importantly though, the policing of immigration is always tied to policing the working class – and policing the working class always hits Māori  hardest. No party is suggesting deporting all immigrants. They are suggesting restricting, coralling, controlling, snooping and patrolling. The policies of Winston and his new friends will make our neighbours, our friends and our workmates more vulnerable to the state, and more dependent on their bosses – just like the Dawn Raids did in the 1970s.

The strategy of Māori iwi leaders like Morgan, the Māori Party and the Iwi Chairs Forum is to get Māori  to succeed in capitalist world. It is to lift all Māori out of poverty and up into the middle class but never mind the existence of the poor. This strategy has already failed. Thirty years of biculturalism and co-operation with the state and capitalism has been accompanied by mass imprisonment of Māori and worse poverty. Sure, it has created some success stories but it’s no use as a serious political strategy.

We can and must confidently and resolutely argue against any attempt to play off the rights of Māori and migrants – the rights of one part of our class against another.


Internationally 2016 has been a year of dramatic change, of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders on the left, and Trump and UKIP on the right. The global economy has yet to recover from the global financial crisis that is now almost eight years old. The political order disrupted by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq continues to unravel, most notably in Syria.

Neoliberalism, free-market doctrine, is under attack from both the left and the right. On both the reformist left and the right, globalisation is blamed for lower living standards. Corbyn and Sanders call for a return to a strong, interventionist, welfare state to curb the power of capital.

But on the right, from Russia to the USA, politics becomes about bodies – the body of the nation under threat from foreign bodies that will infect it with the plague of globalisation. Rather than blame the powerful, they blame the weakest.

In New Zealand, we have been sheltered from the worst of the 2008 financial crisis by trade in food and wood with Australia and China – and by unemployed New Zealanders moving to Australia. We’ve long argued that the low level of the class struggle in New Zealand is at least partly due to emigration, which has been an important safety valve for a substandard system. Now the flow is reversing. We can’t predict the effects but if we were right about the importance of emigration to Australia being a central feature of the last decade, then the change will be deep.

Key has had a lucky run. How will Bill English’s run go? He is in office which is almost always an advantage in an election but after Brexit and Trump, we’d be foolish to bet on an incumbent. Peters’ gunboat is the most likely to be lifted by the populist tide but again, volatility means we just don’t know.

One thing though is for certain. More and more people are going to want to read and talk politics in the coming year. Now is the time to argue for put forward clear, principled, socialist alternatives.