Peter Dunne argues that the Government is not prepared to confront lessons from the past and says that the idealism - not the failure - of the 1970s Labour administration is what is being remembered

Peter Dunne argues that the Government is not prepared to confront lessons from the past and says that the idealism - not the failure - of the 1970s Labour administration is what is being remembered

By Peter Dunne*

For each of us, there is a golden time in our lives, a period we look back on, where everything seemed rosy, where setbacks were few, and which we wish we could recreate tomorrow. It is but a pleasant memory, which rarely can be rekindled, as time and circumstances move inevitably on. Such nostalgia is not a problem. Indeed, it can be quite a positive experience. The only difficulty emerges when we try to recreate it, and fail to appreciate it was a snapshot in time that has gone forever.

For the current Labour-led Government, the golden time appears to be the era of the third Labour Government between 1972 and 1975. This was the era where bold decisions were made that stood out in stark relief to the years of conformity and complacency during the 1950s and 1960s.

China was recognised; the troops were brought home from Vietnam; the Springbok Tour was stopped; the French were taken to the World Court over nuclear testing in the Pacific and nuclear ship visits to New Zealand were suspended. Colour television and the second state-run channel were introduced; beneficiaries received a Christmas bonus; and the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council and the Waitangi Tribunal were established. A bold superannuation scheme we still hanker after was briefly put in place. There was talk of  a new city being built at Rolleston near Christchurch and a national Ohu scheme, based on Israel's kibbutz system, was mooted for young people interested in communal living.

Heady days indeed. But it all came crashing down after the impact of the 1973 Oil Shock. Unemployment  (which at one stage had been literally one person) and shortages of materials began to soar, delaying housing and commercial and industrial development; the Government was forced to borrow massively overseas to meet the soaring oil bill; inflation, which Labour had promised to "knock for six" exploded threefold; and, the Labour Government was swept ignominiously from office after just three years.

Yet, today, nearly 50 years later, it is the idealism, not the failure, that is remembered so wistfully. Ministers in the present Government, many of whom who were some years away from being born then, seem to yearn for a return to those apparently idyllic and simpler times.

There are a couple of lessons from the fate of the third Labour Government that the present administration seems unwilling to confront. The first is that the politics of the grand gesture - in this case, the establishment of the billion dollar Provincial Growth Fund, or the Kiwibuild promise of 100,000 new affordable homes, or the decision to stop oil and gas exploration, come to mind - have to be followed by actions of substance. Otherwise, the bold gesture begins to look like a hollow lie.

The second lesson to learn is the constraint of moving at a pace and direction the public feels comfortable with, and avoiding getting too far ahead of public opinion. One of the reasons why the 1984-1990 Labour Government was able to make its radical changes was because the public generally believed change was overdue. Moreover, the Government was constantly explaining its actions and decisions, giving the dual sense of both assurance that it knew what it was doing, and that the public was being taken into its confidence. Once the public came to doubt both these things after 1987, that Government's demise was as swift and even more dramatic than in 1975.

It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. An ironic warning really, given that Santayana's work enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1970s, with posters of his writings adorning the walls of many student flats, some 20 years after his death. In its nostalgia to recreate the spirit (or what the bumbling lawyer Denis Denuto better described as "the vibe" in the great Australian film, "The Castle") Labour could do well to remember the gentle words of Santayana.

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*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

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25 Comments

The fuel crisis certainly didn’t help but as well the arrival of Muldoon and his personal vendetta style was destructive beyond anything ever seen before in NZ politics. Kirk had been able to handle Muldoon quite easily but once Kirk began to ail things for Labour started to wobble. Even experienced campaigners such as Watt and articulate as Finlay could not withstand Muldoon. When Kirk was lost the mantle passed to Rowling who as minister of finance had actually done quite well when up against Muldoon but this did not last. He became instead, an easy target, not helped much by the media and satirical antics by Bob Jones. On the face of it, it was a well intended and reasonably sound government, but no government can rely on just one man. Ironically that s exactly how Muldoon went about things and he offered little change or innovation economically. And even more ironically the formation of The NZ Party by one Bob Jones catalysed his eventual downfall.

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Very insightful.

The parallel with the 1970s is apt because the county is being run like a student union from that era.

Is that any surprise when Taxinda was the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth and Robertson served as President of the Otago University Students' Association and as Co-President of the New Zealand University Students' Association?

Yes, I'm waiting for the Govt to organise demos in support of the Maduro regime (sorry, glorious Chavista revolution) in Venezuela.
That and a show of hands on whether NZ should join the BDS movement.

Statler and Waldorf, right. here.

Settle Kermit, settle.

