Summer is here — and so is climate change
By Prue Hyman
For those of us lucky enough to live close to a beach, this Summer has been heavenly, with lots of swimming. But there were still too many floods and droughts.
Anyone who still denies that the increasing frequency of these extreme events is mainly due to human excesses leading to global warming is in cloud cuckoo land.
So summer and politics are not separate – we all need to decide what we can do in our personal and political lives to make a difference on carbon emissions and climate change.
At least the current government, and particularly its Green support party, has vowed to take this seriously.
But it is early days for this government, and we all need to work hard to help it turn rhetoric into reality. That brings me to the main topic for this column, that of what is happening with left-leaning pressure groups in New Zealand.
Their activities are just as important when a Labour led government is in power as when National are pursuing policies which support big business, increase inequality and ignore climate change.
Labour is making the right noises about the end of neo-liberalism and their intentions of making inroads on real policy changes to improve the position of disadvantaged groups.
However, their record in their last period in office does not augur well.
On major economic policies they were hardly distinguishable from National. Not scaring the horses seems so important to them that they cannot be sufficiently bold. For example, on balancing the government budget, ruling out most major tax changes despite setting up an inquiry into taxation, and supporting ‘free’ rather than fair trade and investment to nearly as big an extent as National, one could blink and not know that the government had changed.
At last, a leftist think tank
Hence the importance of the real left. There have been some promising moves. The first is the foundation of a radical left-wing think tank, Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA), stemming from Sue Bradford’s doctoral thesis which explored the feasibility of such a think tank.
On its website, in an interesting discussion of left wing politics in Europe, David Parker argues that ”radical left front politics thrives in circumstances (Portugal, Germany, Greece) where a historically strong but now fragmented radical left tradition is attempting to recompose itself in order to recover meaning and relevance” (https://esra.nz/resurgence-radical-left-europe-lessons-aotearoa-new-zealand/).
He rightly denies that such a historically strong tradition exists in New Zealand and goes on to suggest the need for a party which can provide a focus for “what might otherwise be an energetic but unfocused array of radical networks, groups and individuals.” Such a ‘connective’ party would combine use of social media with more traditional community organising.
Unfortunate role of previous think tanks
ESRA’s website points out that right wing and centre think tanks like the NZ Business Round Table, the Maxim Institute, the NZ Institute and the NZ Initiative have played major roles influencing and advocating on economic and social issues.
While sectoral groups like the Child Poverty Action Group and Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa have been active within their own sectors, there has been no left wing equivalents prior, perhaps, to ESRA.
Among its principles are to build a radical left hegemony in Aotearoa, based on a kaupapa of social, economic and ecological justice, honouring tino rangatiratanga and grounded in Te Tiriti o Waitangi. With little funding compared to the right-wing think tanks, ESRA depends on small payments from supporters and goodwill, time and commitment shown by a skilled activist and academic volunteers. It aims to produce quality research, acute comment, lively public debate and thoughtful policy development. But there has been little of this to be seen as yet.
Other recent initiatives include the launch of ‘Counterfutures: Left Thought & Practice Aotearoa’, a publication bringing together the voices of activists and academics. Four issues
have been published in 2016/7, with the second reporting on the third annual conference on Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change (SMRSC) in 2016.
This attracted 400 people and covered Māori sovereignty, Pasifika activism, climate change, and health and disability justice, in addition to economic issues. Participants came from both activist and academic backgrounds.
Like many developed countries, Aotearoa New Zealand has witnessed a fragmentation of the left of politics, with bitter divisions one of several factors preventing it having greater influence.
A new radical left emerging?
The editorial by Dylan Taylor in Counterfutures finished with “a cautious optimism” about the groups engaging with each other. He argued that “Rather than submit to neoliberal
orthodoxy – which holds politics is best left in the hands of professionals, and that there is no alternative to capitalism – a newly emboldened radical Left is emerging.”
I hope he’s right. The left had little success in bringing more radical policies to attention during the election campaign. Admittedly the ownership and behaviour of the standard media make it very hard for truly alternative voices to be heard.
One leftish movement, fighting for the Living Wage, has achieved some success with a coalition approach. Its three main constituents, trade unions, churches and other religious groups, and community grassroots organisations, have worked together well and given the living wage a high profile.
But the living wage is a moderate albeit important initiative, rather than the more radical and theoretically based approach of the groups discussed above. I wait with enthusiastic anticipation but some scepticism for these groups to become effective in the policy process.