Red Alert

Archive for the ‘social democracy’ Category

The government of social problems

Posted by on October 3rd, 2013

In a recent debate in the House on the Government’s Vulnerable Children Bill, which Labour supports, National Party members including Judith Collins made a great show of saying that poverty was no excuse for child abuse. Now no one in the House was saying that poverty was an excuse for child abuse, but I thought it was interesting that such a big issue was made of this. What the Justice Minister was railing against was the suggestion from Labour members that there is a strong association between poverty and many social problems.

It is this unwillingness to accept the links between poverty and inequality on the one hand, and the vast array of social problems on the other, that is a real obstacle to social progress in New Zealand today.

I believe the case is pretty clear. If we look at the data it shows that so many of the social problems that preoccupy us today are linked to poverty. Public health researchers talk about the “social determinants of health”. Ill health, reduced life expectancy, cardio-vascular risk, diabetes, obesity are all experienced disproportionately by the poorest members of our society.

Visit any district court and you’ll see that both the perpetrators and the victims of crime are drawn mostly from the most disadvantaged members of our society. This is not to say that the residents of the leafy suburbs don’t commit crimes, but the statistics are clear.

The authors of The Spirit Level, argued that countries with a big gap between rich and poor have higher crime rates, more mental illness, lower life expectancy, lower levels of trust.  You name it, almost every one of the social problems we read about in the paper every day, are worse the more unequal your society is. They argued that the more a society is divided into haves and have-nots the less it is inclined collectively to look after everyone and make sure no one is left behind. Also that inequality – between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless – creates a psychological stress that takes its toll on us and that lies at the heart of much violence, and risk-taking behaviour.

Is it any wonder then that as we have become a much more unequal society over the last 30 years, we have also excelled, a kind of gold medallist among nations when it comes to violence against children, rates of mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy?

It is worth reflecting on a bit of history. Through the middle years of the 20th century, from the Great Depression to the 1970s, politics and government was shaped by the mission to eliminate the poverty and insecurity that were seen as a breeding ground for all the social ills. The job of government was to create economic security and opportunity.  Government policy here and around the western world focused on full employment, and home ownership, and reducing inequalities through progressive taxation, and strong public education and health systems.

Over the last 30 years we have dismantled much of that architecture. As a result we have become a very unequal society. Half our schools have kids so hungry they cannot learn properly. Diseases of poverty, wiped out by welfare states last century, have returned.

The job of government today seems to be grappling with a long list of social problems: violent crime, alcoholism, smoking, obesity, diabetes, youth suicide, an epidemic of depression, teen pregnancy. We have come full circle. It is like we have un-learned the lessons of the twentieth century. We now have levels of inequality on a par with those of the 1920s and 1930s. Is it any wonder that the social ills have followed?

I am not suggesting the 1950s was some kind of golden age. Nor that every social problem can be reduced to an economic cause. Nor heaven forbid that poverty is any kind of excuse for violent or anti-social behaviour.  But we must recognise that poverty and inequality create an environment that is bad for us as human beings. They bring out the worst in us, they makes us unhealthy, fearful, angry and much less able to overcome the stresses and tensions that fuel violence.

If we don’t recognise that, then we will never be able to really build the foundations for a happier, more prosperous and healthier society.

Social policy will continue to become as it has done under Minister Paula Bennett ever more punitive, with an army of social workers and police and public servants case managing the lives of thousands of citizens branded as dysfunctional.

This is why I believe politics in 2013 must re-focus on economic security and providing the opportunity for people to get ahead and live good decent lives. We must have smart thoughtful social policy aiming at giving people a hand up, helping people through the difficult times in life.

But above all government should return to what was its traditional Kiwi job description: building a society where every child has the best start in life no matter what side of town they live on, or what their parents do for a living. Delivering well-paid secure jobs. Affordable and healthy housing. Good schools. And a commitment to both lifting people out of poverty, and reducing the gap between rich and poor.

These are the things the Government can and should do. We’ve done it before in this country and we can do it again.

Party Leadership : What Labour values drive your work for New Zealand? Labour Leadership Q&A #11

Posted by on September 13th, 2013

14 Questions for 2014

Virtual Hustings Meeting – Question 11

Party Leadership : What key Labour values drive your work for New Zealand?

Question : Why did you join the Labour Party over other parties and what are the key Labour values and principles that drive your work for Labour and New Zealand?

