Bruce Jesson (1944-1999) would not have made a good courtroom lawyer. With his coke-bottle glasses and his tendency to mumble, Jesson’s rapport with the average jury was not likely to have been much better than Mr Magoo’s.
The legal profession’s loss, however, was the world of political commentary and analysis’ gain. Jesson, a staunch anti-monarchist since his student days at the University of Canterbury, was denied admission to the Bar because he refused to swear allegiance to the Queen. That fateful refusal propelled him to launch his own magazine – The Republican – and to turn his razor-sharp mind to making sense of New Zealand’s subaltern political culture.
And Jesson was very good at it. So good, in fact, that the founder of Metro magazine, the late Warwick Roger, gave Jesson his own column. Impressed, Penguin Books commissioned and published Jesson’s stand-out books on Rogernomics, Behind the Mirror Glass and Fragments of Labour. Equally impressed, the University of Auckland awarded him a fellowship. Finally, Jesson was nominated as one of the Alliance’s candidates for the Auckland Regional Services Trust. As chairman of the ARST, Jesson worked alongside some of Auckland’s canniest businessmen to not only preserve the municipal assets the trust was set up to privatise but also to pay off early the debt those privatisations were supposed to clear.
Jesson could do this because he grasped the essentials of both New Zealand capitalism and New Zealand politics better than any of his contemporaries. Perhaps his most memorable quip concerning the defining drivers of this country’s electoral politics was: “The National Party governs for capitalists. The Labour Party for capitalism.”
With Labour having executed a near-perfect transition from Jacinda Ardern to Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s capitalists are now tasked with deciding what they most want to emerge from the October general election: a party that governs for their class or for their system? It is easy to brush off Jesson’s challenge by asserting that Christopher Luxon and his colleagues are perfectly capable of doing both: that what is good for capitalists is, ipso facto, good for capitalism.
Except this claim is obviously false. The Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party, by introducing the wage subsidy scheme to blunt the worst effects of the covid-19 pandemic, proved the acuity of Jesson’s observation. The system-wide impact of those wage subsidies, coupled with the Reserve Bank’s enthusiastic embrace of quantitative easing, prevented the New Zealand economy from tipping over into a fully-fledged crisis.
Had Ardern and her Finance Minister Grant Robertson adopted a piecemeal, enterprise-specific approach, attempting to appease all businesspeople large and small, the impact on the broader economy would have been nowhere near as beneficent. Moreover, the consequences of such an approach to the overall health of New Zealand society would likely have proved as disastrous as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vacillating approach to fighting covid-19.
Ill-conceived and damaging
Chris Hipkins’ installation in the Prime Minister’s office is not, however, a response to Labour’s economic policies. Even a cursory comparison with the performance of most other OECD economies shows these to have been remarkably effective. Rather, it is a response to Labour’s extraordinary mishandling of cultural policy, most particularly those policies relating to te Tiriti o Waitangi.
These policies are not only ill-conceived and potentially damaging in their own right but they also prove the truth of the observation that for every extreme action there is an equal and opposite extreme reaction.
The Ardern government’s refusal to share with the New Zealand people its intention of mapping out the constitutional consequences of signing up to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) fuelled the fires of political paranoia and conspiracy that were, thanks to covid, already burning high.
Loud denials that the UNDRIP-inspired prescription laid down in the secretly-commissioned He Puapua report represented government policy were met with open scepticism in the face of legislative initiatives that matched closely He Puapua’s recommendations.
The most significant of these was the Three Waters project promoted by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta. To the right-wing parliamentary parties, the Ardern government appeared committed to a radical cultural reform program that not only lacked an electoral mandate but which was also being implemented with indecent haste and without social licence.
Inevitably, the Opposition parties responded. First ACT and then (less decisively) National promised that should these radical “co-governance” initiatives became law, then they would be repealed as a matter of urgency by an incoming National/ACT coalition government.
Only the ACT Party, however, was prepared to follow Labour’s co-governance policies through to their logical – and thoroughly undemocratic – constitutional conclusions. Understanding that all of the policies ACT objected to were being driven by a radical (and hotly contested) interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi, ACT leader David Seymour pledged to spell out clearly, in legislative form, what might best be described as the traditional understanding of te Tiriti’s meaning. If that interpretation was upheld in a binding referendum, then Labour’s radical co-governance project would come to a grinding halt.
Given that Seymour’s proposed referendum would, almost certainly, produce a clear majority in favour of the traditional interpretation of te Tiriti – ie, that it granted full sovereignty to the Crown – the reaction of many Māori is readily predicted. There would be something very close to a revolt. There are some lines in Bob Dylan’s song Joey – his tribute to New York gangster Joe Gallo – that sum up neatly the problem such a racially-charged revolt would pose for New Zealand capitalism:
The hostages were tremblin’ when they heard a man exclaim Let’s blow this place to kingdom come, let Con Edison take the blame But Joey stepped up, he raised his hand, said, we’re not those kind of men It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again
It seems clear that the primary role assigned to Chris Hipkins is that of the man who steps up with raised hand in front of New Zealand to affirm that, in spite of recent appearances, the Labour Party is not those kind of men. That there is simply no stomach in Labour for policies more-or-less guaranteed to blow New Zealand to kingdom come.
Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson has already conceded the truth of this claim by deliberately withholding the co-governance recommendations of his constitutional advisory group from Cabinet, on the not unreasonable grounds that no Pakeha politician in his or her right mind could possibly endorse such revolutionary proposals.
Undoubtedly, there are individual capitalists out there who are extremely keen to see National and ACT put an end to co-governance policies once and for all. What such people do not grasp, however, is that nothing short of deadly force will prevent Māori from contesting bitterly what they would undoubtedly condemn as a deeply racist outcome.
No sane corporate leader or small businessperson could possibly contemplate such a scenario with equanimity. To put it in the bluntest terms, civil war is not good for business. Peace and quiet is what New Zealand capitalism needs to go back to work again.
A Labour government, with a new leader determined to pull his party back on track, will be in a far better position to govern for New Zealand capitalism as a whole than a National-ACT coalition government committed to openly confronting the forces of Māori nationalism.
In the months ahead, New Zealanders will discover whether their corporate leaders, both individually and collectively, possess the analytical nous of a Bruce Jesson and the shrewd common sense of a New York gangster. ■
Chris Trotter is a political commentator and columnist of more than 30 years’ experience and the owner of the Bowalley Road blog site ■