Southern Notes #5 June 2018

Bruce Curtis, Waikato University: “Congratulations and well wishes poured in from all corners of the globe following the news of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford welcoming a baby girl into the world.” “Welcome to our village wee one,” Ardern wrote on Instagram at 6.15pm on Thursday. The little girl [Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford] …. was born at 4.45pm. “Thank you so much for your best wishes and your kindness. We’re all doing really well thanks to the wonderful team at Auckland City Hospital.” Ardern, 37, posted a photo of the baby, alongside herself and partner Clarke Gayford. “I’m sure we’re going through all of the emotions new parents go through, but at the same time feeling so grateful for all the kindness and best wishes from so many people. Thank you,” Jacinda Ardern said. Both mum and the baby are doing well. (Source: https://www.nzherald.co.nz, 21 June, 2018)

Cometh the hour, cometh the… mother. Or, as Sherlock Holmes put it: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This time last year the Labour Party was facing three more years in opposition and was positively churning through its possible (impossible) leaders. After 15 years of the monolith that was Helen Clark, the party was working its way down a list of blokes who could lead Labour to defeat. Phil Goff coatailed Clark and got to be leader of the opposition until the disaster of the 2011 election. New man David Shearer was parachuted in from UN do-gooding in the Balkans, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq and Sri Lanka but the horrors he found in the Labour Party (and vice versa) meant he wasn’t even given the chance to lose. ‘Deer-in-the-headlights’ was one uncharitable description. Thereafter and despite a sustained ABC campaign in the Labour Party (Anyone But Cunliffe), the inevitable occurred and David Cunliffe was given his chance. He was gone a week after losing in 2014. Next. Next being Andrew Little, as in “little charisma”.

The fact that throughout his career Little had never won a seat in a parliamentary election, relying instead on a high placement as an unelected ‘list’ MP might have given pause about his suitability as any sort of frontperson. Friends in high places can only take you so far; they took Little to 1 August, 2017 when historically low poll results forced his hand, and he surrendered the Labour leaders role to Jacinda ‘The Truth’ Ardern. Little bailed (a little bailing) only six weeks before the General Election of 2017 and yet what seemed likely to be the worst hospital pass in political history sparked ‘Jacindamania’. The turnaround for Labour under Ardern was truly remarkable; not so remarkable as to give it a majority of seats, or even to get more than the National Party in the General Election, but sufficient for it to get second bite of our constitutional cherry and be able to form a coalition Government with partners New Zealand First and the Greens. If this is a rainbow alliance, it is one that shades to beige.

How to analyse the Jacinda effect? Well, she is personable and pertinent in a way that none of the seat warmers who preceded her were. She is affable. It is hard not to like her and many have tried their best. Clearly pregnancy was a PR coup. She is also smart, the sort of smarts that plays well in sound clips and is backed up (no doubt) by a lot of study behind the scenes. This down to earth persona is similar to that of Sir John Key (PM, 2008 – 2016), who used his likeability to undermine robo-Helen. An everyperson congeniality is as important for Labour as it was for National, because it masks the reality of neoliberalism and the continuation of austerity politics. Ardern is the continuation of the right-wing of Labour, which is now the mainstream of politics in New Zealand. Her mentors (apparently) were dries of the previous two Labour Governments, Helen Clark and Phil Goff. Sure enough, one of her first actions as PM was to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, opposition to which was for Labour the main policy difference to National in the lead up to the election. Labour’s first budget is pertinent. Guyon Espiner (the co-host of Radio New Zealand National ‘Morning Report’ – that is the State radio channel, folks), and by no means a lefty, has described Labour’s first budget as “National’s tenth budget”. Here goes:

It turns out you can’t judge a book by its colour, either. Labour’s first budget in nearly a decade came with a bold red trim, rather than the royal blue Treasury uses to present the documents when National is in power. But inside this was a blue budget not a red one. It’s a description neither Labour nor National would like bestowed on budget 2018 but this was a triumph of neoliberalism or at least a continuation of it. Oh, not if you listen to the words of ministers, urging us to see this as rebuilding the frayed social fabric after years of neglect. But don’t listen to the words. Look at the numbers.

