‘TINKERING AROUND THE EDGES’
But what’s needed is major overhaul !
By Murray Horton, political activist and writer since 1969; organiser for the Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC, www.converge.org.nz/abc), ( and also for the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA, www.cafca.org.nz)
I’m going to start by doing something unusual, possibly unique, for me – namely, praising a politician.
Perhaps I’m going soft in my old age but I think Jacinda is just what it says on the tin. She exudes genuine warmth and humanity. She’s a fresh face, a breath of fresh air, and any other cliché including the word “fresh”.
She’s young and has the confidence of youth. I admire her promise of “relentless positivity” and I am pleased to see a national leader bring some different values, ones such as kindness, into the political arena. God knows we need something different, because the other ones certainly haven’t been working.
Election won on Jacinda’s personality
Labour won this election solely on her personality. Just as John Key and his extremely popular personality had been National’s greatest asset (but we all knew that he didn’t get to be
a multi-millionaire currency trader by being “nice” or “kind”). When he resigned without warning a year before the election, the writing was on the wall for Bill English who has a charisma bypass. He still very nearly won, though.
Jacinda is a contrast to the forbidding personality of Labour’s last PM, Helen Clark. My Dear Old Dad, who voted National for decades
before going back to Labour in his final years, told me that Helen Clark was the only PM who scared him as much as his old hero, Piggy Muldoon – and that’s one of the reasons why he went back to voting Labour.
Because he considered scariness an essential ingredient for being a successful Prime Minister. I’m not sure what he would have made of “relentless positivity” and Mr Speaker cuddling a baby in the House.
Never Renounced Rogernomics
But (there’s always a but) I draw a sharp distinction between Jacinda and the Labour Party per se.
I’ve never had any illusions about Labour and I don’t see anything much different with this latest Government. They do have some good policies, such as increasing the minimum wage, giving some long overdue attention and respect to workers and unions, promising to repeal abominations like the John Key/Peter Jackson “Hobbit Law” which gravely disadvantaged New Zealand workers in the interests of delivering megaprofits to Warner Brothers.
Labour — capitalist administrator
It is refreshing to have a Government that recognises that climate change is the issue of the age and must be confronted by measures including massive scale tree planting and revitalising the role of rail in the national transport network. But Labour never has, and never will, confront the fundamental nature of the economic system. It always markets itself as the more attractive administrator of capitalism (although it never actually mentions that word).
It won’t face up to what it did in the past. Roger Douglas is quite correct when he says that, despite all the criticism heaped on Rogernomics, no subsequent Government, including Labour, has ever changed any of the various acts that cement it in place.
All that Labour has ever felt sorry about in relation to Rogernomics is that it proved electoral suicide (meaning that Labour was feeling sorry for itself).
I actually met an old unreconstructed Rogernaut very recently, in a most unexpected encounter in the course of daily life. I’d never met this person before nor had we ever had any contact.
But within a very short time of having first spoken, this former Minister said (out of the blue and apropos of nothing): “I shudder to think what shape this country would be in now if it hadn’t been for the 1984-90 Labour government. And I make absolutely no apology for having been part of that”. Extraordinary!
‘Runs a mile from raising taxes’
Labour even runs a mile from any suggestion of raising taxes or implementing long overdue new taxes like a capital gains one, terrified of alienating voters who had been promised (since cancelled) tax cuts by National.
Labour does not want to alienate the property-owning sector of the middle class that has grown rich on paper by the ridiculous explosion in house values, nor those that have grown rich in reality by profiting from the parasitic false economy of property speculation, an activity that contributes precisely nothing to the economy (not to mention the common good).
The cardinal sin of Rogernomics was betrayal and, although Jacinda’s government has only been in office for a very short while, the betrayals have already started.
I’m talking about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). In Opposition, Labour came out against it (although pretty feebly and not very convincingly). Nevertheless, it opposed the TPPA, which certainly surprised and pissed off John Key, who had reason to believe there was bipartisan consensus on supporting “free trade”.
After all, the 1999-08 Labour government had proclaimed the China Free Trade Agreement as the crowning glory of its foreign policy. And it was that same Government which kicked off the process that morphed into the TPPA. When Labour voted against the TPPA in 2016, it was too much for Phil Goff, who had been the Minister who started that process back in 2008 – he crossed the floor to vote with National.
Don’t mention Mike Moore!
But no sooner was Jacinda in office than she and David Parker were jetting off overseas to proclaim NZ’s support for the TPPA (which is now minus the US) and to urge less gung ho countries to sign it. Parker actually declared that Labour had always been the “party of free trade” and reminded the country that it had been former Labour PM, Mike Moore, who had gone on to become Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. I would have thought it very unwise for Labour to remind people about Mike Moore in any way, shape or form.
