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.

Comments (11)

by Graeme Edgeler on October 22, 2010
Graeme Edgeler

Couldn't a law change be good? It could be a change to the Commerce Act to allow independant contractors to unionise, or bargain collectively...

by Carol Jess on October 22, 2010
Carol Jess


While I agree a law change could  be good, given the Government position on industrial relations generally and the public outcry over the possibility of the filming of the Hobbit going overseas I think it's more likely that the law change will re-define "independent contractor" to encompass more workers rather than fewer - removing them from collective bargaining coverage. 

This is in line with the type of labour market policies which have been followed in the UK under Labour (until May this year) looking for the labour market to be "flexible" ie don't bother asking for the types of employment rights that were fought hard for and won in the 20th century cos this is the 21st.

Whether or not there is an ability for independent contractors to bargain collectively with or without unions is another question.  In my view anyone who espouses freedom of contract when they're proposing the removal of minimum terms and conditions in employment are just plain hypocritiical if they regard it as impossible for their workers to choose to collectively bargain, whether "emoloyees' strictly speaking or "independent contractors".

by Mark Wilson on October 22, 2010
Mark Wilson

Bernard Hickey is in the ruling class? He doesn't qualify for a kindergarden class. He was the genius telling us that house prices would fall 30%.

If he is proof that the ruling class is splintering then Matt has been talking to Alice again. 

by stuart munro on October 22, 2010
stuart munro

@ Mark,

The assertion may be an exaggeration, but it is not absurd. Most people agree that NZ real estate is presently overpriced. Of course, for reasons of financial stability, a 30% drop is pretty terrifying. But the real current value of housing may not be so very different - just, because owners are avoiding selling if they can, the prices haven't plummeted. Yet. Let there be another world financial shock though, and 30% might look conservative.

by Draco T Bastard on October 22, 2010
Draco T Bastard

"Couldn't a law change be good? It could be a change to the Commerce Act to allow independant contractors to unionise, or bargain collectively..."

From NACT after they promised to lower wages?


by Andrew R on October 22, 2010
Andrew R

@ Mark -- Last month Valuation NZ sent us their new vaulation for our property.  It shows a 30% plus drop in unimproved land value, somewhat less for capital value.  So Hickey's prediction isn't that far off.

by Andrew R on October 22, 2010
Andrew R

That drop in land valuation was over three years.

by Hamish Stewart on October 22, 2010
Hamish Stewart

Sue you have failed to convince me. I don't think National is on the rampage with regard to employment and welfare reforms. Some 20 plus years ago in my first ever job I had to sign a 3 month clause saying if it didn't work out too bad. In my current job I signed the same clause about 7 years ago and that was under Labour. I have in my working life only witnessed one person dismissed under this clause and in my opinion unfairly but ironically by a left wing paper published in Wellington that consistently struggled to pay its staff. That to my mind hugely undermines your argument.


With regard to welfare reforms yes I agree that they have happened and at the end of the day they are rather meaningless in the current economy. What the hell is the point of asking someone to apply for every job going if they clearly aren't going to get the job. If you are prepared to go through the charade of applying then nothing has changed. 


The Unions have failed big time this week. They look like idiots. The public sector unions are seen as selfish dickheads who have done a hell of a lot better than their private sector counterparts but remain on strike. The hobbits are a joke. The right won this round because the left just couldn't be stuffed doing the homework.


When you have finished drinking the Chardonnay and congratulating yourself on Auckland you might want to think about 2500 jobs lost.

by Mark Wilson on October 22, 2010
Mark Wilson

Of course we know that a series of unpopular strikes is so good for Labour's chances. No one can accuse the left of learning from the past.

by stuart munro on October 23, 2010
stuart munro

Oh, I think Phil Goff has learned at least most of the reasons Labour was shedding support over the last decade. And perhaps he has even learned that there is a healthy dynamic tension between left and right, which New Labour or third way politics neglected to sustain.

The left, you understand Mark, is not a vast feudal conspiracy like the right. The strikes were not of Goff's making, and it is doubtful any but his committed political opponents will resent him for them, for all that the strikes themselves may indeed be unpopular.

by Sue Bradford on October 24, 2010
Sue Bradford

Thanks for all the feedback, the Hobbit saga continues to wend its unresolved way through the Labour weekend media zeitgeist.

To respond to a few points made by Hamish - a) Those 3 month clauses you signed years ago would not have stopped you having legal recourse to personal grievance procedures - the difference with the 90 day law is that you can't take legal action (unless it's over something like racial or sexual harassment).  b) I don't think there are any 'winners' or 'losers' yet - I and most people I know hope the outcome of the Hobbit stoush will be that the production remains onshore in NZ - and that actors will have been able to negotiate with the producers on conditions of employment.

c) I have never drunk chardonnay in my life, don't even know what  it tastes like, for better or worse.



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