Submitted by : Annalise Roache, Auckland


Explanatory Note: From September 10th to 14th 2013 as part of the official selection process for a new leader the New Zealand Labour Party is holding a “Virtual Hustings Meeting” hosted by Red Alert and organised by Scoop Amplifier. Over 7 days questions were solicited from eligible voters in the election. The questions and answers are now being posted as a set of 14 posts at the Red Alert Labour Party Blog. This started Tuesday 10th September, and continues till Friday 13th September. At Red Alert all-comers are welcome to discuss the answers in the comment section of the blog. The candidates are expected to participate in these discussions at times over the five days till Saturday 14th September.



Answer from David Cunliffe

My values are Labour values. I know that all I am now and all I ever will be came from the opportunities New Zealand gave me when I was growing up.

I was born in Te Aroha, a small town in the heart of the Waikato. I grew up in a vicarage and some earliest memories are of mixing with the wealthiest families in the district, and with those who were doing it tough.

In Te Kuiti, when the cement works closed and the milling tapered off, unemployment and poverty were all around us.

I remember proud and good people, who through no fault of their own, were thrown into a situation of having nothing.

Not that my family was rich by any means. We knew what it was like to struggle.

As a teenager, my Dad lived with serious illness and there was little to spare. I worked evenings and weekends in a fish and chip shop, and I mucked out pig pens for a dollar an hour.

But I was also given huge opportunities thanks to a great education at the local state school. This was the foundation of all my opportunities that followed.

I have been incredibly lucky in my life and I am really committed to making sure that the same opportunities are open to all New Zealanders.

I want to build a fairer, more inclusive New Zealand with a future that is full of opportunities for our kids; a good public education; housing; free health care and a secure retirement.

A decent New Zealand. That is what Labour stands for and that’s why I am Labour.


Answer from Shane Jones

I joined the Labour Party because of its history of reform. It has championed the interests of Maori and other minorities.

Fairness and collective responsibility for all sectors in our society is a key principle for Labour and New Zealand.

This motivates me.


Answer from Grant Robertson

I never really considered joining another political party. My family’s links with Labour meant it was part of my DNA.

But as I was leaving school at the end of the 1980s I felt I could not join the Labour Party given the direction it was taking under Rogernomics.

I settled for campaigning against user pays in education for the next few years, but under Helen Clark’s leadership I saw that there was an opportunity for Labour to re-build New Zealand and so I joined in the late 1990s.

For me the values that drew me to Labour still hold dear today- fairness, solidarity and opportunity.

I believe that your success on life should not be determined by who your parents are or where you are born, but by your hard work and the collective support we can provide.

I believe that everyone’s contribution should be valued, that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay, and that we have obligations to care for each other.

Those are Labour values and they are enduring, but I believe we must give them a modern, strong and clear voice that connects with the lives of New Zealanders.

I represent a new generation of leadership that can be that voice.


A Big Ask

Posted by on February 12th, 2012

I knew it was a big ask.

Simon Collins’ provocative Herald series on inequality was closing with “Bridging the Wealth Gap“.  Would it rail against the changes to our tax and workplace laws that have driven the widening gap?  Would cry from the heart like “Ill Fares The Land”?

Would it call for a fundamental change of direction? Would it unpick the platitudes around “equality of opportunity”?

Ah, no.

Instead it levers off the new Auckland Council’s Spatial Plan, including targets to reduce inequality.  Worthy, sure.  Right track? Undoubtedly.   Sufficient condition for change?   No way.

Collins explains ” how we got there” by condensing modern economic history into one sentence:

“The driving forces have been both technological changes, which have strengthened the power of the skilled at the expense of the unskilled; and policy changes, which have weakened unions, opened markets to free trade, cut taxes on the rich and imposed new taxes on spending that bear most heavily on the poor.”

Although the outcome is “not immutable”, neoliberalism dodges the bullet.

The genial Michael Barnett and the earnest Allan Johnston represent the “competitiveness” vs “compassion” debate.

But has Collins not read The Spirit Level?  There is a strong case that more equal societies do better. Including economically.  If so, fairness ain’t just compassion, it’s common sense.

The bottom line is that rampant inequality is driven by the combination of unfettered capitalism and neoliberal government policy.

So if Kiwis want a change they will need to vote for it at national as well as council levels.

Yet voter turnout was the lowest in decades this last election, despite inequality being at its worst.

We have more to do to make a reasoned case for a clear alternative.

We have made a good start: capital gains tax, tax free zone at the bottom (which could be abated over a certain income level like Working for Families), raising the top tax rate, decile weighted education  investment, and public health and housing programmes to promote healthy families and kids.  There will be more to come.

