By Chris Trotter*
The abject policy failure represented by the Coalition Government’s KiwiBuild Programme is, on the face of it, inexplicable.
Governments are privileged to have at their disposal not only a solid complement of highly qualified policy advisers, but also – and especially in relation to projects on the scale of KiwiBuild – private sector players eager to participate (and profit) in the State’s service.
Upon being handed the reins of government, therefore, the expectation of most observers was that KiwiBuild would be suitably reconstructed and made fit-for-purpose by a combination of public and private professionals; and that the new government would reap a bounteous political harvest.
Why hasn’t it worked out that way? What is it about KiwiBuild that has rendered it – and its minister – more or less impervious to all attempts to make the programme a success?
The answer lies in the fractious circumstances of KiwiBuild’s birth. From its very inception, the programme has been much less about providing affordable homes for New Zealanders locked out of the property market, and much more about the defence and consolidation of the dominant position of the Labour Right. The bright and shiny centrepiece of David Shearer’s campaign to politically neuter his principal rival, David Cunliffe, KiwiBuild has never been more than a means to end – and a pretty cynical end at that.
The 2012 Labour Party Conference held at the Ellerslie Conference Centre opened with factional hostility at full throttle. Even before the fireworks started going off on the Conference floor, the Opposition Whip, Chris Hipkins, was warning at least one member of the press corps that “our problems aren’t external – they’re internal”. If by “internal”, Hipkins was referring to the rank-and-file members of his own party, then he was right on the mark.
In the aftermath of the 2011 election, the Labour Party was required to choose a new leader. The battle to replace Phil Goff was between David Shearer (whose presence at Matthew Hooton’s celebrated post-election party spoke volumes about the broad and accommodating nature of his political comfort zone) and David Cunliffe. Few would dispute that, Shearer’s inspirational “back-story” notwithstanding, the rank-and-file’s choice to replace Goff was Cunliffe. The Labour Caucus’s decision to over-ride the rank-and-file set a match to the party’s flax roots. The Ellerslie conference represented the inevitable conflagration.
At this point, with the benefit of hindsight, it is entirely reasonable to object that the Labour Caucus was right to opt for Shearer over Cunliffe. When the constitutional reforms locked into place at Ellerslie finally delivered the Labour leadership to Cunliffe in September 2013, the MP for New Lynn’s failings were soon on very public display. Certainly, there are many who say that Shearer could hardly have done worse in 2014 – and may have performed considerably better.
But hindsight has a nasty habit of obscuring almost as much as it reveals. In 2012, Cunliffe was an object of widespread fear and loathing; condemned by the Labour Right as a shameless panderer to the party’s politically clueless – but also highly dangerous – Left. Things were coming to a head, as they always do in the Labour Party, for the very simple (though not often admitted) reason that the most important fault line in New Zealand politics runs not between National and Labour, but between the right- and left-wings of the Labour Party itself. The bitter floor-fights of the Ellerslie Conference, won largely by the Left, unleashed blind panic in Labour’s mostly right-wing caucus. Something big was needed to rescue Shearer’s leadership – and that big something was KiwiBuild.
In the bluntest terms, KiwiBuild was a policy thrown together by devotees of the soft-edged neoliberalism of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, in order to blunt the appeal (and mask the imminent demotion) of the man who, in a series of thoroughly heretical speeches, had suggested that neoliberalism – hard and soft – was a busted flush. KiwiBuild sounded like a classic Labour policy: one guaranteed to make the ghost of that great state house builder of the late-1930s, John A. Lee, smile. It was, of course, no such thing. KiwiBuild was intended not for the poor and marginalised, but for the financially-thwarted sons and daughters of the educated middle-class. That the first people to win the KiwiBuild lottery turned out to be a trainee doctor and an on-line marketer said everything about the sort of voters that the Labour Right was targeting.
Returning, one last time, to the 2012 Ellerslie Conference, it is possible to recognize in the furious response of the Labour Right to its acute discomfiture at the hands of left-wing rank-and-filers, the shape and complexion of the Labour Party that joined with NZ First in 2017 to form the present Coalition Government.
In a column published in The Dominion Post on 1 March 2013, the author of this posting described the “pack” of MPs who fanned out across the conference in hopes of re-educating delegates who had voted the wrong way:
“Leading the pack was Labour’s employment relations spokesperson, Darien Fenton, and her grim lieutenant, the Dunedin South MP, Clare Curran. No surprises there. Ms Fenton and Ms Curran were among the Caucus members most alarmed by the Labour Party rank-and-file’s sudden outbreak of democratic distemper.
“The other members of the pack, however, came as a surprise. I had never thought of Jacinda Ardern, Megan Woods, Kris Faafoi or Phil Twyford as attack dogs, but my sources assure me that they were there – chewing people out.”
Six years later, it is interesting to compose a list of all of the principal players in the struggle to neutralise the “threat” posed by David Cunliffe at the Ellerslie Conference – and compare it with a list of Labour’s current Cabinet line-up.
Ranged against Cunliffe were Shearer and his deputy, Grant Robertson, and, as already noted, the Opposition Whip, Chris Hipkins. Another key player in the fight to stop Cunliffe was the Opposition’s acknowledged “hard man”, Trevor Mallard. Add to these four the names of Clare Curran, Megan Woods, Kris Faafoi, Phil Twyford and Jacinda Ardern, and what you have is an impressive compilation of the most important players in the current government.
KiwiBuild remains impervious to every attempt to reconstitute it as something more attuned to the Coalition Government’s promises of “transformation” and “kindness” for the same reason that its Minister of Finance remains impervious to all suggestions that he relax his “Budget Responsibility Rules”. Such a shift in policy would signal that the Coalition’s social and economic priorities were being re-ordered towards the Left. And if the political history of Labour’s last seven years is about anything, it is about the intransigence of the Labour Right: its unwavering determination to hold in place the Clark-Cullen approach to governing New Zealand.
Six years ago, this country’s political faultline moved slightly to the left. Two years ago, it shifted decisively back towards the right.
Only a similar, sizeable, ideological shake-up could transform KiwiBuild into what it should always have been: a massive, state-led building programme to construct 100,000 new dwellings for New Zealand’s poorest citizens to call home.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.