Labour, neo-liberalism, and a blueberry smoothie: a chat with Carmel
As recently as the 1970s, New Zealand's major political parties had enormous memberships and vibrant internal lives, and general elections were dominated by rallies and debates in local halls. Any politician who made it to parliament was used to fronting up to large local party meetings, and to arguing for his or her policy programme in rowdy public meetings.
In the last few decades, though, party memberships have declined drastically, and politicians have become more accustomed to confronting television cameras than querulous constituents. Election campaigns have become meticulously managed affairs, where party leaders kiss babies and pose with handpicked supporters, and obsessively avoid dissent and debate. Politics has turned from a pastime of the masses to an elite sport, and both the public and the media have been made into spectators.
Now the apparently accidental recording of a conversation between John Key and John Banks offers journalists and voters an opportunity to penetrate the carefully constructed facade of contemporary politics, and to get an insight into how election campaigns are really run, and how politicians really think. Bryce Edwards has argued that the infamous 'tea cup tape' promises to give the media and the public some relief from an over-managed election campaign:
The media’s relationship with politicians is extremely problematic in New Zealand...The political class is so extremely well resourced, the media is at a huge disadvantage in covering the politicians. Parties in Parliament have access to Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services funding of many millions...in the Prime Ministers’ Office there are about 25 communications staff...As a result, the public rarely gets to see what goes on behind the scenes in politics. We are fed a constant stream of scripted campaigning...
I was thinking about Edwards' argument yesterday, after I had an unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable encounter with one of Labour's high-profile election candidates.
Skyler* and I had been having a coffee at the fledgling cafe in the community centre of the West Auckland suburb of Ranui, when I decided to take a look at the pile of withdrawn books in the little library which lodges in the same building. After nabbing a dogeared tome by the great Michael Moorcock for a dollar, I headed back to the cafe to finish my flat white and found Labour list MP and Waitakere electorate candidate Carmel Sepuloni ensconced at my table, talking with Skyler.
Carmel, who had parked a car emblazoned with campaign slogans beside the cafe, was initially very friendly, asking me about myself and about my voting intentions. When I went beyond pleasantries, though, and began to ask some questions about Labour's policies and election strategy, she quickly became defensive. Although Carmel talked with me for five or so minutes, she asked me not to repeat some of the things she said. This request seemed to me very odd: we were talking, after all, about the details of a general election campaign, not about some sensational murder trial or international spy ring.
Carmel eventually got rid of me, after telling me repeatedly that she wasn't really in the mood for politics, and that she had only come to the cafe in Ranui to get a blueberry smoothie. As I wandered away from the cafe, though, I noticed her happily chatting with another patron, and posing for a photo with him.
It seemed to me that Carmel Sepuloni was keen to perform the sort of superficial campaigning rituals which politicians have become accustomed to in New Zealand - to shake hands, pose for pictures, kiss babies, sign autographs, and so on - but very unwilling to engage in any sort of sustained discussion about ideas. And although she reluctantly spent a few minutes discussing ideas with me, Carmel seemed to expect that such a discussion should, as a matter of course, be kept private.
Both Carmel's lack of interest in serious political discussion and her insistence that an ordinary political discussion with one of her constituents should be kept private seem to me to reflect the culture that has developed in the last few decades in New Zealand politics. Sepuloni may be campaigning for a more progressive set of policies than John Key or John Banks, but she seems to share their passion for politics as theatre, and their hostility to real political argument.
I wrote down my conversation with Carmel shortly after I left the cafe in Ranui. The discussion is not likely to trouble the headline writers, but I think it nevertheless touches on some interesting issues - issues which have taken up space on this blog over recent weeks and months.
A chat with Carmel Sepuloni
SH: I suppose it's going to be a close out here in Waitakere?
CS: Yes. There a lot of people who still haven't made up their minds. We are working hard to get the votes out.
