New Zealand: Low election turnout leave parliament in political limbo

Results shows workers oppose 20 years of neo-liberalism

Last weekend’s general election in New Zealand finished with the ruling Labour Party just one seat ahead of the main opposition National Party. Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, won 50 seats in the 122 seat Parliament, and the Nationals got 49 seats. Both parties need around 60 seats to form a government and the support of the six minor parties, which together hold 23 seats. The 15 month old Maori Party could hold the balance of power.

The outcome may not be known for two weeks. Clarke will run a ‘caretaker’ government until 1 October, while holding negotiations with minor parties. According to the BBC (online, 19/09/05), Labour has the support of the Greens and the Progressive Party and expects the backing of the Maori Party.

National Party leader, Don Brash, said that in coming days and weeks he would also "endeavour to put together a National-led government", and is discussing with smaller, right wing parties.

Below, Louisa Stewart, from the CWI, in Auckland, and Socialist Party (CWI) Councillor, Stephen Jolly, in Melbourne, analyse the election result and prospects for the development of a workers’ alternative.

New Zealand

Low election turnout leave Parliament in political limbo

The 80% turnout in last Saturday’s New Zealand parliamentary election was the second lowest ever and slightly up on 77%, in 2002. After 20 years of the most vicious assault on their living standards by the neo-liberal policies of Labour, in the 1980s, and the right wing Nationals in the 1990s, the vast majority of workers and youth are totally disenchanted with capitalist policies.

It seems likely that Labour Prime Minister Helen Clarke will be able to form a new government with minor parties – the Greens, the Progressives, the Maori Party and United, all leaning towards her Labour Party. Labour got 50 seats (40.74%) compared to 49 seats for the National Party (NP or ‘Nationals’), or 39.63%. However, in 2002, Labour won twice as many votes as the Nationals.

The swing to Nationals was partially due to their racist attack on ‘affirmative action’ policies for the Maori and Pacific Island population, which led to a rally outside Parliament of 10,000 people. NP leader, Don Brash, put forward these policies in an attempt to play on the economic insecurities of ‘white’ workers. These affirmative action policies, in the main, only benefit a thin layer of Maori middle class state officials and small businessmen, not the vast majority of Maori people, who are amongst the poorest section of NZ society.

Don Brash campaigned on a promise to strengthen ties with the US and to scrap some Maori welfare and voting rights.

The Nationals also stole the hypocritical moralist approach of the ’Christian parties’, and, thereby, stole their votes. This is similar to what John Howard, the right wing, Australian Prime Minister, previously did to Pauline Hanson’s reactionary, populist One Nation Party – he took Hanson’s anti-immigrant policies to outdo her party.

The Nationals benefited from a US-influenced ‘Moral Majority’-style, ‘Exclusive Brethren’s’ $500,000 anti-Labour, anti-Green campaign.

The collapse in the ‘Christian vote’ into the National Party, in New Zealand, was also due to a nine year jail sentence for Graham Capill, former Christian Heritage Party leader, for sexual offences against three girls.

The National Party were heavily backed by a majority of the ruling class, which, while happy with Labour’s general neo-liberal policies, wanted still more. The huge "tax cuts for the rich" policies of Nationals (which would have cost $3.9 million a year) were strongly supported by the big business lobby group, the ‘Business Round Table’.

Economic upturn for rich

However, the rise in the Nationals vote was, it seems, not enough to unseat Labour. After two decades of attack upon attack on living standards, the Clarke government benefited from a cyclical economic upturn and eased its cuts in a very limited way. By getting into massive personal debt (NZ savings rate is minus 10%, the worst in the OECD), some workers managed to stabilize their personal economic situation somewhat. The debt helped overcome the small pay rises of the past year which were below inflation for many workers, especially those in communications and wholesale industries.

The economic upturn has not been effectively used by the unions, in most cases, to drive up wages and conditions, although there has as been a significant rise in class struggle in the past months over wages. Yet, there were only 109 disputes nationwide in the first three years of the Clarke government! No wonder from 2000 to 2004 profits rose 11% and wages by only 8.3%.

