Revealing Statement: Why would Labour's housing spokesperson, Phil Twyford, begin his most recent blog post by listing the achievements of New Zealand’s five Labour governments – only to omit entirely any reference to the second and third? As if Walter Nash’s second Labour government of 1957-1960, and the Norman Kirk/ Bill Rowling-led third, which governed from 1972-1975, never existed. Or, if they did, left no achievements worth mentioning behind them.
AS ANY GOOD DETECTIVE will tell you, it’s what suspects “fail to mention when questioned” that gives them away. The subjects a person doesn’t want to talk about can tell you as much about them as the things they’re only too happy to discuss. It’s a forensic rule-of-thumb that can be applied with equal success to the utterances of politicians.
What, for example, can we deduce from the most recent posting (5/10/16) from Labour’s Housing Spokesperson, Phil Twyford, on the subject of his party’s “housing reform agenda”? Why would a Labour politician begin by listing the achievements of New Zealand’s five Labour governments – only to omit entirely any reference to the second and third?
This is what Twyford wrote:
“All Governments are defined by the big challenges and how they meet them. For the first Labour Government it was lifting people out of the poverty of the Depression, and dealing with a World War. For the fourth Labour Government, for better or worse, it was modernising and opening up the economy after nine years of Muldoon. For the fifth it was restoring sanity and decency to government and the economy after the nasty divisive 90s.”
Extraordinary! It’s as if Walter Nash’s second Labour government of 1957-1960, and the Norman Kirk/ Bill Rowling-led third, which governed from 1972-1975, never existed. Or, if they did, left no achievements worth mentioning behind them. These are serious and highly suggestive omissions. But before we examine them more closely, a word or two must be devoted to Twyford’s characterisation of the fourth Labour government.
Most damning of all is that ugly verbal shrug, “for better or worse”. It represents the very worst kind of moral abdication. Twyford is perfectly aware that for tens-of-thousands of Labour supporters the unleashing of Roger Douglas’s neoliberal revolution was an unmitigated disaster. Whole industries, along with the communities that depended on them, were devastated by “Rogernomics”. For those Maori New Zealanders employed in the nation’s processing and manufacturing sectors, the changes signalled the onset of chronic economic and social pain. Thirty years after the “modernising and opening up” of the New Zealand economy, the consequences of the fourth Labour government continue to blight Maori lives.
Twyford’s choice of the words “modernising” and “opening up” are also highly revealing. Both expressions are positive (especially when placed alongside their antonyms “antiquated” and “restricting”) and Twyford’s use of them can only be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the fourth Labour government’s actions.
Having examined the “worse” side of Twyford’s “better or worse” dichotomy, we must also examine who had cause to experience Rogernomics as something “better” than the economic regime which preceded it. The financial and property speculators, asset-strippers and importers whose political contributions filled Labour’s coffers in the 1980s certainly had reason to sing the praises of the Rogernomics revolution. Curiously, Twyford seems less keen to solicit their support in 2016!
Twyford’s essentially positive assessment of the neoliberal policies of the fourth Labour government, coupled with his equally positive comments about the fifth, provide the explanation for his unwillingness to so much as mention the second and the third. Like the rest of his caucus colleagues, Twyford wants nothing to do with the nation-building policies of Labour leaders like Arnold Nordmeyer, Phil Holloway and Norman Kirk.
His aversion to the economic ideas of William Sutch and Wolfgang Rosenberg is even stronger. The whole notion of import substitution and state-led investment in new industries produces only synchronised eye-rolling among the current crop of Labour MPs. The party, under Helen Clark, may have restored “sanity and decency to government and the economy after the nasty divisive 90s” (although a great many people on the left of New Zealand politics would dispute Twyford’s rosy assessment!) but that does not mean Labour has the slightest intention of embracing the economic nationalist policies of the second and third Labour governments.
It is this refusal that makes Labour’s flagship housing policy – Kiwibuild – so disappointing. Were Labour committed to constructing 100,000 state houses over the next 10 years. If what was being proposed was a dedicated construction force, trained, paid and equipped by the state, and with the capacity to order construction materials in the volumes local and overseas suppliers require to reduce their prices (it currently costs $NZ1,300 per square metre to construct a home in New Zealand, compared to just $NZ600 per square metre in the United States!) then Kiwis could have some confidence in Labour’s promises to build affordable homes. But all Twyford is prepared to say is:
“Since the 1980s a generation have convinced themselves Government is not capable of doing anything right. That you can only trust the market. We are going to change that mindset. We are going to do it in partnership with the private sector – but we are going to build 100,000 affordable homes for first home buyers.”
Note that well: “first home buyers”. Note also the price of an affordable home in Auckland – approximately $600,000! Labour’s “partnership” with the private sector reduces Kiwibuild to little more than a giant welfare scheme for property developers – in whose pocket the party now so clearly nestles. John A. Lee, the Labour firebrand entrusted with Labour’s original state house construction programme, wouldn’t know whether to laugh … or cry!
It is not difficult, however, to imagine what a political detective might say:
“Philip Stoner Twyford, you are charged with hoodwinking the New Zealand electorate. You are not obliged to say anything (and, quite frankly, if this is best you can manage, you’d do better to keep your mouth shut) but your failure to acknowledge, when posting, the achievements of the second and third Labour governments, and your refusal to condemn the betrayals of the fourth, will certainly harm your defence in the High Court of History.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 5 October 2016.