SH: Paula Bennett has this image as a staunch Westie chick, doesn't she? The fact that she sits around the Cabinet table with the representatives of the country's wealthiest one per cent, and takes orders from the richest man in parliament, doesn't really seem to have affected that image -
CS: It's just an image, like John Key's image as a nice average guy. But Labour is beating National on policy, people agree with us on policy, and we think Labour can form the next government.
SH: Are you worried about what might happen next year if Labour is elected, and faces a Greek-style economic crisis, along with pressure from international and local business interests to implement neo-liberal austerity measures, of the kind Greece and Spain and Italy are implementing right now? Could we go back to 1984?
CS: I'm much more worried about what National will do if they get in.
SH: I'm not saying we shouldn't be worried about National! But I notice that in Greece and also in Spain it is Labour-style social democratic parties which are doing the work of the International Monetary Fund and local capitalists, overseeing big cuts in government spending, laying off state workers, cutting pensions, cutting union rights -
CS: I don't know about that. I'm focused on my community here in West Auckland, and on my party.
SH: But there's a local precedent, isn't there? In the 1980s it was the Lange-Douglas government that brought neo-liberalism to New Zealand. They did what National could never have done, because they had the support of the unions and the poor. National could never have gotten away with Rogernomics.
CS: Labour is a different party today. And I am focused on the here and now. We need to beat Paula Bennett. I haven't got time to get into arguments about history.
SH: I don't think it's an antiquarian debate. I think it's a real danger. From the statements I've seen you making I think you're on the left of the Labour Party. I think you identify with the social democratic tradition, and want to defend the welfare state and union rights and to redistribute wealth downwards -
CS: Of course. And that's why I am trying to get the vote out against Paula Bennett.
SH: Aren't you worried, though, about some of the more right-wing people in your caucus, people who might be future leaders, people who don't share your vision?
CS: I have no idea who you're talking about.
SH: Shane Jones, David Cunliffe -
CS: Cunliffe? You think Cunliffe is right-wing? I wouldn't say that at all. I'd put him on the left of the party. Shane Jones - I wouldn't call him right-wing. I'd say Shane's a centrist. Shane is in the middle of the party. Someone who is on the right, I'd say, is David Parker. Don't quote me on this, please, or I'll deny it. But David Parker is on the right of the party, very much so. But please don't repeat that. Labour has changed since the 1980s. It's not the same party. I know that - I know my party.
[This comment by Carmel particularly interested me: I blogged a couple of weeks ago about how troubling I find some of the talking points that Parker is using over in the Epsom electorate, where he seems to be trying to place himself to the right of John Banks...]
SH: You're not worried at all about a replay of Rogernomics?
CS: I am focused on winning in Waitakere. I don't want to get into this sort of argument with you. We lost last time by only six hundred votes. We're still enrolling people here now. Last time we only lost because we didn't the vote out -
SH: In 2005 it was the big ballot boxes from South and West Auckland which got Labour home in a tight race and kept Brash out. Do you think that the fact that people didn't turn out in such numbers in the South and the West in 2008 indicates that Labour didn't do enough for those areas in its last term? I mean, the party shacked up with the right, with New Zealand First and United Future, instead of looking to its left -
CS: I don't agree with that. I think it was moral issues that kept voters away, especially in the Pasifika community. We didn't have a proper conversation with them on issues like Civil Unions, Section 59...a lot of them misunderstood Section 59, and thought we were interfering in their families. They wondered "What's happened to our party?"
SH: I can see what you mean. But didn't cultural issues like those come to the fore because Labour did nothing ambitious to remodel the economy - Labour had nine years to reverse the damage that neo-liberalism did to our country in the '80s and '90s, but it did nothing radical -
CS: That's not true. Labour did a huge amount. There was Kiwibank, Kiwisaver, Working for Families -
SH: But nothing structural. Those were just surface measures. Labour didn't even reverse the 1991 cuts in benefits, which are acknowledged as the leading cause of the increase in poverty in this country -
CS: Nothing structural? What about the renationalisation of New Zealand Rail and Air New Zealand?
