National's rampage against hobbits and workers reaps its own reward

National is certainly on the offensive with its employment and welfare reforms, even proposing a law change specifically to benefit producers of The Hobbit; but it faces a new mood of resistance and dissent

In the last 24 hours both John Key and Gerry Brownlee have been reported as saying they are seeking changes to employment laws in a bid to keep production of The Hobbit in New Zealand.

Not content with his role as 'Dictator of Canterbury' through the CERRA legislation, Mr Brownlee is now extending his powers into the industrial relations arena, despite this being, theoretically at least, the responsibility of another Minister entirely, Kate Wilkinson.

National obviously feels so impervious to any chance of electoral defeat that they can continue to deepen their attacks on workers’ rights without fear or scruple, even to the extent of making emergency laws to knock one dispute on its head.

I did find it interesting, however, that in Vernon Small’s report yesterday Bill English ‘poured cold water on a possible labour law change.’

It looks as though the long term tension between Prime and Finance Minister is not over yet. Who knows, Bill’s day may yet come.

But for now John Key looks unassailable, and I am sure this is not happening through some vagary of fate.

For example, I don’t believe it was just by chance that we saw an employer-led demonstration take to the streets protesting against another union on the same day that New Zealand workers staged their biggest day of action in many years.

There is a programme continuing to unfold here which I suspect is backed by some of the cleverest political operators in Australasia, and by the big money interests who seek to have our labour market pressed down as far as it will go, with minimal ability to resist.

Just as happened in 1991, we’re seeing a two pronged attack, it’s just a little more subtle this time around, especially on the welfare side.

Paula Bennett has slipped away overseas on her American fellowship, leaving a near invisible Judith Collins as acting Minister in her absence, just as the effects of the ‘Future Focus’ reforms begin to sink in, and as her own department releases its annual report detailing the detrimental impacts of the recession on families in this country.

I’m sure Bennett is very happy not to be risking the wrath of angry beneficiaries and their organisations just now, and I’ll be surprised if we see much of her in public in the months ahead.

But good on the unions and workers who took part in the rallies and marches this week. The CTU estimates  22,000 people walked off the job in protest at the latest employment law reforms.

It’s a good start. I do hope however, that in the days and months to come we will see a lot more action and that it won’t be constrained by the fear that ‘fighting back’ will somehow undermine the cause.

If we don’t continue to visibly stand up to the enormous power being wielded against workers and beneficiaries in this country right now, the losses could be far more than we currently imagine.

It doesn’t pay to compare ourselves too closely the culture of activism in places like France, being brought to a standstill at the moment by its pension protests – after all, they have the experience of a revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity behind them.

But our own history doesn’t lack in inspiration for protest, as a seminar I attend at Victoria University last weekend - ‘Protest, dissent, and activism’ - made only too clear.

There was optimism in the air, a sense that, as Matt McCarten told us, "the ruling class are starting to splinter", the Bernard Hickey conversion a prize example of this – and that more and more ordinary people are coming to understand the power they hold, both electorally and on the streets.

The results of the local body elections in Auckland and Wellington are a sign that we don’t always have to be on the losing side – just as the faces of the thousands of workers gathered in the Telstra Centre in Manukau on Wednesday reveal where the future of our country really lies.

National is on the rampage right now. Many ordinary people continue to live in quiet desperation, struggling daily to stay fed, housed and healthy.

But, as ever, I am inspired by the hopeful signs around us. Above all, the left must not be intimidated into the belief that we can never win – or that fighting back is something we leave to others to do for us.