We have to balance this with a clear narrative, based on sound strategy, for growing the pie for all.  That means encouraging Kiwi businesses.  Helping markets when they work well.  And sorting out the mess when they don’t.  I will be blogging more about economic growth, as it must partner efforts to reducing inequality by raising income levels for all.

And we need to expose the tricks this Government uses to lull hard working Kiwis into apathy or submission; the smile and wave routine; their dog whistles that turn Kiwis against their neighbours; their sly deals and cronyism to maintain control.

So reversing inequality will take more than a newspaper series, it will take winning the country for a new direction for us all.

It is happening around the world

Posted by on April 22nd, 2011

The final decisions on the last Key/English budget were taken earlier this week. I’m told the cuts are massive, going right to the core of what we value as New Zealanders. But we are not alone. Manny Herrmann of the AFL-CIO writes :-

On April 15, nearly every House Republican voted to give massive new tax cuts to corporations and the rich while demolishing services for seniors, children and low- and middle-income Americans.

This isn’t a budget bill—it’s a political payback bill that raids Medicare, Social Security and education to reward corporate CEOs with massive tax cuts.

Introducing… Louisa Wall

Posted by on January 3rd, 2011

In 2011, Red Alert will do a few new things. One of them is to introduce you to some confirmed Labour electorate candidates who will do the occasional guest post.

This will give them the opportunity to put forward some ideas and you the opportunity to get a sense of who they are before the upcoming election.

Today’s guest poster is Louisa Wall, the recently confirmed candidate for Manurewa.


In anything you have to get the foundation right so your base is strong and solid to keep you focused and clear in what you are trying to achieve.

As a social democrat I am concerned about the distribution of public good resources for the equitable benefit of all New Zealand citizens.  So my thinking derives from a base with the ethical ideals of social justice and universalism as a core philosophy.

Should the systems of government only provide demand based services or should some government departments look at supplying or targeting public good services to those individuals and families that need these resources most.

NZ has developed a ‘universal’ free Well Child/Tamariki Ora Framework of 8 health checks to support families/whânau to maximise their child’s developmental potential and health status from birth to five years.

The B4 School Check is a nationwide programme offering a free health and development check for four year olds to identify and address any health, behavioural, social, or developmental concerns which could affect a child’s ability to get the most benefit from school, such as a hearing problem or communication difficulty. It is the eighth core contact of the Well Child Tamariki Ora Schedule of services.

In theory all New Zealand children have as a right of citizenship to receive the B4 School Check.  Children have to be referred to a Well Child Provider and the best referral access for this is via their GP. Not all New Zealand children are enrolled with a GP or a Well Child provider so not all NZ children receive the B4 School Check.

Children do not choose not to have the B4 School Check and should not be penalised if their parent or caregiver does not make sure they know about or enrol them with a Well Child provider.

The link between our education and health sectors needs to more than overlap but in this instance hold each other accountable.  All children upon enrolment into school if they have not had their B4 School Check should have it then. And if targeting were required we should supply to those children most in need so start with all decile 1 schools progressing through to decile 10 schools.

We cannot afford any of our children not to be ready to learn and all NZ children deserve to have the chance of learning and a quality education.

Happy 2011 – nga mihi mo te tau hou ki tatou katoa!

About Louisa

Louisa Hareruia Wall was born and raised in Taupo and is the eldest of 4 children. She has a Master of Philosophy (Social Policy) from Massey University which she gained whilst representing New Zealand in both netball for the Silver Ferns and rugby for the Black Ferns.

Louisa was a List Member of Parliament (Labour) from 4 March to 29 November 2008 and had membership of the Health and Justice and Electoral select committees.  She was selected as Labour’s candidate to contest the Manurewa electorate in the 2011 general election on 12 December 2010.

A day in Hutt South

Posted by on November 30th, 2010

During recess we often get to spend five, six or seven days working as local MPs. Lots of people think the most interesting stuff happens in Parliament – but thats not my view. Today wasn’t that unusual but thought readers would be interested in the variety.

  1. Radio interview re Christchurch Festival of Cycling which I’m supporting next weekend.
  2. Meeting with parent of kid who is caught between being able to cope at school and being eligible for special needs support.
  3. School visit to a local intermediate whose principal showed me documentary evidence of the way the school (decile 3) is outperforming national norms on standardised literacy and writing tests. And making well above average progress. And not using Tolley’s standards. Got a bit pissed off when a young teacher suggested I was soft on Tolley at morning tea Q&A.
  4. Meeting with local NZEI reps.
  5. Meeting with local police, retailers, mall management, community leaders re recent antisocial behaviour by a few local youths.
  6. Session with  guy on health reform.
  7. Discussion on proposed church drop in centre and shoppers’ creche.
  8. Coffee
  9. Graduation ceremony for care workers getting their first ever qualifications.