Yes, interesting article. That third Labour government sure had its foot down on the accelerator for the whole of its three year term;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Labour_Government_of_New_Zealand

That sense of urgency seemed apparent in this sixth Labour government's promo around its first 100 days, but whether they follow through at the same pace of reform/change throughout the term is the real test;

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sixth_Labour_Government_of_New_Zealand

Wise words, Peter. Ones I personally empathize with, because as well as sharing a hairstyle spookily similar to yours, I well remember that first era. If one word had to be chosen to encapsulate it, my pick would be 'Fearless'.

We have ourselves another bunch of tyro pollies, high on the waft of Power underneath their wings, making all manner of pronouncements from every orifice of the Coalition, seemingly without any fear of Consequences. Let alone any overt appearance of coordination, central control, or in the case of the oil/gas exit, Cabinet discussion. Working groups proliferate under every Ministry, all with the promise of 'Mo Moolah for the Approved Ones.

A sampling:

  1. TWG, with the mandate to Make Fings Fairer, but which inevitably means Mo' Taxes even if disguised as levies, contributions, Modest Fees or other appellations yet to be devised
  2. The mooted changes to IR, where the familiar element of central coercion is re-introduced for the Lucky Sectors (yet to be decided, we'll get around to it, but hey, it's Gonna be Better than the current free-for-all, no?)
  3. The Provincial Slush Fund: a cute way of buying votes under the guise of Revivification (or, in the case of the worst provinces, De-Zombification)
  4. Tertiary free study: neglectful of the hoary old adage that when the price is zero, the demand is infinite. And introduce this for the Incoming Cohort, thus neatly securing their tender little voting ticks, rather than chance it with a 2nd or later year cohort, who just might be able to spot a bribe having passed POLI101
  5. The usual raft of crony-cultivation, as typified by the IRD note that "the costs of a stand-out yearling acquired by an investor with an intention of breeding for profit would be deductible."
  6. Wading headlong into the Australian Government re Manus, refugees, the sad state of feckless NZ'ers in Oz who neglected to ascertain the local laws re benefits, medical fees or the necessity of Keeping Noses Clean criminality-wise

This is but a sampling of Fearless Initiadives: the consequences are already rolling thick and fast. They include:

  • Australia and the US may be considering kicking us out of Five Eyes on the grounds we simply cannot be trusted, and Oz could well review the soft-back-door visa agreements if pushed much further
  • Taranaki can kiss goodbye to any substantial investment in energy. Existing plant will likely be put on 'Care and Maintenance' - the industry phrase which means 'let's hunker down, minimise spend, until these clueless policies get overturned'. And 'Naki gas has but 8 years of life left, so that pipeline to Awkland could be empty soon thereafter. Plus, a classic exit strategy for any industry faced with these circumstances is to raise prices through the roof, and take profits to the very last litre, gram or dribble of product.
  • So many loose-cannon pollies have made pronouncements about Low Wages and the Plight of Woikers, that the aforesaid Toilers have, not unnaturally, concluded that it's time to rattle the cages, demand Mo' Moolah, and down tools to enforce those claims. Nurses - 1/4 billion more every year hence. Teachers, want 16%. Police - watching and waiting. The IR shake-up is a knife to the face of every employer. So robots, automation and labour-reducing gear will be in hot demand. IR policy doesn't apply to mechanical appliances. Yet. Oh, and all of that gear? Mostly imported...Meantime, hiring intentions have gone down around the bend.

Happy Daze ahead.

It is a strange thing, but I was more tolerant of National's many failings and expected stupidities. I thing Peter Dunne is onto something in this article. Was I more tolerant because of the severity of the situation we were in, or was it just me being biassed? I too was once an ardent long haired socialist, happy in my deluded beliefs. My father always said in my defence when I questioned my elder's beliefs, that it was important for the young to want to change things, but as I grew older I would see things differently, as he had done.

Heh. Snap. Early member of the Values Party, was I.

Then reason and the instinct for self-preservation set in......

Agree that generally a preference for self takes precedence over time. Hence, socialism is fine when it means a non-means-tested handout for oldies but is abhorrent if it means reducing the debt load young Kiwis need to accumulate to become qualified for jobs.

Nice piece. I think "change at a pace that kiwis can go along with", clearly explained as things went along, was why John Key was so successful. We knew change was needed, the GFC and Chch earthquakes made that pretty obvious, and he was a master at explaining the government's thinking on the radio.

When things fell apart for National was when they denied that change was needed and insisted that they knew best. Their attempts to gut the RMA were thwarted by MMP, and no one has any idea how to reform local government. Their creation of the Auckland Socialist City State only made things worse. So they largely failed to resolve the supply side housing issues, even though they did try.

National denied as an act of blind ideological faith that their were any demand side issues. The fact that bank lending, foreign capital inflow and immigration were totally out of control seemed to be something they were just totally blind to.

And how does the COL government stack up so far?

I am an optimistic sort of chap, so I am hopeful they will try some things that turn out well, quite likely by accident. Theory is all very well and essential, of course, but evolution is based on trial and error and redundancy and sub optimal solutions that turn out well in the long run.

