Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Sir Robert Muldoon Centre for Time Warp Research

One of the curious little oddities of Kiwi politics, is the lack of an overt culture of comparing present leaders to their antecedents. Sure, when relatively more frothing parts of the right wing wish to cast inaccurate aspersions upon the present-day National Party, they conjure the ghost of Helen Clark via wewege-board to talk about how John Key's "socialist streak" is dragging us all kicking and screaming back to a place called "Helengrad" ... but I ascribe that less to any actual notoriety on her part, and far more to the fact that Helen looms large in the popular consciousness due to her recency as PM and the notion she represented something slightly different to the aggressively warmed-over neoliberalism promulgated by Key et co.

Muldoon is different.

Even some thirty years and climbing since the end of his tenure as Prime Minister, the venerable old "tusker" still casts an incredibly long shadow. Given that a good whack of the modern-day Parliamentary Press Gallery started or nurtured their careers under him, as well as the quite frankly impressive degree of personal influence he managed to exert on our politics, public life and economy, this is perhaps not surprising.

What is, however, is the ridiculously broad array of politicians, parties and policies which find themselves caught up in that shadow, and tarred as being "Muldoonist".

In no particular order of significance nor accuracy, a cursory peruse of my google reveals Greens co-leader Russel Norman accusing Nat Prime Minister John Key of "acting like Muldoon"; Rodney Hide then accusing Russel Norman of sharing Muldoon's economic views; right-wing no-idea-ologue Matthew Hooton levelling the charge of aiding and abetting "Muldoonery [...] from beyond the grave" at Steven Joyce; The Standard declaring Key to be Muldoon's "doppelganger"; Failoil reckoning then-Labour leader David Shearer to be a dyed in the wool advocate of Muldoonism, in the form of controlling the exchange rate to prevent the ongoing ruination of exporters [trigger-warning: FailOil]; neoliberal former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore making the comparison at Helen Clark's expense; ACT's John Banks (himself an arguable disciple of Muldoon) saying it about Labour and the Greens over NZ Power; and an array of sources commenting on the linkage between Muldoon and Winston Peters.

We even wound up with the New Zealand Herald describing me as a "Muldoonist" late last year.

So given the singularly impressive rogue's gallery of politicians to whom the charge of "Muldoonery" evidently applies, we should probably pin down what, exactly, we mean by a Muldoonist. I must confess a certain innate suspicion of any word flexible enough to encompass in its scope and ambit the personal affectations of everyone from Helen Clark to John Key; and the economic proclivities of Winston, David Shearer, and Steven Joyce ... apparently simultaneously ... but this is no reason to dismiss the term out of hand.

As with most things in our nation's political discourse, the answer is bifurcated. If you're coming at it from the right wing, then "Muldoonism" invokes the specter of the highly visible (and apparently iron-fisted) interventionist hand of the state exerting a great leaden weight upon the invisible hand of the market; using sui generis and economic-reality-breaking legislative powers to attempt to bolster the incomes and employment rates of workers, using the transformative power of the state to spur economic growth in other ways (like state-owned power generation assets, and renewable energy :P ), while attempting to co-ordinate and regulate the entire economy through a corporatist command and control mechanism that by some accounts wouldn't seem entirely out of place on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Oh, and the whole system makes use of this forgotten school of political economy known as "Industrial Policy", wraps the entire thing in tariffs and moves toward energy independence, and then keeps it all ticking over by controlling the exchange rate.

Apparently, in the eyes of right-wingers, these are *bad things*. And naturally, given my status as one of New Zealand's more eclectic socialist economic nationalists ... this all sounds pretty much *right up my twisty, benighted, 100% state-owned, #Renationalized alley*.

Now given we're presently living under a National-led government which seems hell-bent on doing exactly the opposite of what the right-wing caricature of Muldoon would have done, you will perhaps forgive me if I overlook in this piece the litany of egregious legislative, constitutional, and environmental abuses and shortcomings which the *left-wing* interpretation of Muldoon fixates upon.

This is not, of course, to pretend they did not happen ... and if you really want to re-tread such highlights of New Zealand political history as the time Muldoon necessitated the 1689 Bill of Rights being invoked at him (specifically, the bit covering what monarchs are allowed to do) because he pretty much managed to circumvent Parliament's law-making ability through pure force of personal charisma alone; the time concerned citizens attempted to secede from New Zealand in order to prevent one of his Think Big projects going ahead; the time his cavalier attitude to international agreements brought the country about as close as it's ever been to a civil war during the 20th century; or the time he provoked an apparent constitutional crisis by refusing to do something bloody stupid suggested by Roger Douglas with the New Zealand dollar ... then you can. Dr Russel Norman's various statements on the subject do quite a reasonable job at enumerating Muldoon's various crimes against ecology and the rule of law; although I had noted with some amusement the problem Dr Norman faces when dealing with the Think Big parts of Muldoon's legacy - as a Green with a sense of history, he's no doubt appalled at the environmental impacts of the projects; yet, as a left-winger with a sense of present, I'm sure the lack of overt and specific condemnation for Think Big (in fact, he points out Think Big made more sense than the Roads of National Significance program) derives from our mutual appreciation for what a state with an aggressively pro-active attitude to fostering its economy by strategically increasing its asset base can actually achieve.

But if we are to gain some value from disturbing the tomb of Muldoon (beyond somewhat wide rhetorical shots at the man's antithetical successor presently leading the National Party), and see what lessons we might derive from his record for Fortress Aotearoa here in the 21st century; then it is not to the left-wing invocation of Muldoon that we turn, but rather to his right-wing bete-noir counterpart.