London Calling #2: Society Gone Missing

Posted by on November 15th, 2010

Is 36 hours in a country too soon to make judgements? Well, what are blogs for if not to fire off first impressions. And those impressions are that the coalition government here is on some dodgy ground.  The massive student protest against fee rises has shaken up the establishment. While there is no doubt some protestors went too far, there is a feeling that this is the beginning of something much bigger.

As ever Will Hutton has some wise words to say on the subject.  I don’t agree with everything in here.  I would not say I am in favour of tuition fees.  I reluctantly understand they are part of our tertiary funding system, especially as Hutton points out as part of the massification of tertiary education. For me though I still think we need a vision for tertiary education that emphasises the public good of tertiary education, within the resources we have available.

Hutton also makes the point that the pace and scale of the fee increases are wrong and that the additional money will not be part of improved quality, but quite the opposite. The parallels with the approach of National in New Zealand in the 1990s are striking.

But what struck me about Hutton’s piece was his concern about where social policy is going in the UK. He says

You cannot treat society as an accounting ledger and displace risk and debt on to ordinary people without offering a really good account of why – and with no sense of there being a social bargain. Otherwise, it is just one-way traffic, the state taking away and leaving ordinary people on their own.

and later

The message is explicit: you British are on your own. Buy a house, fend for yourself and now pay your tuition fees. Society is going missing.

That is very much the feeling I get (admittedly from only 24 hours here). We of course went through much of this in the 1980s and 1990s, and got a significant amount back in terms of society under the fifth Labour government. The current government, with the lesson of the 90s under its belt is moving more slowly, but inexorably in the same direction.

Society as Hutton is using it here is about a notion of our common good. That ordinary people, as he terms it, in return for their participation in democracy, paying their taxes and obeying the rule of law, get the life chances that come from social provision. That is a progressive vision. It is one that is under attack here.

Those I have talked to in the political world agree with Hutton’s conclusion that the student protest was only the beginning. If people perceive the social contract to have broken down, the consequences could be dire for the government.

After a time of wonder……

Posted by on August 28th, 2010

I’ve had a bit of a break from Red Alert recently but am keen to get back into it. Have just got home from being at the OpenLabourNZ do in Wellington this afternoon. Big ups to Clare Curran for pushing us along this path. Excellent conversation.

I have always been a fan of greater democracy and openness and the improved ability of more people to participate in decisions which affect them. Sometimes I’ve been made to feel like like Ms Naive when raising these issues in the Labour Party.  Like I don’t really know how politics works…..But I am still wedded to the principles of transparency and openness and accountability.  They are the principles on which we need to base our democracy. People won’t engage if they can’t.

Technology (as well as Clare Curran) is compelling us along this path and I welcome it. I’m pleased David Farrar was there – he has intelligent things to say about processes and access to information. I’m sorry he will be treated by a leper by his erstwhile right wing cobbers but there you go.  His choice. If the Labour Party can’t get with the democratising programme, we deserve to be left behind.

I like that we have an Official Information Act – how else would we have known that the Nats acted against official advice when they chose to extend the fire at will legislation to ALL NZ workplaces? So now we know that they chose that option a) out of  ideology (as good a reason as any); b) to make the imploding ACT party feel better; or c) to please their wealthy mates. We can now choose which of those options we believe and vote accordingly.

Bring on more of it.

Reciprocity and the Left.

Posted by on August 3rd, 2010

Sometimes we on the left of politics are accused of being all about rights, and not enough about responsibilities. More often than not those who espouse this view are coming from a highly punitive stance, often about those in receipt of social assistance, and I have no truck with their arguments.

But I do have a nagging feeling that there is something missing from our promotion of a socially just society. It is encapsulated in a quote I read recently from French philosopher Paul Ricouer.

The unjust man is one who takes too much in terms of advantages or not enough in terms of burdens

Ricouer is really talking about the wealthy not paying their fair share, and that will always be of concern to those of us on the left. But equally anyone who rips off the system can be seen in the same light. Earlier this year Phil Goff in his state of the nation speech talked about his abhorrence of those who cheat their fellow citizens, be they the wealthy financiers or those who game the benefit system.

Labour values have always been based on a fair days work for a fair days pay. We talk a lot, rightly, about the fair days pay, and the importance of fair wages and conditions. But we dont talk as much about the fair day’s work.

My thinking about this was tweaked by an article by Anthony Painter as part of the Open Left project in the UK. He talks about the importance of linking social justice and social responsiblity.

