Why Labour needs a Pacific strategy
Matt McCarten is an experienced campaigner who will have hundreds of activists knocking on doors and dropping leaflets in letterboxes in the lead-up to this year's election. But Labour can't rely on energy and organisation alone to win back voters: the party needs policies that speak to its disillusioned former supporters. Matt McCarten's old ally Chris Trotter recently called for the New Zealand left to formulate and argue for policies that a refreshed Labour could carry into the election.
I want to respond to Chris's call by suggesting that Labour needs to make the Pacific a theme in this year's campaign.
The tropical Pacific is a region many New Zealanders habitually ignore, despite its proximity to their country. Unless a cyclone is blowing or a major rugby tournament is underway, our media and political leaders give neighbours like Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa considerably less attention than the faraway lands of Europe and North America. But New Zealand's wilful ignorance of the Pacific is becoming increasingly untenable. Our major cities now boast a thriving Pacific Islands community, which is beginning to find its political voice. And the tropical zone to our north is becoming one of the frontlines in a new Cold War, as the United States and China compete for political and military supremacy.
Labour lost the last two elections because of a decline in its vote in the heavily Pasifika working class suburbs of Auckland's west and south. Although Labour still holds seats like Mangere and Otara with big majorities, the voter turnout there fell markedly in 2008 and 2011. In such overwhelmingly pro-Labour electorates, a lower turnout means fewer party votes and fewer list MPs.
Some Labour activists have blamed the low turnout in Auckland's working class heartlands on the supposed apathy of Pacific Islanders. It is more likely, though, that Labour’s apathetic attitude towards the concerns of Pacific Islanders is responsible for the party’s declining popularity in the south and west. In recent years Pasifika communities have built, without much help from Labour, a grassroots protest movement which is as passionate, eclectic, and persistent as anything Matt McCarten has created during his career as an activist.
The Bilingual Leo Coalition was founded after John Key’s government scrapped funding for children's books in Pasifika languages, dealing a blow to educators in many Auckland schools. In protests, petitions, and submissions to parliament, the Coalition has argued that Pasifika kids should have the right to study in their own languages, and suggested that five Pasifika tongues – Cook Islands Maori, Niuean, Tokelauan, Samoan, and Tongan – should be recognised as ‘official minority languages’ in New Zealand.
The Bilingual Leo Coalition points out that, by denying schools Pasifika language resources, New Zealand is repeating the mistake it made for most of the twentieth century, when it denied Maori children the right to learn in their native language. The Coalition’s eloquent spokeswoman, Judy Taligau McFall-McCaffrey, has called on the Key government to start treating Pasifika languages as a ‘platform for education, rather than a learning deficit’, and to stop making ‘bilingual kids monolingual’ by forcing them to learn only in English.
McFall-McCaffrey and her comrades have won backing from the Mana and the Green Parties, as well as from numerous local organisations in South Auckland. Although Labour’s Mangere MP Su’a William Sio has offered some low-key support to Bilingual Leo, the party’s leaders have refused to endorse the group’s demands. If Cunliffe and McCarten want to build Labour’s support amongst Pasifika communities, then they should climb aboard the movement those communities have built in recent years, and loudly broadcast that movement’s message.
Liberal voters with a focus on international affairs make up another group that has drifted away from Labour in recent years. Many of these voters traditionally supported Labour, because of the party’s (sometimes undeserved) reputation for taking progressive stances on issues like war, disarmament, and personal freedom. Labour’s opposition to nuclear ship visits excited liberal voters, and in 2005 the party was able to contrast its (heavily qualified) opposition to George Bush’s invasion of Iraq with National leader Don Brash’s apparent enthusiasm for war.
In recent years, though, Labour has been on the wrong side of a series of issues involving war, superpower politics, and personal freedom. ‘Anti-terrorist’ legislation that Helen Clark’s government rushed through parliament after the 9/11 attacks has been exposed as dangerously repressive by the police raids on Tuhoe Country and the persecution of Kim Dotcom, and the military adventure in Afghanistan launched by Clark and continued by Key has been stripped of its humanitarian veneer by reports of arbitrary killings and corruption. For many liberal voters, Labour now seems as tied to American foreign policy as its National opponents.
Labour’s foreign policy may soon be tested by the superpower confrontation in the Pacific. Since World War Two the Pacific has usually been seen as part of America’s sphere of influence, with Australia and New Zealand acting as local deputies for Uncle Sam. In recent years, though, China has focused its attention on the region, offering aid, loans, and naval visits to its impoverished nations.
As China and the United States have competed for influence in various island societies, they have taken opposite sides in numerous local conflicts. In the Solomon Islands America and its allies have lined up behind one set of politicians, while Chinese diplomats and businessmen have backed another political faction. In Tonga and Fiji China has bankrolled friendly governments, while the United States has supported the opponents of those governments. Many Pacific Islanders are distressed by the way their homelands have suddenly become pawns in a superpower chess game.
In 2011 the Obama administration announced that it was ‘recalibrating’ America’s global military strategy, and moving large numbers of troops from Europe to Asia and the Pacific. Obama is reopening a series of Cold War era military bases in places like the Marshall Islands, as a counter to Chinese moves into the Pacific.
As America and China pour military resources into the Pacific and back opposing sides in local conflicts, the chances of violent conflict are increasing. Only last month a Chinese naval exercise near the coast of Australia was misinterpreted as a hostile act by the Aussie military, which scrambled an aircraft to confront the Chinese.
The confrontation in the Pacific poses economic as well as military dangers to this country. New Zealand’s traditional political and military alliance with the United States – an alliance that has continued, despite the ban on nuclear ships – contrasts with our quickly increasing economic dependence on China. Kiwi dairy farmers now send nearly a quarter of their exports to the Asian superpower. If tensions with the United States escalated, China could punish New Zealand for its alliance with Uncle Sam with trade sanctions that would quickly devastate our economy.
The conflict in the Pacific offers Labour an opportunity to differentiate itself from the relentlessly pro-American National government. Labour should oppose the increasing militarisation of the Pacific, propose that the region be made a nuclear-free zone, end military exercises with America and Australia, and refrain from aiding Washington and Canberra when they play politics in nations like Tonga and the Solomons. The slogan ‘New Zealand – Nuclear free and Neutral’, which was popularised by the peace movement in the 1970s and ‘80s, should be put into practice.
By drawing a clear line between itself and National on foreign policy and by confronting American power Labour could electrify a generation of voters upset by the superpower sabre-rattling and threats to personal freedoms that have been such features of the 9/11 world.
Of course, both the recognition of Pasifika languages and opposition to the new Cold War in the Pacific would be radical policies for Labour to adopt. Teaching Pasifika students in their own languages would raise the ire of the rednecks who have never reconciled themselves to Maori-language education. Calls for the demilitarisation of the Pacific would enrage the United States. But radical policies are always controversial, as the reformers of the first Laour government knew when they built a welfare state against sustained opposition from the media, conservative members of parliament, and the British bankers who owned much of New Zealand’s debt.
If they want to inspire and mobilise their erstwhile supporters, McCarten and Cunliffe need to think radically, and to make the Pacific an issue in this year’s election.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]