Because that's where the actual record of something fundamentally /different/ from the post-1984 neoliberal consensus in our history is to be found. It's also why the more ... frothy elements to our domestic right wing keep churning out endless screeds of thought-terminating cliches about going on a waiting-list for imported consumer goods, carless days (what an environmental policy win that would be today lol!), the length of time it took to get a telephone connected, or rampant and runaway inflation. Because what better way to stifle any debate about what shape alternative, state-centric economic arrangements to warmed-over neoliberalism might look like, than by deluging anybody who might participate or take an interest in said debate with so much empty rhetoric about "inevitable" consequences for challenging the neoliberal paradigm. [I hereby apologize for using the phrase "neoliberal paradigm". I am not a sociology student. It won't happen again]

I'm saving the in-depth examination of the economic ins-and-outs of actually-existing Muldoonism (or, if you prefer, "Socialism with Kiwi Characteristics") for a future post, but suffice to say the rampant inflation was at least partially explicable via the cost-push "shock" created by successive oil crises in 1973 and 1979; the idea of imported consumer goods being out of reach of the average consumer is certainly not new (only difference is nowadays it's wage rates rather than import licensing that keep creature comforts distant for many...while necessities are less affordable); and as applies waiting for phone-line connections -  well we appear to have collectively traded in spending days waiting for a phone-jack from a publicly owned arm of the state ... for spending $600 million on subsidies for a privately owned company like Chorus to faff about and eventually get around to providing one lucky town somewhere in the North Island with gigabit-speed broadband.

Suddenly, the idea of a government which has the gumption to muck in and do things itself - rather than paying its mates to pretend to get the free market to do so - has a certain, insurgent appeal.

And that's really at the heart of what Muldoonism represents, to me.

Jane Clifton, in her absolutely excellent book "Political Animals" (seriously, go out and read it; then buy a copy for the politico in your life!) sets out the theoretical underpinnings of Muldoon: a child, growing up amidst poverty and mass unemployment, then sent off to fight for New Zealand as a soldier. She sets out the way in which our grandparents' generation - who, it must be remembered, bear a large amount of responsibility for voting him in in the first place - "Went Without"; then posits that it was an "avenging desire to ensure that New Zealanders never again Went Without" that motivated Muldoon to "Do Something" in the first place. She succinctly sums up the Muldoonist mentality as "that of an embattled parent - 'I will provide for my family /no matter what/. I will do /anything/, and I will smack down /anyone/ who tries to get in my way'."

Just as we can attempt to understand David Lange's time in office as being the logical conclusion of a clever, overweight kid seeking approval from his peers; stories of Muldoon as a child having to pilfer rotten fruit for sustenance and sugar definitely tell us a helluvalot about the values and ethos which the more venerable Muldoon would bring to his tenure in office.

That's actually the thing that rankles me most about comparisons between Muldoon and Key. Both of these leaders of the National Party grew up in conditions of relative poverty and rose, through the assistance of the state, to become leaders thereof. One of these Prime Ministers has taken his formative experiences, and absolutely committed himself to ensuring they never recur for the next generation of Kiwis; while the other appears to have wholeheartedly adopted the Jordan Belfort creedo that there is no nobility in poverty, which ought to be escaped as fast and as rapaciously as possible, while making a buck for one's mates, and bugger the rest of us.

Whichever way you dice it, and even (perhaps especially) when taking into account and consideration the many, many, many dickish things Muldoon did while in office; there's no getting around the impression that Muldoon did what he did, and the way he did it, out of a genuine and deeply held series of convictions about how best to help his fellow Kiwi and build a better tomorrow rather than a brighter future.

It's eminently possible now, with twenty first century eyes polished to the fine rhetorical standard of twenty-twenty, to conclude that Muldoon "could be a right prick" (as a certain MP who served with him, but who shall remain nameless, once told me); but such a simplistic and superficial analysis totally ignores the both the context the man was operating in - and, more importantly, his position as one of, if not *the* last leaders of a political generation which had actually known genuine want, and which was committed to a genuine egalitarianism. This was a man, after all, who seemed personally offended by high rates of unemployment - a position that's totally at odds with the "relaxed" attitude John Key took to his own government having some of the highest unemployment figures of the MMP era.

(And having said all that, I reserve the right to criticize the absolute hell out of his social policy and elements of his personal style)

While the case for Socialist Paragon Muldoon is always going to be a controversial one to make, it's by holding up a mirror that actually shows the differences between National leaders then and now that we reveal how far we've fallen. The vast majority of New Zealand's entire political spectrum presently exists to the right of Muldoon, and has done so now for almost three decades. Without a yardstick like Muldoon to actually demonstrate this in practice, who'd believe that yesterday's National Party could be so incredibly to the left of today's Labour?

I'll leave you with a few quotes from Muldoon's seminal book The New Zealand Economy: A Personal View, which I believe really strongly set out the difference between Muldoon-era National and the present days of the InterNational party.

"The political scene had been greatly influenced by the advent of a new dirty word, "intervention". [...] intervention by the Government in the economy was a normal procedure in New Zealand as it is and has been in every country around the world. The whole concept of government is based on intervention. [...] Intervention is what government is about, and in a democracy it is the people who decide whether that intervention is acceptable"

"Economic management is not a matter of textbooks and algebraic equations. It is people: their reactions to stimuli, to adversity, and to one another.[...] In these circumstances economic management in New Zealand requires first of all a knowledge of the people, and then the judicious use of the widest range of weapons that are available".

So a governing philosophy entirely based around active intervention using any means necessary, and a rejection of neoliberal econometric modelling as a source of fiscal policy. Bet you wouldn't hear any of that coming from the mouths of Bill English..

They've even got dancing Cossacks!

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