I agree, and I would take the principle of reciprocity a bit further, and to a more positive direction. Rather than just being about obligations to the state or employers, I think we on the left need to emphasise our obligations to each other, as neighbours, fellow community members and residents and citizens of this country.

Driving home the idea that “we are all in this together” as the ad says is a core element of the philosophy of social democratic politics. To me this should be a positive sense of obligation driven by the desire to see everyone able to fulfil their potential.

We also need to recognise the importance of a sense of shared community values, of creating a society that does not allow the lost opportunity, resentment and marginalisation of social exclusion and inequality to take hold.

The left needs to take ownership again of the reciprocity agenda. It should not just be about carrots and sticks but based on developing a shared sense of our common good and the role we all play in creating it.

Ill Fares the Land – Why John Key should read Tony Judt

Posted by on July 21st, 2010

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay. Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, 1779

This is the by-line to the 2010 book entitled “Ill Fares The Land” by Tony Judt on the growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity around the world.

I recommend the book, which David Cunliffe and Shane Jones each recommended to me. It examines the different outcomes for social cohesion and equality of social democratic cf conservative policies.

It describes well what is obvious to many in Labour. “We have entered an age of insecurity – economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity. ….. Insecurity breeds fear. And fear – fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world is – corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.”

There is much in this book which is worth reading. It has relevance to debates about total tax, our unjust tax mix, NZ’s appalling corrections policy, wealth inequality and the reality that our best assets now can only normally be afforded by NZers lucky enough to inherit wealth (and overseas investors from societies with concentrations of wealth).

We now see the differences between left and right playing out most weeks in parliament. This very week in parliament we are considering an Infrastructure Bill which has a rotten amendment by the government. It is another example of the sort of change in society caused by right leaning governments, which are described in the book.

The Bill as introduced by Labour included provisions relating to affordable housing. Now I concede there is a proper debate to be had between Labour and National whether all of those provisions are appropriate.  Labour says yes, National no.  But there should be no argument about the provisions in the Bill banning restrictive covenants in subdivisions against low cost housing

Make no mistake, in effect National are saying they see nothing wrong in the developer of land being able by private covenant to exclude those who can only afford less expensive housing from a new suburb.  These sorts of restrictive covenant are new in New Zealand and ought to be stamped out.   Allowing private planning to exclude those less fortunate from living near them is not right. National thinks that gated communities of wealthier New Zealanders are the way to go.  It is yet another practical example of National’s right-wing values. It is wrong makes New Zealand a worse country.

It shows what a flawed set of values guides their decisions.

The Naked Economist: Part 2

Posted by on June 30th, 2010

So what does the end of the Washington Consensus mean for economic policy?

Firstly, borne out of the Great recession, there are no certainties – including whether the recession is yet over or, as increasing numbers of pundits from Krugman and Stiglitz on down are warning, we are in for a further deflationary spiral. 

Assuming no immediate major further meltdowns, we can probably draw some interim conclusions.

First, stable inflation will continue to matter, but should not be the only policy target.  It follows that monetary policy cannot rest on one tool, the OCR.  The number of tools should always exceed the number of targets.  

The OCR is a poor tool to target excess risk taking or asset bubbles.  IMF Chief Economist Blanchard recommends combining monetary and regulatory policy, such as countercyclical liquidity and prudential ratios, and directly targeting problem sectors such as housing. 

If this sounds familiar, no wonder.  The Governor of our own Reserve Bank has been quietly moving towards this in line with the other G20 central banks.   Isn’t it ironic that in New Zealand the only institution really defending the old status quo is the Beehive. 

Second, realistic stable exchange rates are crucial to small, open, trading economies.  This is what our export sector has been saying for years.  Now the IMF recommends central banks use reserve accumulation and sterilised intervention to do just that.  Labour has pledged to investigate reasonable means to help reduce the volatility of the NZ dollar, one of the most outrageously over-traded currencies on the planet.

Third, when investors desert key markets, the case for publicly supplied finance (liquidity provision) can be compelling.  However that implies that there is monetary and/or fiscal headroom available to offset a major recession (not necessarily true of some of the major western economies, worryingly).

It also implies that once recovery is firmly in place stimulus can be eased off in a way that is scially and economically sustainable.  Arguably Cameron’s Tory Budget violates that principle with slash and burn polices that could tip the UK back into recession, and even deflation.

Finally, Blanchard recommends counter-cyclical fiscal policy, augmented where appropriate by automatic fiscal stabilisers such as cyclical investment tax credits or enhanced transfers to low-income households. 

