How Have We Changed?

Rogernomics wanted to change us culturally. Has it succeeded?

Prime Minister Jacinda Arden is younger than any member of the outgoing National cabinet and is the youngest in the new one, even if you include the Greens. In contrast, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is older than any other member of the two cabinets. (The ages of the four New Zealand First cabinet members average 58 years, Labour’s are 47, the three Greens average 43; National’s was 51.)

This may be trivia, but I came across it when pondering on the formative political experiences of cabinet members. We do not know the ages when they began observing the political scene reasonably closely, but two of National’s cabinet could not have voted in 1990 – the year when Ruthanasia took over – nor could have ten of the new cabinet. In 1984 when the Rogernomics government was elected ten National cabinet ministers and fifteen coalition ones were too young to vote. 

The reason I focused on this period of neoliberal ascendancy is because it is one of change although its exact nature is unclear. Obviously there was a substantial change in the way we managed the economy, initially towards an extreme anti-government approach although much of that has been rolled back (and this government is promising to roll back more).

It may have been a revolution, but what kind of revolution? The political economist Ralf Dahrendorf, an outstanding public intellectual who also held positions of power, wrote there are

        ‘two quite different versions of dramatic change. One is deep change, the transformation of core structures of a society which in the nature of the case takes time; the other is quick change, notably the circulation of those at the top within days or months by highly visible, often violent action. The first might be called social revolution, the second political revolution. The Industrial Revolution was in this sense social, the French Revolution was political.’

There is no question that the 1984-93 period was a revolution in the political sense. Mind you, as Bernard Shaw pointed out, every election in a democracy is a (potential) revolution –  including the one we had in October 2017.

The change of political leadership in the 1984-93 period was probably greater. Roger Kerr, a leading neo-liberal thinkers, commented (in about 1990), ‘the average age of chief executives of major companies has dropped ten years' as a result of the changes. The power balance between business and workers and their unions changed. The income distribution was shifted towards the rich and they became more publicly active and politically more powerful.

But the question which has greatly troubled me is whether it amounted to the beginnings of a social revolution. Economies and societies evolve over time. I can tell a story  in which what happened in the 1984-93 period was a temporary neoliberal blip on a long-run trend. The economy is an open market one specialising in the world economy, although arguably giving less social protection and support than one might have expected in, say, a perspective from the late 1950s. (I am greatly influenced here, by the thinking of Bob Chapman, one of our outstanding academics in political studies.) Socially, it is not surprising that we have become more diverse with severe tensions between tolerance (consider attitudes to the LGBT community; women and Maori have not got full equality but the change over the period is extraordinary) and repression (consider the Sensible Sentencing Trust or the state’s treatment of beneficiaries).

So while the neoliberal attack was presented as an economic transformation, its success required cultural change. Not all of its advocates thought this through; I have long wondered if they knew what they were doing. They promised greater health care or whatever when their policies succeeded, the implication being that after the pain, the prosperity would allow us to get back on track. But Unfinished Business, written by Roger Douglas in 1993 (almost certainly with input from other Rogernomes), advocated further squeezing the scope of the state – the pure neoliberal objective.

The role of the state as an integral part of our lives has long been a fundamental part of the national psyche; Douglas’s book was a powerful attack on it. New Zealanders did not respond positively resisting, for instance, the proposed privatisation of the public health system. (The resistance in other areas was often less successful and the pull-back much slower.)

It is instructive how poorly ACT has been doing in elections – despite huge dollops of funding from the rich.  Even so today, ACT’s policies are very weak versions of their founders’ ambitions.

What is someone who was not there in 1984-93 to think of all this? How much have they taken on the neoliberal approach; how much do they reflect the fundamental values that preceded them and which Rogernomics tried to overturn? Remember we are talking of half the current cabinet and the National alternative. My impression is that after allowing for evolution the new generation  generally holds the views of its parents and grandparents.

Many older politicians still carry the traditional fundamental values, none more than Winston Peters. He must have been traumatised by the betrayal by Ruthanasia of what he campaigned for in 1990. (So, apparently, was the prime minister of the time, Jim Bolger, and I got the impression that Bill English was not too happy either.) When Peters was sacked from the National caucus in 1991, he suffered from the neoliberals mounting one of the most vicious character assassinations of a New Zealand politician that I can recall. (The assault was so successful that even today, many who would otherwise eschew neoliberal analysis have adopted much of its anti-Peters framework; that makes WP being the politician so many love to hate.)

That makes his attack on capitalism on the night he announced the coalition decision so intriguing. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson have since expressed similar sentiments. (I have discussed what he might have meant and what might be done about it here.) .

But have they got the troops to reinstate traditional New Zealand values – updated for evolving circumstances? It is not just a matter of cabinet and caucus. It is going to be very hard for officials, trapped in the ruins of a policy framework which still owes much to the 1984-93 period, whatever may be their personal views. Leadership out of the mess involves not just good intentions and rhetoric, but hard thinking and political strategy.

PS. While collecting the data I noticed that seven of National’s top 20 are list members. They average five years older than the other 13 with electorate seats  and can leave parliament without a by-election. There are, however, some others who ought to move on, except the prospect of a by-election may discourage the process of renewal.  Of the 16 Labour cabinet ministers only two are list members and both are expected to be strong performers. All the NZF and Green ministers are list, of course.

PPS. I have been amused by the kafuffle over select committees numbers. It appears that National  in government got its arithmetic wrong. In opposition they found out their error, and claimed the system was undemocratic. Thus the arrogance of power is reduced to a sensitivity towards democracy when one loses the power.