SH: The renationalisation of Air New Zealand was done in the interests of business. Workers were laid off by the hundred ater the renationalisation and Ralph Norris, the head of the Business Roundtable, was put in charge of the company. Nationalisation is not automatically progressive -
CS: I don't think you know what you're talking about. I think Labour did a lot. I think it's a real shame that there are people like you who attack other people on the left instead of National.
SH: I don't want to sound sectarian. I accept there are big differences between Labour and National. One is a party supported by the poor, the other is the party of the rich. One advocates neo-liberalism, the other advocates social democracy -
CS: And that's why I'm focused on beating Bennett. It will send a great signal if she is defeated.
SH: I agree. I'd like to see her out of parliament. But if Labour is to avoid being captured by the right, and forced to push through a neo-liberal agenda, as a response to the international economic crisis -
CS: That's not going to happen. And I've already told you I'm not interested in discussing that stuff -
SH: Labour needs allies. The left-wing people in Labour need allies. I support the Mana Party, which is fighting these elections on a left-wing platform - tax cuts for the poor and raises for the rich, renationalisation of key assets, solidarity with trade unions and with the Occupy movement - and I think that Labour should be allying itself with Mana, against the right. Instead, though, Labour has branded Mana an 'extremist' party and tried to destroy it.
CS: That's not true. I've never said that.
SH: Phil Goff has repeatedly stated that Labour will not work with Mana, before or after the election, because it is an extremist party. And Labour poured huge resources into trying to kill off the Mana Party by beating Hone Harawira in the Te Tai Tokerau by-election. At the same time as Labour refuses to work with Mana, though, it is courting New Zealand First, a party led by a bigot, a party of the right -
CS: I've never criticised Mana. I didn't campaign against Hone. Others may have, but I didn't. Labour is a team. You might disagree with your leader, but you don't attack him in public. That's discipline.
SH: I'm pleased you didn't campaign against Hone. I think Labour should have welcomed him as an ally. Did you argue in caucus against the decision to call Mana extremist? Were there a few people who disagreed with the strategy of calling Mana extremist?
CS: I'm not prepared to say that. I don't want to talk about this. You know, I just came here for a smoothie, I didn't want a big political debate. I don't want to change your mind. You're entiled to your own opinions. But I think it's a shame there are people like you who are always attacking the left and refusing to work with Labour.
SH: I don't think I'm attacking the left. I'm advocating that the left unites against National. Phil Goff might need Hone's support on confidence and supply to form a government. I don't know why he wants to brand Mana as extremist and rule out dealing with the party - especially when he's open to dealing with Winston Peters! Surely Mana and people like Hone and Sue Bradford and John Minto have more in common with the founding principles of the Labour Party than Winston Peters?
CS: Labour has to deal with the people in parliament. It has to use the hand it is dealt.
SH: I appreciate that. But Labour has a history of looking to its right, and trying to wipe out parties on its left. It chose Peters as a coalition partner over the Greens in 2005. And back in 2002 it ran a big campaign against Laila Harre out here in the West, making sure she lost, and that the Alliance disappeared from parliament. Labour threw away a left-wing partner.
CS: I'm very pleased Laila lost, because we got Lyn Pillay instead. And Lyn Pillay was a great MP for the West. It sounds like you wanted National to form a government in 2002 and 2005. Are you friends with that Matt guy, what's his name? The union guy? Matt...
SH: Matt McCarten of Unite? I don't know him.
CS: That's the one. He wanted Laila Harre to win. He said we should have helped the Alliance. There is this real problem on the left of people attacking other people on the same side. It's a shame you don't want to help me beat Paula Bennett. But I don't want to waste my time arguing with you. I only came to this cafe for a smoothie - if you'll excuse me I'd like to drink it.
SH: It is a nice-looking smoothie.
CS: It's a blueberry smoothie. I love them. I feel like a kid when I drink them...
SH: Thanks for talking with me anyway.
*Skyler might well have something to say about this post. She is an active supporter of Carmel Sepuloni and disagrees with many of my criticisms of the contemporary Labour Party.
[Posted by Scott/Maps]