Counter-cyclical fiscal settings are not new to us and were used successfully under the last Labour Government (which reduced net debt to zero alongside full employment).  But automating that process would require careful thought.  One option used in other small open economies like Singapore is a countercyclical savings policy.   

This is all food for thought.  It is high time for our government started thinking.  But increasingly New Zealanders are looking for fresh ideas in the absence of a Beehive that seems capable of new thinking.

In Part 3 I will point to some of the areas, post Budget 2010, where Labour believes a new emphasis is needed.

The Left and Economics

Posted by on June 20th, 2010

My good friend Rob Salmond has written an excellent post over at Policy Progress about the importance of the political left talking about economics.

If folk on the left are to challenge the caricature that they are economic illiterates swimming against the tide, we need – all of us – to confront economic issues much more directly.

Rob is of course right.  But how has economics somehow become a dirty word to many on the left? It seems to me that the motivating drivers for the involvement of most on the left of politics are equality, fairness and social justice. In turn this seems to have meant for many that discussion focused on the direct mechanisms for achieving this through social policy. The point  of course is that economics matters for those values as much as those social policy factors.

As someone who did not study economics to any great degree I have in the past found myself put off from studying economics, partly on the basis of buying into some of the stereotypes about where many economists are coming from. But as Rob (and others in the comments on the post) points out there is some great work underway, some of which has been discussed here, such as the work of Stiglitz and Sen on genuine progress indicators or Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level. These people’s work can not be dismissed by the right, and it must be understood by the left.

I was also interested in Jordan’s comment on Rob’s post when he asked

how can we who do have an understanding of economic policy debates and principles and the implications for our politics and our societies, make that more exciting – to the extent it’s the main focus of debate and campaigning energy inside our political movements?

I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I am sure that a part of it is talking about economics as part of the package of progressive politics, rather than in isolation.   The direct links need to be drawn between social progress, environmentally sound development and the economic ideas that underpin them.  Its no different than anything else in politics- there needs to be a vision and a believable and relevant narrative to go with it.

In any case, for those who are interested there are a number of links in Rob’s post and the comments that go with it that provide loads of references to some exciting progressive economic ideas.

JK Rowling speaks from the heart at Harvard

Posted by on May 19th, 2010

I was so heartened by the debate engendered by my post “JK Rowling telling it like it is to the Tories” that I now share the amazing speech she gave to Harvard Students in 2008. It’s about 20 minutes long – enjoy.

Diversity in Nelson

Posted by on May 10th, 2010


Victory Primary School in Nelson is a brilliant example of a school leading a community and a community backing a school. It is Decile 2, yes they do have Decile 2 in Nelson – in fact there are lots of poorer people in this beautiful place.

Victory Primary has been on a pathway to improve educational standards but worked out that there were lots of heath, welfare and community issues that were holding students back.

The school has become a hub for early childhood education, health (including nurse, doctor, midwifery and diabetes) services and the new hall has rooms used by housing, CYFS and WINZ. The local bakery drops off bread and people collecting it often work through their issues with final year counselling students.

The school has a hangi area that is booked weeks in advance and has become a real community centre.

Teachers have a really positive attitude, they deal with issues and the school has stopped suspending or excluding students.

Really worth looking at.  Thanks.

It’s a demographic challenge

Posted by on May 2nd, 2010

A few weeks ago I did a post on the home ownership dream that promoted quite a lot of discussion and over 100 comments. It was prompted by some of the reading and research that I’ve been doing on intergenerational equity. I’m currently reading a book by David Willetts called The Pinch, subtitled “How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back”. The title is a bit provocative, but the book is well researched and presents a whole heap of data to back up Willetts’ arguments.

One possible explanation he puts forward for the rising cost of housing is simply demographic. Throughout our lives we accumulate wealth. In our older years we spend it, or we pass it down to the next generation. But an equitable transition of wealth between generations assumes an equitable distribution of the population amongst age groups, which clearly doesn’t exist. The baby boomers aren’t to blame for the fact that they’re currently controlling a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, if you want to blame anyone; blame Hitler.

It’s not just housing either. A similar argument can be made about employment. For example, let’s assume than within an organisation there are a certain number of senior managers, a certain number of middle-managers, a certain number of entry-level jobs etc. We all start somewhere, usually at the entry-level, and then we progress throughout our careers. But a smaller generational cohort following a larger one is likely to find some congestion at the top. The boomers have reached the top and still have about a decade to go before retirement. And given we are living longer and many don’t want to retire at 65 anyway, it could be a lot longer.

