Psst! Have you heard? We’re in, or um... going to be in a debt crisis. Jeepers! What to do? Rely on the man at the top? Why not - he’s suave, convincing, almost as eloquent as the last salesman for the far right, David Lange.
This time around the salesman with pressure on him from the lobby of Big Business, is Prime Minister John Key. Where Lange fell lock, stock and barrel for Treasury and Roger Douglas’s old New Right recipes, Key is much more nuanced. He has to be – he’s seen how the Lange Government’s asset sales alienated the public and just about destroyed Labour.
But they have in common that unfinished business of the Far Right - to sell off assets built up by generations of Kiwis. Key says it offers opportunities for ‘mum and dad investors’ (don’t you just love the spin?) They of course have lots of disposable income…. Key should be careful with that line though – Sarah Palin uses the same one.
But here’s the puzzle. Why was Key so eager to broadcast this still unpopular policy so early in election year? He’s not given to committing political suicide. He does back off when necessary - the Coromandel mining issue illustrates that. More cynical observers remember David Lange’s description of the Far Right that ‘rust never sleeps’ - and it doesn’t.
Look at Auckland the Super City which was imposed on Aucklanders. Hidden away in that move, some suspect, was an agenda to sell off some of Auckland’s $28 billion worth of assets. No matter how many Aucklanders objected, the Super City model was imposed – with National’s blessing.
So getting back to rust: Is this significantly early announcement aimed so that the public can be softened up sufficiently by election day later this year? Seems reasonable people, the Nats can say, only 51%. Whaddya say?
Well, at the moment, they’re saying a lot. There’s fire and brimstone, unions and opposition seething, fiery but commonsensical letters to editors opposing the move. None of it will wash because Key has already hinted there’s a bogeyman in our house. He introduced it when he discussed our debt. But, no longer is it just that, it’s a debt crisis, people.
In 1984, that Orwellian Year, Labour used a young girl to promote fear about just that issue. National is now building a scenario about the debt’s DANGERS TO THE NATION. In the process it has conveniently side-stepped its tax cuts which contributed to the debt. But back to the crisis word.
In her book The Shock Doctine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, investigative reporter Naomi Klein has this to say about the way capitalism uses crises to its advantage, noting that the Right’s High priest, economist (Milton) Friedman articulated contemporary capitalism’s core tactical nostrum… the shock doctrine.
‘…only a crisis - actual or perceived – produces real change,’ Friedman wrote.
‘When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable’. In other words rust.
Friedman and his neophytes at the Chicago School of Economics soon went on to provide shock treatment to Chile. It came in a form many of us remember as Rogernomics which was merely an imitation of Friedman’s anti-democratic theorising.
The use of crises, invented or otherwise, led to market opportunities, not just here but all over the world as the Right’s ideas took hold. Klein has documented the process superbly in her book. Here, local government in the old Auckland was considered to be so inefficient it had to be swept away entirely – and replaced by unelected, unaccountable businessmen. Much earlier, power boards were dissolved at the stroke of a pen in Ruth Richardson’s so-called Mother of All Budgets. The Right adores slogans – they substitute for thought and more importantly, imagination.
Let’s go back a century to see how much we’ve regressed. Then politicians had views more aligned to our new sense of nationhood. At the time, a number of observers visited the country and praised its social progressiveness. American author, Henry Demarest Lloyd assessed the public’s views of ownership of its roads and railway and the accountability that offered and wrote:
“There is no Vanderbilt here to say ‘the public be damned’…. Every detail of policy regarding the extension, operation and manning of the highways is public business, universally acknowledged to be such by the people, press, Parliament and Ministry and business interests”.
More tellingly he also wrote:
“The New Zealand idea is the opposite of some theoretical creators of society, that the right are to become richer and the poor poorer, until the whole population has been sifted into brutes of money and brutes of misery, who will then fight out the social question to the death.”
So what’s the real crisis? Same old, same old: no imagination of the kind which built this country and its society not on percentages, but on pride in owning our own shop.