POLITICS : Suits & Sobriety

The Labour party holds its 90th birthday conference this month. What difference 90 years makes. In 1916 Labour was party of grand ambition to change the world. It stood outside and against the establishment. Its greatest leader-to-be, Peter Fraser, was about to be thrown in jail for opposing an imperialist war. The party wanted radical change in the ownership and organisation of the economy and equality in society.
Labour in 2006 is inside the establishment, the party of power – in office 11 of the past 20 years, 13 of the past 25. It knows the value of power to policy ambition.
Its ambition is to make the world little better, at home and abroad. It wants the economy to run little better, not run on radically different lines. It still opposes imperialist wars but is militarily active around the world in the cause of peacemaking.
Modern Labour’s social democrats’ dreams are not the big, unruly visions of the 1916 socialists. The price of power in democracy is suits and sobriety. “Third ways” and “projects” tidy up society at the margins.
In 1916 Labour preached classless society of equals. Today’s social democrats preach and practise identity politics, society of groups, with individuals defined by the group they are classified into and their rights to respect and equality of opportunity defined accordingly. This actually risks divisions at least as damaging as those of the old class system.
The 1916 Labour party had big ideas about new world. When the modern Labour party thinks big it does so in money.
Helen Clark’s Government built up huge budget surpluses from an economic and financial boom and bracket creep. And it has busily spent them – on tax credits for “working families”, on expanding the bureaucracy and on social services.
The Clark Government has shovelled truckloads of money into healthcare – only to be lambasted by insatiable doctors, nurses, the grumpy old, the media and an opposition which would park the trucks (and the money) but for now enjoys twisting ministers on the spit.
The Clark Government has showered tax dollars specifically on middle-class students, whose education will privilege them economically and socially for life (many of them abroad), and generally into “tertiary” education, much of which has been in fact glorified secondary, or even primary, schooling. For all that, the universities barely hang on in the first-world league for want of competitive salaries.
Which leads us to where the Clark Government thinks small.
It thinks small in science. Instead of expanding the research, science and technology budget, it has reshuffled the same miserly 0.55 percent of GDP.
Clark’s ministers talk lot about innovation and set up board to devise framework for shining future of high-value niche products based on exciting new ideas. But its parsimony paints path to mediocrity. The old and their ailments are many times more important to the Clark Government than the young and their opportunities.
Contrast Auckland University’s planned modest new bioscience block – dependent on private sector money to supplement government spending – with little Singapore’s $10 billion Biopolis, designed to attract top scientists and international companies. No wonder Fonterra has taken research off to Melbourne. Yet if any country should focus on bioscience it would logically be this plant- and animal-dependent one.
The 2006 Labour party also thinks small – in the sense of “narrow” – in energy and climate change. Power stations, yes, but only marginal efforts to promote efficiency and conservation and – though David Parker would like to be bold – so far no seriously imaginative thinking about the opportunities in climate change this small energy-rich country might have.
The Clark Government also thinks small in defence and security. That is not to say it can sensibly emulate Australia’s grandiosity. But the Pacific islands to our northwest are overpopulated, ungovernable or badly governed and poor – and in the next decade or two almost certainly set to get more overpopulated, more unstable and poorer.
New Zealand doesn’t have the troop numbers or police units (or nous) for the peacemaking, peacekeeping, policing and political guidance the region needs if it is to join the modern world. And the 10-year defence programme promulgated in 2005 will not fix that.
It all adds up to centre-seeking Labour party, geared to making policy aimed as much at winning elections as creating brave new world. What difference 90 years makes.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer [email protected]

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