Labour sticks to its knitting and wins

Labour’s campaign launch was a hit yesterday for one reason; Labour does best when it talks about making ordinary people better off.

Appealing to people who visit Mitre 10 at the weekend and want to earn enough to own their own home, do it up and get ahead in life is exactly what the Labour party should be doing. Free GP visits for 1.7 million New Zealanders does just that.

Labour Prime Minister Norm Kirk built his own house. His first job was as a roof painter. If they’d had Mitre 10 in the 1970s he would have been a regular.

It’s odd that pitching to working people and their aspirations (the so called ’40% strategy’) is seen by some on the left as less progressive than banning trucks in the fast lane, or protecting dead trees on the West Coast. How did hating Hollywood, spies and roads become left, and liking jobs and infrastructure become right?

But this weekend Labour didn’t muddy its pitch by trying to appeal to every special interest group. It stuck to its core job and delivered a simple message about how it’s policies will make wage earners better off. And it worked. It was hopeful. No-one in the party was telling people their lives are miserable.

Also it looked great on TV and proved that having a campaign launch is a good idea. It’s a free hit in the media and inspires the volunteers to keep knocking on doors. Why on earth Labour decided not to have a campaign launch in 2011 is still a mystery to me.

The Labour position on foreign investment and the sale of the Lochinver station to Shanghai Pengxin has also played out well for the party.

Once again, they’ve stuck to their core job by asking that National prove foreign ownership will make ordinary New Zealanders better off.

Land is the key to our productivity (let alone our Kiwi identity). As cars are to Japan and oil is to Norway, so land is to New Zealand. We have always needed to attract foreign capital, but we’d be nuts not to have a check list to make sure selling bits of the golden goose is going to be good for all of us, not just a few.

‘Shanghai Pengxin build larger effluent ponds than New Zealand owners’, Steven Joyce announced last week when talking about the added value to the Crafer farms of foreign ownership.

That’s setting the bar just a little too low.

And asking the question - ‘whats in this for us?’ -  isn’t racist. (Of course there are racists and xenophobes out there. Winston’s ‘Two Wongs don’t make a White’ is not a joke, its a direct reference to Australia’s notorious ‘White Australia policyfrom the 1940s).

‘What’s in is for us?’ it’s a high value question. It says we’re not just going to give the market what the market wants (even if Bill English thinks selling raw logs and not processing them here is fine). It says, we want to know exactly how this investment will upgrade our economy.

And to suggest, as National does, that the Labour party - which negotiated the FTA with China - is anti Chinese for questioning the sale of Lochinver station is just daft.

National knows it’s vulnerable on land sales and it’s panicking. 

It positions itself as pro-business and pro-growth, which is popular until it looks like this could be code for favouring its foreign mates and the rich over hard working New Zealanders.

If it’s only response to anyone asking questions about foreign ownership is to say ‘you’re racists’, then it won’t be long before it loses the intellectual argument and alienates itself from the bulk of New Zealanders who are also looking at a Chinese mega company buying up farmland and asking themselves - ‘what’s in this for me?’

National is also at risk of associating itself with the controversial views of Act leader Jamie Whyte after its deal with Act in Epsom. On incest, drugs and government regulation, Jamie Whyte makes Colin Craig look normal. Mr Whyte said on the small party leaders debate on The Nation this weekend that the sale of productive land to foreign companies is none of our business because its private property. 

Private property rights trump economic growth. He’d presumably be comfortable to see 100% of New Zealand land owned by foreign interests.

His views make National even more vulnerable.

It’s worth noting that none of the Asian success stories like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and now China benefited from large amounts of foreign capital. According to economist Thomas Piketty’s research these countries financed growth themselves out of savings, and they spent it on infrastructure upgrades and most importantly on up-skilling and educating their own citizens.

On the other hand some African countries that are pretty much entirely owned by other countries have failed to grow.

That’s why Labour needs to keep asking the question - ‘what’s in this for ordinary New Zealanders?’ We’re a small country. The world owns more of our banks and companies and land than we own of the world. So when Chinese or American mega companies buy up French or British companies, it matters less because France and Britain own companies in their countries. It’s balanced. 

Our current account (the difference between the profits and dividends that goes off shore to foreign owners and what we make from our overseas interests) was last in balance in 1974. Incidentally, the year that Normal Kirk was still Prime Minister.