On Saturday, 8 November delegates attending the annual NZ Labour Party conference at the Christchurch Convention Centre were able to witness two strongly contrasting styles of democracy.
Inside the Convention Centre proceedings were carefully stage-managed to avoid any chance of controversy or dissent – all the media focus was thrown on a triumphant presidential-style address from Prime Minister Helen Clark. Debate on contentious issues, such as government funding for tertiary education and Labour’s ongoing support for the US-led ’War on Terror’, was either left out of the conference agenda or moved out into fringe workshops that had no chance of bringing about a change on the party’s statute books.
Meanwhile, across the road from the Convention Centre, a crowd of about 150 protesters shouting out their opposition message to the conference delegates were kept at bay by at least 30 police officers. While the turn out for the lobby was relatively small, the protest was still highly significant in that it was the first such event since Labour came to power in 1999 and also because of the diverse coalition of groups taking part.
Student delegations from all three South Island Universities mixed with anti-war activists and campaigners against the lifting of the government-imposed moratorium on GM field trials. Members of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) were also there to protest against the withdrawal of government funding from the Queen Mary Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre – the only facility of its kind in New Zealand – that now looks almost certain to close. The National Distribution Union (NDU) was there representing its members in the clothing and textile industry whose jobs are being threatened as a result of the government’s decision to slash tariffs on imported clothing goods.
While it was disappointing to see the NDU opposing the tariff cuts with the protectionist argument that the government should bail out inefficient capitalists in the manufacturing sector, instead of calling for nationalisation and workers’ control and management, their willingness to fight in defence of workers’ interests was a welcome contrast to the craven tactics of the national leadership in the NZ Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU).
When Helen Clark announced to conference Labour’s intention to introduce legislation before parliament giving workers’ four weeks paid holidays a year – effective only from April 2007 – CTU president, Ross Wilson, was quick to label it as a victory for the union movement and for the strategy of "social partnership" (in which the idea of trade unions as representing workers’ interests is abandoned in favour of union incorporation into the apparatus of the capitalist state).
Wilson and his right-wing friends in the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) – who were also present at the conference – have claimed a mandate from the recent CTU conference for "social partnership" and a tri-partite pact between government, employers and trade unions as "the only way forward" for workers in this country.
Fortunately, unions such as the NDU and the Service and Food Workers’ Union (SFWU), have publicly rejected the partnership model and are still prepared to criticise the Labour government.
Alternative needed to Labour
Like Tony Blair’s "Third Way" government in Britain the Clarke government in NZ carries out neo-liberal policies. In NZ there appears to be no immediate prospect of left-wing trade unions transferring their political allegiances elsewhere. In part, this is because most of the unpopular ’reforms’ introduced by the Blair government in areas such as public services and tertiary education are already well entrenched in NZ – allowing NZ Labour to avoid a head-on confrontation with its working class constituency. Also the majority of trade unions in NZ are not directly affiliated to Labour Party and so the issue of the trade union funding for political parties is not posed in the same way as it is in Britain.
It will probably need an economic recession to drive Labour into a head-on confrontation with the working class, as the government acts to salvage once again the profitability of NZ big business at the expense of working people. Today socialists must rebuild a fighting, democratic trade union movement and support attempts by community groups or other working class organisations to mount an electoral challenge to Labour.