A Three-point programme to create a better New Zealand
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!
- Traditional Maori whakatauki
In order to achieve an emancipatory 21st century message of reducing inequality, a future left-wing government needs to emancipate people along three lines. The liberation of ordinary New Zealanders from material deprivation, the emancipation of our economy from the control of the few, and finally, the creation of a people-focussed political system.
Part 1: No empty bellies.
The most pressing objective of the 21st century is to liberate people who are suffering from material deprivation. The statistics are dire. New Zealand has too many homeless people, too many kids living in poverty and too many householders unable to afford to even make ends meet. Rather than being judged through abstract academic figures or meaningless statistics, a future left-wing government should be judged on its first term by how many people it lifts out of poverty. Poverty has been known to lead to negative health effects, affecting both physical and mental health. Only when working people have been lifted from material poverty will they feel secure enough to fully participate and take ownership of a transformative political project.
So, having stated this initial objective of lifting as many kiwis out of poverty as possible, how can we accomplish it? The primary way to lift people out of poverty is to raise income levels through implementing a rise in benefit levels and also for the government to accept a proactive mandate to create work for people. There are significant opportunities to put New Zealand’s many unemployed to work through transitioning to a carbon neutral economy, in tandem with the private sector and community groups. This sort of work will include work like installing solar panels and insulation to create healthier and greener housing. It will include work in the transport sector with jobs creating and maintaining cycleways, tram-lines and rail links. It will include work in the creation and maintenance of community gardens, forest plantations and conservation spaces. It will include work that fixes other social problems at the same time: building more eco-state housing in order to alleviate the housing shortage and cool the housing market, which in turn will exert a downward pressure on housing costs. If work is available and done in the interest of the community, and this work is coupled with a programme of upskilling and education on the job, people will line up to take up these opportunities. Giving working people more income will create positive feedback cycles in the economy, supercharging it and leading to economic growth and further opportunities. Through an aggressive investment in creating jobs and providing education, we will end up with a booming economy, a confident and skilled working class and a carbon neutral New Zealand.
Part 2: An ownership society.
Nihil de nobis, sine nobis.
Nothing about us, without us.
- Traditional Latin proverb
Once New Zealanders are relieved from the tyranny of material deprivation – of cold damp housing, of hungry bellies, of not having enough – a future progressive government can get on with the next task of transforming New Zealand’s economy comprehensively for the benefit of the many, not the few. After having won a strong re-election mandate on the back of a booming economy and an increasingly confident working class, this government can and should take radical measures to restructure the economy to give power to the working class and address the issue of both wealth and income inequality. This programme should be undertaken with both speed and vigour – giving the opponents of these necessary reforms neither time nor capacity to adapt or react – a left-wing version of Rogernomics. The clarion call: “There is no alternative” must be the premise of these actions and every supportive sector in society. Progressive NGOs, unions, political parties and individuals in support of this programme need to remain on message.
So what is this programme? In a word it can be summed up as “ownership”. Ordinary New Zealanders need to take ownership of the economy away from the few, for we are the many. However, we cannot make the same mistakes that the Soviet Union and communist parties in the East Bloc made. The tyranny of the markets and of an uncaring, heartless capitalist class cannot be substitute for the tyranny of the state and the apparatchik class. Economic power needs to be devolved to the community and people – through trade unions, local governments and community groups. A radical programme of collectivizing large companies with a partnership between the employer and the employees of the company (as represented by the trade union) should be the radical first step. Giving workers a direct stake in the success of their company will not only empower workers like never before, but also improve productivity as when the company does well, the workers do well. Poor communities should be given economic power through the state, creating cooperative banks that encourage community entrepreneurship, fund local projects and facilitate microfunding schemes. This will break once and for all the power of the local loan shark and allow poor communities to build up wealth together. Finally, the state should encourage the creation of cooperatives, with workers and unions being the primary stakeholders of the enterprise by incentivizing them through tax breaks and other favourable measures. This programme of ownership should be extended right down to the crucial functions of government. Students will control universities, polytechnics and private training establishments, in genuine partnership with education providers. Tenants will directly own housing stock through tenants’ and renters’ unions. Beneficiaries will control their destinies through a beneficiaries’ union.
Part 3: People-powered politics
Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution! The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. Workers of the world unite!
- Karl Marx
Last, but not least, after getting elected for a third term on the back of a prosperous, people-driven economy, a progressive government needs to consolidate the gains made to prevent the possibility of inequality making a comeback. In many ways, this will be as an afterthought. If the workers and ordinary people already own (or partly own) the means of production, and have the time and confidence to transform the neoliberal status quo, a rollback is unlikely. Nonetheless, steps can be taken to guarantee that there won’t be any backsliding or rolling back of the reforms. These steps need to be taken at both a global and national level as the conversation about inequality is not isolated to New Zealand.
The most important step at a global level is to get a comprehensive global agreement about the status of tax-free places. It is these places that the hyper-rich flee to to avoid paying their fair share into society. These places all need to be shut down. The second step is a radical programme of transparency. With all the radical innovations of the surveillance state, these powers need to be turned against the hyper rich with all their financial machinations laid bare to the public for scrutiny. If the hyper rich choose to transfer their money to another country for lower taxes or laxer labour regulations, the public will be able to see it and judge accordingly, shifting their business to the community-owned enterprises and worker cooperatives that have already been outlined in Part 2. In terms of political structure, composition of parliament needs to change to incorporate the new social reality. Unions and large cooperatives should be given direct representation in Parliament with Union Parliamentarians being elected at large through a ballot of the membership. Significant power should be devolved to local governments and community groups as they are best placed to make democratic decisions about the way their communities are structured and run. Technology should be used to empower citizens to make decisions – a genuine, participatory, popular democracy at local levels – feeding in to local and Union Members of Parliament.
To conclude, I have written about how New Zealand could be transformed to permanently eradicate the problem of income inequality and also address power inequality. Through raising the standard of living, creating an ownership economy and empowering people through a participatory system of political engagement a better New Zealand and a better world is possible.
Francisco Hernández’s essay was the runner-up of the over-19 Category in the 2015 ‘Another World is Possible’ Essay competition.