Fast forward another decade and that’s when the baby boom pinch will really start to be felt. With half a million extra New Zealanders over the age of 65 while the workforce remains about the same size, it’s clear the govt of the day is going to face some real challenges. The cost of NZ Super will roughly double, not to mention the cost of healthcare and other social services such as aged care. If we’re to argue that each generation has a responsibility to care for those who came before and those who come after (elderly and children), where does that leave a generation disproportionately smaller?

Is Equality Dead?

Posted by on April 27th, 2010

Congratulations to the Listener for its extremely thought-provoking cover story this week.

The central idea is that the attitudes of NZers have changed – apparently caring less about a fair go for all, despite the fact that we have become a much more unequal society, particulary since the 1991 Mother of All Budgets.

This attitude shift flies in the face of our history and egalitarian tradition.   Our ancestors, brown and white, came to this place for a better life; one relatively free of the suffocating class structure of the isles (British or Polynesian) that they had left.

The riddle is made stranger by recent evidence that fairer societies are not only nicer places to live – but they do better on  a wide range of economic and social indicators. See Wilkinson and Pickett.

I’d like to venture a couple of clues to the riddle and ask you guys to give it your best shot:

First,  inequality doesn’t feel quite so terrible if those at the bottom are still going forwards, even if others are zooming up the scale past them, so long as they can satisfy the basics.   Until the Global Financial Crisis that was generally true.  Was social democracy its own worst enemy in that respect?  (Marx thought so).   But as governments around the world “back off the fiscal stimulus” and  – as in New Zealand – cut deep into social programmes, my guess is that the mood on the streets will get a lot tougher.

Second, the Right has done a massive con job on “Freedom” , which has arguably become the dominant political value of our age.   But is is a bastardised version of freedom that has been sold on the streets – like some kind of philosophical crack cocaine.  It is NEGATIVE freedom – freedom from constraint or regulation – that has been trumpeted as the solution to our ills.  Problem is, this is at best half the story.

Am I free to dine at the Ritz?  In negative liberty terms yes – there is no law against it.  But in real (positive liberty) terms it all depends on whether I can afford to pay the bill.   For the full story see Dworkin on Liberty:

So the challenge for progressive politics is to reframe this debate in terms that ordinary kiwis get with their heads and feel in their guts.   Real freedom is having a good school in every suburb through which every kid can make the best of their lives.  Real freedom is having high paying jobs to choose right here in Godzone so kids aren’t forced to leave.  Real freedom is being able to live in a caring and inclusive society where you are safe on the streets and don’t need razor wire around your garden fence.

I am prepared to fight for that kind of freedom.  What about you?  Have you still got hope? Passion? Courage?

Or did you buy the fast food version of “freedom” they wanted you to suck up and be happy with, while they amass their millions and move to Sydney or Europe to enjoy them –  leaving you and your mortgage to be farmed by the banking system and the multinationals, like a good serf?

The Turning Point

Posted by on March 10th, 2010

There is a quiet revolution underway in macroeconomics. 

The old orthodoxy – the “Washington consensus” – is being deserted by leading economists in response to the Global Financial Crisis. 

For me the turning point was last month when the IMF published a challenging article by its Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard and others, that calls time out on the old orthodoxy. 

Although much debated because of its suggestion around a higher baseline inflation target, it is much broader in its critique of the failed status quo and directions for change.

If you have’t read it, see it here:

 For further comment see: 

I will be writing more about the IMF change of direction, the breakdown of the consensus and what it might mean for us. 

We live in exciting times.  The current government is now clearly living in the past.

Fair cop Farrar: Mike’s done us proud

Posted by on January 21st, 2010

This year has had some odd beginnings for me. Here I am agreeing with David Farrar. Well actually, we agree on a number of issues I suspect. Just not some of the really fundamental ones.

Anyway, David drew attention on Kiwiblog to the fact that none of us  (on Red Alert) have congratulated Mike Moore on his appointment as NZ Amabassador to the US.

Of course Labour has made a statement in MSM congratulating Mike. But fair cop, we haven’t said anything here.

There’s two things to say. Firstly, it’s an honour and a measure of the man that he has merited such an appointment. It’s hugely significant and follows from his rather interesting, but stellar career as Prime Minister of New Zealand and Director-General of the World Trade Organization.

The second thing is to draw attention to his book Saving Globalisation launched a few months ago in Parliament. I haven’t had time to do more than flick through it, but it’s hugely interesting and informative and somewhat controversial.

Not just for those interested in globalisation, but for anyone interested in the state of progressive/social democratic ideas in a globalised world.

