Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Films from the Revolution

As a dedicated political junkie, I spent much of my Labour Weekend watching TV One's excellent trio of documentaries on the NeoLiberal Revolution: Reluctant Revolutionary about David Lange, Someone Else's Country on the Revolution itself, and In A Land Of Plenty on the rise of unemployment.

Tom Scott's Reluctant Revolutionary seemed to be trying to eulogise Lange before he dies - and in some ways this seems appropriate. There's no question that he's our best-loved former Prime Minister, thanks to his excellent representation of our stand against nuclear weapons in the 80's and because he tried (unsuccessfully) to stop the madness. Lange has defined our foreign policy for the last twenty years, and in the process helped us define ourselves and our place in the world. That's something worthy of a little eulogising.

And OTOH, Scott did seem to go a little beyond eulogising and into whitewashing over the USS Buchanan incident. According to Reluctant Revolutionary, Lange had been on the verge of working out a deal with the Americans but had mysteriously failed to brief Geoffrey Palmer on it; Palmer was then strongarmed into refusing entry by then-Labour Party President Margaret Wilson. Unfortunately, as the Herald's John Roughan pointed out on Agenda on saturday morning, this wasn't actually the case - Palmer expounded at length on how the government was going to squeeze the Buchanan through its anti-nuclear policy (essentially by operating a "don't ask, don't tell" standard), and was rightly crucified by his party for doing so. As for Richard Prebble's contention that Wilson's involvement was somehow unconstitutional and that the decision was one for the executive branch, last I checked the Acting Prime Minister is very much a part of the executive. Wilson's involvement was essentially to point out that he might not remain part of the executive if he blatantly went against the wishes of the people who elected him, but there's nothing at all unconstitutional about taking such political considerations into account.

Someone Else's Country skimmed over the 1984 - 93 period. It's familiar ground to many - the grey suits, the bad haircuts, the rampant neoliberal ideology - and I'd have thought relatively uncontentious. I'm surprised it hadn't been screened earlier.

In A Land Of Plenty was more interesting, focusing on the link between unemployment and monetary policy. Until the 80's, New Zealand had pursued a policy of full employment, ensuring that there were jobs for all, even if it required spending money to do so. Much of our pre-1984 economic mess was the result of trying to sustain this policy in the face of a changing economic climate which made it vastly more difficult (if not impossible). Post-1984, we simply gave up, and instead pursued low inflation instead. The cost was thousands of people thrown out of work, and the embedding of significant unemployment as a permanant feature of the New Zealand economy.

Much of the focus was on Treasury, and frankly they were simply evil. There's simply no other word for people who decide that we need more unemployment to drive wages down, or who take a budget sufficient for minimal nutrition and then cut it by 20% when calculating "optimum" (starvation) benefit levels. But there's also a very familiar face involved in all of these decisions: Don Brash. As Governor of the Reserve Bank, he seemed to think that 6% unemployment was too low, and so hiked interest rates to throw people out of work whenever things started heading that way (one shudders to think at how he's reacting to the current figure of around 4%). Once the ECA had taken effect and lowered wages, he argued that benefit levels were once again too high and had to be lowered. And then there's his Hayek Memorial Lecture, "New Zealand's Remarkable Reforms", in which he says that things had not gone far enough, and advocates abolition of any minimum employment standards, further welfare cuts, further "reform" of the health-care sector, and further privatisations. It's a powerful reminder of just how involved he was, and the message is clear: if Brash is elected, be prepared for more of the same.

There's also a lot of information on the plight of the unemployed during the "reform" period. Just in case anyone needs reminding, thanks to welfare cuts and market rents we had people living in garages, and food-banks were a growth industry (along with pawn-shops and loan-sharks). That is the New Zealand Don Brash wants to return us to, and that is why he should never be allowed to influence policy ever again.