Bernard Hickey converts just as Europe erupts

Austerity protests rage across Europe, and here in New Zealand a leading proponent of the free-market economy rethinks his stance

Yesterday I was astonished to read of Bernard Hickey’s stunning conversion from high priest of neoliberal economics to advocate of far greater control by New Zealanders of our own economy.

I’m sure his erstwhile friends and colleagues are looking on in amazement and some trepidation at his sudden transformation.

However, for those of us who have spent our lives trying to say ‘there is an alternative’ I think we probably share a collective sense of ‘welcome to the real world Bernard, and let’s have the debate you’re asking for.’

Groups like CAFCA (Campaign against Foreign Control of Aotearoa), the former ARENA, and some academics and unionists have spent decades trying to persuade politicians and the public that having one of the most globalised and open economies in the world is not going to do it for us.

And I for one will never forget the conference Ruth Richardson hosted at the Pan Pacific hotel in Auckland back in 1993.

Our group, the Auckland Unemployed Workers Rights Centre, saw the conference as a three day sales job aimed at hocking off as many of New Zealand’s assets as possible to the highest overseas bidders.

We staged three days of noisy protest outside, trying to get the message across that at least some of us desperately wanted to keep jobs, land and assets at home.

As was quite common at the time, we ended up derided, beaten up and arrested for our efforts, in an infamous police raid on our home base, the Peoples Centre.

So it is with a quite personal sense of vindication that I see someone like Bernard Hickey finally coming to understand what even the ragged unemployed were saying way back then – changing his tune in the same way that those among the privileged and powerful came to their senses on other issues, like the Springbok Tour and nuclear warships, as the years went by.

Mr Hickey’s timing couldn’t have been better as news begins to filter through this morning of massive austerity protests across the UK and Europe.

Demonstrations and strikes have been taking place in Brussels, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Slovenia, Poland, Italy, Latvia, Serbia, and Lithuania.

In Ireland a man drove a concrete mixer truck into the gates of parliament in protest at the estimated €30 billion taxpayers there are going to be asked to cough up for the bailout the Anglo Irish Bank.

With Irish unemployment at 13.7%, and the jobless rate for men under 25 at almost 45%, this chap’s anger seems more than justified.

Across the EU, people are protesting wage cuts, redundancies, cuts in social services, the raising of the retirement age and the slashing of benefits and pensions.

Fundamentally they are fed up with the EU and their own governments colluding to prop up the bankers and financiers who created the global financial crisis (GFC), while ordinary people pay the price.

Here in New Zealand we have been comparatively sheltered from the GFC storm, but its waves are lapping our shores.

The bailout of South Canterbury Finance, tax cuts for the rich paid for by borrowing, the rise in GST, employment law reforms, the insidious chipping away at welfare, talk of raising the age of super, and cuts in public sector services and jobs are all signs that in fact our Government is acting out a shadow play paralleling the European descent.

The ‘revolts, political unrests and global tensions’ that Bernard Hickey talked about in his article yesterday are happening today.

Mr Hickey also talked about some answers too – things like income redistribution, protection of our land and assets from foreign control, and greater regulation of the banking and finance sector.

I sincerely hope he will take a lead in the public debate he suggests on new ways forward for our economy,

I also hope that many more of us here can learn from what is happening in Europe, not just about the dangers of what the EU and governments are inflicting on their people, but also about the importance of strong, organised resistance to the whole ‘privatise the profits, socialize the losses’ agenda.