The economic upturn hid the fact that cuts continued under the last government. Government spending, as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), fell under the Labour government of Clarke from 33% to 30%. 29% of children live in poverty.

The upturn was overwhelmingly one for the rich. In 2004, the share market reached new heights, increasing in value by NZ$11 billion, with average CEO’s pay rising by 25%.

Clarke cleverly let hares run on some social policies, such as gay rights and prostitution, which infuriated the right and gave her a superficial image of being ‘progressive’. She opposed the Iraq invasion – but kept NZ armed forces personnel in Afghanistan and in the Solomon Islands. The Labour Party, like all ex-workers’ parties, from Australia to Brazil to Britain, is now made up of government bureaucrats, union officials, councillors, MPs and their assistants, not of an active, political section of workers and youth, as it once was.

Even though Labour’s campaign pledges excluded promises to improve Industrial Relations for workers, working people, in general, still seemed to hold on to the belief that Labour are the party most likely to support their interests.

None of the minor parties called for any alternative to neo-liberal capitalist policies. The middle class Greens – who supported the last government in parliament – saw their vote drop to 5.07% (6 seats, from 8 in 2002). One of their main election policies was a ‘Buy New Zealand’ campaign – which exposed their economic nationalism. In the era of capitalist globalization, such a campaign would be a disaster for workers, as it would lead to retaliation from NZ’s trading partners. It would lead to a hike in prices, as the cost of imports would rise and local manufacturers would take advantage of less competition. The ‘Buy New Zealand’ policies would be an attempt to export the crises to workers elsewhere.

Progressives and Alliance fail miserably

The Progressives – which came out of the Alliance party – got 1 seat, held by party leader, Jim Anderton. When this former Labour MP split to the Left from the Labour Party in 1990, along with union leader, Matt MaCarten, to set up ‘New Labour’, and then the ‘Alliance’, there was an optimistic hope amongst big sections of workers that some class alternative was on the way. The Alliance got up to 17% in the polls, at one stage. Yet, the new party did not put forward a socialist alternative, of fighting cuts and job losses with militant action, of bringing the major companies into public ownership under workers’ control and management – just vague and mild attempts to cushion workers from the worst effects of the attacks of the Lange government, at the time. After some opportunities to show their wares to working people in local government, the Alliance vote collapsed. Anderton is a pale shadow of the pale shadow he once was, and the Alliance (which he split from), got 0.07% nationally (1,503 votes out of 2.83 million voters!) in last weekend’s elections.

The newly formed Maori Party won four of the seats put aside for Maori and Pacific Islanders. There was a defensive backlash in these communities to the racism of the Nationals. The Maori Party was formed by ex-Labour Party members after Helen Clarke’s Seabed and Foreshore legislation, which was an attempt to ‘out-racist’ the Nationals by undermining the land rights of Maoris and Pacific Islanders. The leaders of the Maori Party represent a middle class layer who want more crumbs off the cake for themselves, but who do not, in any way, pose an alternative to capitalism.

Right wing, minor parties – NZ First (7 seats, 5.8%), United Future NZ (3 seats, 2.7%) and ACT NZ (2 seats, 1.5%) – will spend the next days selling their wares to both Labour and Nationals, in a search for possible Cabinet positions for their leaders. This will only further disgust the working class, especially youth.

Unions must back new workers’ party

The dilemma for the working class in NZ (as in Australia) is that they have no-one to vote for – no party that represents their interests and poses any real alternative to the neo-liberal mantra of Labour, Nationals, and the piglets in the minor parties.

Most union leaders called on their members to vote Labour, with one degree of enthusiasm or another. This is a great error. Instead of pumping resources into Labour they should unite with community groups, and the vast number of left-leaning individuals, to create a new mass workers’ party in NZ. Within such a formation, CWI supporters in NZ would fight for socialist policies and militant campaigning methods. There is no other solution to the problems facing the New Zealand working class.

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September 2005