Having said that, my thoughts on progress so far run pretty much as I posted a few days ago about the dereliction of duty in destroying the oil and gas industry, but that's politicians for you, apparently you get what you deserve:

Well done Winston and Jones. Successfully stuffed up one of the few remaining well paid industries in the regions. Saboteurs! Iconoclasts! Sacre bleu!

Watch out Ivercargill, they are coming for you next. All that nice electricity going to waste at Tiwai can be routed North to Auckland to replace the gas fired stations. We can bring in another million, maybe two.

I too hope they do manage to get done what they promised. But like you mentioned, it looks like it will be by accident not design at this point. I am a marginal voter not entrenched in historic loyalty so I have been watching intently to how their actions have been playing out. the next two years are going to be very interesting. I just hope both main parties sort themselves out so we can have some real options to move our country forword.

Better than the BLP on any measure.

Their attempts to gut the RMA were thwarted by MMP

I think it was more a matter of public opinion that saw their idea of sweeping RMA reforms fail;

http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/8945373/Gutting-the-RMA-its-tim...

Just one example of an effective public resistance campaign (which MMP partners responded to) - and then the PCE pointed out that the RMA was never intended to be an economic development act;

"The RMA's fundamental purpose is to make sure that environmental effects are taken into consideration when decisions are being made about using our resources. It is not, and should not become, an economic development act.

http://www.pce.parliament.nz/our-work/news-insights/archive/2013/propose...

Yes, well, I try to simplify ideas to cartoon images that my limited brain capacity can cope with. The exact mechanisms are usually pretty complex when you look deeper and I am an impatient researcher, preferring to jump to conclusions and then test them in public to see if someone more knowleable can shoot them down in flames. Or not, which suggests they may at least be somewhat plausible.

Interestingly though, it seems that National tried to change the RMA at a pace that kiwis did not go along with.

Dunne is right about the grand but hollow gesture. Now we have Shane Jones's Billion dollars which supposedly yeah supposedly going to regional development. But what are we getting, local government vanity projects.

What is it about our simplistic idea that capital allocation is easy? It is a most complex, elusive and crucial skill, and it's hard to learn. That is what makes great entrepreneurs so special. The Germans have the right idea in fostering the profitability of their Mittelstatt, so that capital can be deployed where it is most productive. Unlike our weak copy of the Imperial US system of financial engineering via banking and wealth transfer.

Santayana had a brief renaissance in the 1970's? It may be, Peter, that that his renaissance has hardly begun. Whether in philosophy, literature, social thought or aesthetics, there have been few thinkers as humane as he. And if there is any development needed in contemporary politics, society or business, it is surely greater attention to the humane.

The machinery of growth - of gdp growth first and above anything else - has had plenty of oil in recent decades. Certainly some are wealthier as a result. But the outputs of this machinery also comprise statistics to shame any alert and thinking citizen. If our current and unusual government can make any step in restoring a fundamental concern with the quality, decency and security of general New Zealand lives - more power to them.

Lovely wishes, but someone's gotta Pay for all that quality, decency and security. As Peter Bauer (quoted in Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now) once said:

Poverty has no Cause. Wealth has Causes.

More Bauer, from the Economist:

Lord Bauer opposes policies aimed at reducing income inequality. This is not because he favours inequality—although he thinks it often reflects fair pay for output produced—but because policies designed to promote equality usually infringe personal liberties to such an extent as to slow economic development. If, as often happens, development happens to reduce inequality, then so much the better.

Sure, Waymad, society - via its political processes - pays for what it values. And in order to pay for these desirables, society needs to create wealth. Achieving income equality isn't the issue - this is a wild goose chase if ever there was one.

I am deeply concerned with New Zealand's ability, or inability, to create national wealth. We won't do so with an economy based largely on housing and land valuations, current immigration settings and undifferentiated commodity exports. The result is that our highly educated leave in great numbers, our productivity per capita stays in neutral, and our social and environmental problems mount.

So, all this said, there is no question in my mind that this government needs to attend to the widespread social, environmental and institutional failures of previous political thinking, or lack of thinking. It simply, as I see it, can't do otherwise. The failures are so compelling. This isn't to downplay the need for wealth creation. But that's another matter, another policy area. And here too I hope for some necessary advance.

Oh Peter Dunne, never fails to miss the target with his dressed up waffling. I'm surprised you're showing your face Peter.

Oh Peter, come back to us when you understand money creation in a fractional reserve banking system.

Peter Dunne, the man who helped prop up the National government and IMO led to the death of many young Kiwi's by legalizing "synthetic cannabis" (which is nothing like cannabis).

Unbelievable that interest.co.nz would let a man with the blood of NZ's youth on his hands write an article here - totally disgusting!

How many youths have died this year as a direct result of you policies Peter - can we get a figure on that?

Legal drugs or illegal drugs,both can kill.