A recent review on Amazon puts the essence of the book like this:

Moore passionately believes that greater international economic engagement and interdependence driven by truly free trade can reduce poverty and promote more freedom and democracy throughout the world.

Weirdly, I’ve heard that the book hasn’t been reviewed in New Zealand. Not sure if that’s true, but if so, for goodness sake what’s wrong with us?

I don’t know Mike well. I’m newish to politics, he’s at another level. But we’ve had a couple of robust conversations (over fish and chips) and I like that he’s constantly thinking and challenging our ideas and political strategies. I’m looking forward to more robust discussions and think he retains enormous value in our Party, in our country. So congratulations Mike, keep on doing us all proud.

The future of social democracy

Posted by on December 28th, 2009

English historian Tony Judt has a powerful essay in the latest New York Review of Books which is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the Left. Titled What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy? it starts out considering the old question why there is no socialism in America and then takes the reader through a history of social democracy in twentieth century political thought, ending with a call to action that should stir even the most jaded Labour heart.

He frames the twentieth century’s contest of ideas around Hayek and Keynes. And then charts the rise of the post-war welfare state. Its great success, here in New Zealand and in the US, the UK and everywhere it was tried, was the reduction in social and economic inequality. The great paradox of the welfare state was that its success undermined its own appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was the most committed to hanging on to progressive taxation, strong public institutions, and universal social services. Those who came later began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place. Remember NZ in the 1980s anyone?

The next three decades saw the rise of neo-liberalism, a reassertion of the Right, which set about the conquest of the political high ground in every western society and the dismantling of the institutions of the post-war social democratic compromise. Read it and weep: the flattening of tax scales, winding back of social assistance, privatisation of the functions of the state. And no big surprise, the return of high levels of inequality.

There is a great discussion of privatisation in which he contrasts the British approach to the railways with that taken by the Italians and the French. In 1996, the year before the UK privatised rail, they boasted the lowest public subsidy of rail in Europe per capita (9 pounds). The French subsidy was 21 pounds, the Italian 33; a differential reflected in the quality of the service and the state of the infrastructure.

The French and the Italians have long treated their railways as a social provision. Running a train to a remote region, however cost-ineffective, sustains local communities. It reduces environmental damage by providing an alternative to road transport. The railway station and the service it provides are thus a symptom and symbol of society as a shared aspiration.

Judt isn’t sentimental about social democracy. It was after all, the era’s belated response to the dilemmas of capitalism, and as he points out our problems are rather different. He thinks we are entering a new age of uncertainty, with climate change and the volatility of our globalised world economy posing a threat to peace and prosperity of comparative scale to the ones faced by our forebears in the early years of the twentieth century. The challenges might be different but we should look to the ways our grandparents’ generation responded. Social democracy, the New Deal in the US, and the first Labour Government’s reforms here in New Zealand were direct responses to the insecurities and injustices of the time.

The task of the Left says Judt is to remind people of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. If social democracy has a future it is as a ‘social democracy of fear’ – the fear of what we have to lose. The Right on the other hand has inherited the modernist totalitarian impulse to destroy in the name of a universal project.

A social democracy of fear is something to fight for. To abandon the labours of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. It would be pleasing – but misleading – to report that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world. It does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us in the present, it is better than anything else at hand.

Looking back on 2009, we in Labour have done a fair bit of fighting to defend the gains of the past: opposing regressive tax cuts, cuts to education, health and ACC, and the privatisation of prisons. We’ve outed Key as the leader of a do-nothing government content to sit on its hands while tens of thousands of Kiwis are thrown out of work. We’ve put inequality back on Labour’s agenda, and signalled that ending child poverty will lie at the heart of the next Labour Government’s agenda.

And I like to think that we have revealed a few of the green shoots of a new social democratic politics. First, we defended an emissions trading scheme that actually could have reduced the economy’s long term reliance on carbon. It will come back. Second, we signalled an end to the 1984 consensus on monetary policy, that will I hope lead to an economic policy focused on Kiwi firms, jobs and economic resilience.  Third, in opposing the Government’s corporate stitch-up of the Auckland super city, but supporting the Royal Commission’s vision, we have recognised the possibility of strong regional government as the driver of democratic progressive change in our biggest city. Fourth, Labour’s advocacy on open source software and social media hints at the possibilities for new technology to open up more inclusive and democratic political engagement.

Tony Judt’s essay is a great read. It is based on a lecture he gave at New York University on October 19 which you can watch here.  A year ago Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a neuro-degenerative disorder. He is now a quadraplegic and can only breathe with the aid of a machine. It didn’t stop him getting up in front of an audience and delivering a 90 minute tour de force.