So, having been elected on a platform of opposing the TPPA, Labour blithely turned around and immediately supported it, whilst claiming that it had achieved some “reforms” to it. The reality soon became apparent when it discovered that it couldn’t implement even minor election promises like taxing foreign companies that are granted access to NZ water for virtually nothing, bottle it and export it for profit. Why? Because that would not be allowed under the TPPA (or several other “free trade” deals that NZ is already signed up to).
Just like National governments have never seen a war that they don’t want to get NZ signed up to, Labour governments have never seen a “free trade” deal that they don’t want NZ to join. The common denominator is FOMO – fear of missing out. Missing out on what? The possibility of not being allowed to play with the big kids. It is why NZ needs to be truly independent and non-aligned.
Foreign control — what foreign control?
As for foreign control – the core issue for the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) – Labour deserves praise for tackling aspects of it as a high priority as soon as getting into office. But that is only as it should be, because it is an extremely important issue and one which has ramifications across a whole raft of other issues. Of course, we are pleased that it is banning foreign speculators from buying houses. But, really, this is what our American friends would call nickel and dime stuff.
We also note that real estate agents are saying that the ban is two years too late, that such speculators bolted as soon as the law required that they show a minimal connection to this country, namely by having an IRD number and a local bank account number. Still, better late than never.
It’s just a pity that Labour’s primary concern seemed to be structuring the thing in such a way that it will allow NZ to sign the TPPA without attracting the wrath of those at the TPPA big kids’ table (it did it by avoiding the word “ban” at all, and by declaring all house sales to foreign speculators to involve “sensitive land”, which brings them into the purview of our old mates, the Overseas Investment Office [OIO]).
Tightening Up Farmland Sales Rules Welcomed
We’re very pleased that the Government announced that, as of December 2017, the rules around foreigners buying NZ farmland have been tightened up. Such buyers will now need OIO permission for all purchases of more than five hectares (previously, that requirement only applied to purchases of sheep and beef farms of more than 7,000 hectares (i.e. more than ten times the average farm size).
It remains to be seen whether the OIO has the resources to handle this much greater workload (and to monitor buyers after approval to see that conditions of purchase are being honoured).
CAFCA meets Eugenie
CAFCA wasted no time in meeting with the new Minister of Land Information, Green MP Eugenie Sage, to discuss this new land sale regime in detail, plus various other aspects of the 2005 Overseas Investment Act (which is the one still in force today). We gave Eugenie a copy of our 58-page submission on that Act (written by Bill Rosenberg, who was then on the CAFCA Committee. Bill is now the Policy Director and Economist for the NZ Council of Trade Unions). It is still extremely relevant today, particularly Bill’s detailed recommendations. You can read it on our Website at http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/OIReview/2005/CAFCA%20Submission%20indexed.pdf.
Right at the same time as this new land sale regime was announced, and at the same time as CAFCA was meeting Eugenie, it was announced that US TV host Matt Lauer had become the latest high-profile celebrity to be outed and fired for sexually harassing women. Lauer is a controversial recent foreign buyer of prime NZ rural land, namely Hunter Valley Station on the shores of Lake Hawea. He is controversial here because he has not honoured his promise of continued public access through the property.
Lauer and the OIO
The circumstances surrounding the abrupt termination of his highly lucrative US TV career make him a candidate to be examined by the OIO for “being not of good character”, which is one of the few conditions imposed on foreign buyers in the Overseas Investment Act. It only applies to individuals owning or controlling a company; the corporate misdeeds of the company itself are not covered.
That sounds good in theory but CAFCA was able to point out to Eugenie that we have been making “not of good character” complaints for 20 years and not one of them has ever been upheld by the OIO (or its predecessor the Overseas Investment Office [OIC]). Click on this link to our Website http://www.sitelevel.com/query?query=good+character+complaints&crid=0c76d290&B1=SiteLevel+Search and you’ll find pages of links to numerous Watchdog articles on the subject over many years.
I can assure you that our complaints are neither “frivolous” or “vexatious”. Furthermore, we pointed out to Eugenie that there is no legal obligation on the OIO to respond to such complaints by any deadline (in contrast to the Official Information Act). Our latest such complaint was lodged in December 2016 – as of December 2017 we had received no response (I don’t mean “no decision”, I do mean “no response”). So, if our complaints are not rejected, they are simply ignored.
The new farmland regime has different criteria for forestry, where the Government says that foreign investment is still necessary. This is a perfect example of Rogernomics coming back to bite Labour in the bum. Jacinda wants NZ to plant a billion trees (one reason is to create a carbon sink as part of the battle against climate change) and the State will play a major role in forestry. This is reinventing the wheel because, until the 1984-90 Rogernomics government (and the 1990-99 National government), NZ had a massive State-owned forestry estate which had been built up over generations.