Not only has Grant Robertson [the Minister of Finance] delivered a surplus of more than $3 billion, rising to more than $7 billion by 2021, he is actually going to spend less than National has been spending as a percentage of GDP. Government spending – or core crown expenses in the jargon – will be 28% of GDP. That is lower than the figure for almost all of National’s three terms in office. It’s lower, too, than that prescribed by the already heroic Budget Responsibility Rules, a self-imposed straight-jacket that saw Labour commit to spending no more than 30% of GDP. The debt targets, very strict by international standards, are also being met with net core crown debt for 2018 forecast at 20.8% of GDP. Now this might all look like fiscal trainspotting. Who cares? Well, you can only hit these targets by closing your wallet and your ears to areas that are crying out for funding. (Source: https://thespinoff.co.nz, 18 May, 2018)

Cometh the hour indeed. If ever a nice and smart person was needed to run a government (still) committed to making the rich richer and the poor poorer, then that time is now. The abandonment of a first-past-the-post system of voting for whatever the current arrangement is called, plus the universalisation of neoliberalism as policy, has meant that coalition governments have become the norm and within this context the core of those arrangements (i.e., Labour or National) can expect 3 terms in office before the voting public get sick of them. Jacinda’s daughter might well be at school, doing fractions, before mum loses an election.

Despite using her grace period well, Ardern does face some problems. And, it must be noted that the super creepy interview with Charles Wooley of Channel Nine when aired in Godzone certainly helped her arrival. New Zealanders thanked their lucky stars that Jacinda was in charge and that we don’t live in a country where this guy appears regularly on the telly. Shudder. However, her problems are precisely what the rhetoric of the budget speaks to – housing, training and immigration crises, which are symptomatic of the low wage, extractive economy New Zealand has become. Over and above being a savvy front for austerity, Arden will run her government a lot like Helen Clark, by taking the politics out of neoliberalism. Style is the fundamental difference between Labour and National. The policy settings for running this particular neo-colony are much the same for either party, but National relies on dog whistle politics and looking after its mates, while Labour are a lot of well-intentioned technocrats… they’ll do their best, but if the parameters of the possible demand a form of rationing, then rationing is what you’ll get. Alpha males are central to National’s approach. They are an anathema to Jacinda’s  Labour. Theirs is the woman dividend, parental leave is the new black; although no-one has sent the memo to the old guys at New Zealand First.

In other news… Now would be a good time to remind you that the Sociological Association of Aotearoa / New Zealand is holding its annual conference in Wellington this year, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington. The dates are December 4th to 7th, and are intended not to coincide with the TASA conference in Melbourne. ‘You can’t beat Wellington on a good day!’ is the official slogan of our fair capital and many of these are known to occur in December. The conference has an interesting theme:

‘The future in the past’ is a phrase taken from Ernst Bloch, capturing his attention to the materiality of both past and future, and their interactions, in the present. Reflecting on this in The Heritage of Our Times, written in the 1920s and early 1930s, amidst economic downturn, political chaos, and the rise of fascism, Bloch’s work drew together cultural sociology, memory and utopian studies, and ideological analysis. The organisers of SAANZ 2018 welcome papers taking these topic areas as starting points, as well as other sociological and social policy papers.

I think it fair to say that one of the most significant sociological publications in New Zealand in recent years is Charles Crothers’ Sociologies of New Zealand. This account of the southernmost of sociological communities deserves attention, and will generate much debate. I’ll simply quote from the blurb to give you an idea:

This book provides the first comprehensive analysis of the various sociologies of New Zealand from the late 19th century to the present day. Opening with previously undocumented insights into the history of proto-sociology in New Zealand, the book then explores the parallel stories of the discipline both as a mainstream subject in Sociology departments and as a more diffuse ‘sociology’ within other university units. The rise and fall of departments, specialties and research networks is plotted and the ways in which external and internal factors have shaped these is explained.

Different generations of sociologists, including many immigrants, are each shown to have left their unique mark on New Zealand sociology. The author demonstrates that the rising interest in topics specific to New Zealand has been accompanied by increasing capacities to contribute to world sociology. This book will have inter-disciplinary appeal across the social sciences and provides a valuable study of the development of sociology in a semi-peripheral country.

I mentioned in my previous column that I am a new co-editor (with the esteemed Louise Humpage) of New Zealand Sociology. If you are interested in the journal, as a potential author or just interested, why not contact me at bcurtis@waikato.ac.nz. If anyone noticed, yes that is a new email address for me; after twenty years at the University of Auckland I have moved down State Highway #1 to the University of Waikato.

I’ll end with sad news, and note the passing of Terry Austrin. Terry was a friend, mentor and inspiration to many within the sociological community, and I mean the global community. He was a fantastic researcher, teacher and supervisor. He salvaged my PhD way back in 1990. His contribution to sociology is much bigger than that; the next issue of New Zealand Sociology will publish some of the tributes to him.

Hei konā mai,

Bruce.

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