All gone, flogged off to transnational corporations and other foreign owners as part of the privatisation mania of that era (error, more accurately). In some cases, forests have been ripped out to be replaced by dairy farms (which is a sector also subject to significant ownership and control by foreign agri-business). If that short-sighted ideology had not prevailed, Jacinda would have inherited her billion publicly owned trees on Day One.
There are other shortcomings in the new regime. There is still no provision for the public to make submissions (or any requirement for the OIO to give advance notice of applications from foreign would be buyers). People only find out after the event. Most basically, the powers that be still don’t know (and haven’t made very much effort to find out) how much land is foreign-owned.
John Key used to say it was no more than 1% of the total. We can safely discard that. Statistics on sales of land to overseas interests are poorly recorded and incomplete. Our best estimate is that in 2011 at least 8.7% of New Zealand farmland including forestry, or 1.3 million hectares, was foreign-owned or controlled and it could have reached 10%. It’s a safe bet that the figure will not have gone down in the years since.
What’s It Going To Do About TNC Domination?
And this new regime “does not change the rules regarding acquisitions of significant business assets”, to quote from the press release announcing it.
But land sales, although they get a lot of attention, only involve tens of millions of dollars. The real guts of any modern economy, the high rollers’ lounge of the capitalist casino, is the business sector. That’s where the billion-dollar deals are done.
And we’ve heard nothing from the Government about what, if anything, it plans to do about the transnational corporations (TNCs) that so dominate the NZ economy (apart from the commendable, but comparatively minor, aim of trying to get them to pay their fair share of tax). For example, what does the Government plan to do about the cosy cartel of Australian-owned banks, who suck billions out of the NZ economy every year?
But this new regime on farmland sales is a long overdue start, for which the Government deserves credit. And we take heart from the fact that Eugenie is the first Minister of Land Information ever prepared to meet with CAFCA and seek our views on a subject on which we have acquired decades of knowledge and expertise.
What’s needed now
What is needed now is a political willingness to consider NZ joining the list of countries which ban foreigners from buying rural land (not just farmland). Or just let them lease land, rather than buy it. If the Government is squeamish about doing this itself, then freeze all sales of rural land sales to foreigners and either set up a commission of inquiry into the subject or put it to a referendum.
There’s nothing “radical” about considering a ban on foreigners owning rural land.
None other than John Key said that he didn’t want to see New Zealanders become tenants in their own country.
Agriculture, in all its many facets, remains the most important sector of the NZ economy. It is our comparative advantage in the global market, to use the jargon. Land is the basic building block of agriculture; who owns, controls and profits from it is of vital national importance.
The first step has been taken; much more please and quickly.
Examples of the Transnats’ policies
On the subject of “significant business assets” and the activities of transnational corporations in this country, let’s have a look at a couple of specific examples. What is the Government going to do about South African-owned insurance company Youi, an unrepentant corporate repeat offender? It won the latest (2016) Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand. You can read the damning Judges’ Report at http://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/pdf/roger-award-2016-judges-report.pdf.
Here’s one quote from that: “Needless to say, although the company was successfully prosecuted and fined a token sum last year (2015) , not one of the managers and executives responsible has been prosecuted, the company continues to operate in New Zealand under its Reserve Bank licence, Youi remains a full member of the New Zealand Insurance Council, Hansard records no mention of the scandal in Parliament, television continues to carry the company’s deceptive advertising, and the Chief Executive Officer on whose watch it all happened has been promoted”.
Call The Bluff Of NZ’s Biggest Bludger
The second specific example is much bigger, older and much more entrenched. What is the Government going to do about the country’s biggest bludger, the transnational owners of the Bluff smelter? They have twisted NZ governments, both National and Labour, around their little finger for at least 50 years.
If Jacinda Ardern is serious that climate change is her Government’s nuclear free issue, then she will have to confront and face down the smelter’s owners.
Do better than the Clark Govt.
And do better than the Clark Labour government which folded when the smelter owners threatened to leave the country if Labour brought in an emissions trading scheme.
Memo to Jacinda – if they threaten to go, hold the door open for them and help them load their suitcases into the airport shuttle. And make sure that they (those recipients of corporate welfare par excellence), and not the NZ taxpayer, foot the bill for cleaning up their mess.
That would involve Labour facing up to the 2003 and 04 indemnities signed by Michael Cullen, Labour’s Minister of Finance at the time, accepting that the taxpayer, and not the smelter owners, would be responsible for the cost of cleaning up toxic waste produced by the smelting process. Hands up all those who knew about that.
You’ll find the details in the 2013 Roger Award Judges’ Reporthttp://canterbury.cyberplace.co.nz/community/CAFCA/publications/Roger/Roger2013.pdf, under the final subheading: “Toxic Waste Liability Dumped On Taxpayers”.
That liability was renewed as recently as 2016, by the Key government.
My conclusion is: don’t expect this Labour government to even remotely look like it will tackle capitalism. Tickle it, yes – to make it look more attractive and “work better”. But tackle it; no.