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New Zealand: Redrawing the political map

Kathy Newnam

Among the most exciting developments discussed at the Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference held in Sydney at Easter was the rapidly changing map of New Zealand politics, in particular, the development of the Maori Party, the UNITE union and the Resident Action Movement.

Several left-wing leaders from New Zealand attended the conference, including Matt McCarten, who was until recently the campaign manager for the Maori Party, Global Peace and Justice Auckland leader Mike Treen, and Dave Colyer and Grant Morgan from NZ Socialist Worker, who all addressed a feature session on March 28.

Collier explained the background to the current situation in New Zealand. In the last decade, union membership declined from 60% to the 22% it is now (10% in the private sector), and most unions’ rank-and-file networks were destroyed. Colyer also detailed the impact of this destruction — by 1998, 80% of people were economically and socially worse off. Thirty per cent of children live in poverty now in NZ.

Colyer explained the background to this decline, going back to the election of a Labour government in 1984, on the back of a mass anti-nuclear protest movement. When the new government pursued a “free market blitzkrieg”, resistance grew, and a split in the New Zealand Labour Party led to the formation of the New Labour Party, which formed the kernel of the Alliance party.

In October 1990, the National government was elected with a landslide victory and proceeded to introduce the “employment contract act” — a draconian piece of legislation drafted by business to get rid of collective bargaining and introduce individual contracts — “to smash the union movement”.

Colyer outlined the strong and organised rank-and-file opposition to the legislation, and how this was wasted by trade union leaders. “They refused to organise a general strike. There were massive street protests, the biggest protests in NZ history, but they never went over into that mass industrial action that could have stopped the government in its tracks. As a result, the union movement was severely weakened”, leading to its state of devastation today.

In 1999, the NZLP was re-elected in partnership with the Alliance.

“We've had a Labour government now for six years, we've had a supposedly booming economy for six years, yet the standard of living for most people is still getting worse — it's not even staying stagnant; wages are still not keeping up with inflation, poverty is still increasing”, said Colyer.

It is the growing resistance to this devastation that is beginning to see a “new map of politics emerging” in NZ. Collier noted the many fight-backs around different issues over the past decade — student fees, health cuts, genetic engineering and against the war, as signs of a changing mood.

Treen agreed that the mood was changing, arguing “there is a deep disquiet amongst the people who have not benefited from the boom in the last decade”. He pointed out that the anti-union laws had been pushed through during a recession, but after six years of economic recovery wages remained low, and strikes were at their lowest rate in history.

Fighting unions

He noted two main exceptions to this trend — the nurses’ union’s growth after its victorious struggle for its first national contract and a 20-30% pay rise; and UNITE, which covers mostly previously unorganised workers, and is now joining 100 members a week in Auckland.

Treen is involved with UNITE, which has been organising workers for just two years. “We were told it was not possible, but we sensed it might be”, Treen told the conference. “We were told that the most difficult areas were young people, casual workers, fast-food workers, call centres, picture theaters, hotel workers — all of them utterly and completely deunionised. The areas that we started organising in have 1% unionisation.”

Treen reported on one of the earliest areas UNITE began its organising drive — a picture theatre chain in Auckland where most of the workers were on youth rates: NZ$7.60 an hour (for workers under 16 years’ old there is no minimum wage). A UNITE organiser went onto the seven sites in the chain and joined up 300 people — almost 100% unionisation. There was a delegates’ committee elected and young workers were soon sitting at a negotiating table with the boss to get a collective agreement. This is a pattern that is being repeated again and again in UNITE's organising drive.

“Often it's not even the monetary side”, said Treen, “some of them are just basic things that deal with the dignity of workers on the job. How they get their rosters, whether they're notified in advance, whether their complementary tickets can be taken off them if they do something wrong. We deal with those things and it's a huge difference for the workers. They feel pride and strength and they love our union and take their unionism with them when they go to other jobs.”

Treen reported that UNITE receives many calls from workers who have moved jobs saying “we want UNITE” on their sites.

“We get an overwhelmingly positive response when we go in with the simple proposition that you can't negotiate on your own, that you can only negotiate collectively.”

UNITE has a creative approach. When negotiations had come to a standstill at a theatre in Wellington, workers reported that most of the money the theatre made was on the popcorn and drinks — “so part of negotiating the agreement was setting up a picket outside passing out free popcorn. [Management] came to the table; we got an agreement that year to get rid of youth rates over the next year or two.”

Having just signed up 600 Burger King workers, UNITE has begun spreading its organising drive outside of Auckland. Workers from other industries and sites are also looking to and taking inspiration from the success of UNITE.

Maori Party

McCarten, a veteran of NZ politics, addressed the conference on recent developments in NZ politics. Part of the formation of the New Labour Party, McCarten was a central leader of the Alliance from its inception to its recent decline. He spoke about the rise and fall of that party, arguing that its downfall started when it began to accommodate to the demands of the NZLP when it was in coalition government.

On a more positive note, McCarten outlined the rise of the Maori Party, explaining that the basis for it was set when the NZLP failed to stand up to National Party attacks on Maori rights, instead trying to win some the racist vote by playing a me-too game.

Then, the NZLP introduced legislation denying Maori land rights to the foreshore and seabed land, after a court ruled that such rights could apply.

A traditional hikoi protest march was launched in response to the legislation, and 100,000 Maori joined it across the country from the far north to Wellington, marching through towns and holding rallies en route.

A MP holding one of NZ’s seven Maori-elected seats, Tariana Turia, resigned from the NZLP and parliament rather than support the legislation. She re-won the seat with 93% and helped found the Maori Party. According to current polling, the Maori Party will win all seven Maori seats in the elections later this years. Until now, all these seats have always been held by the Labour Party.

McCarten told the conference that the Maori Party is not a separatist party, but arose from the resistance to the racist attacks, “when Maori are under attack, we stand together”. Their program also includes working-class policies such as free health care, free education, housing for all, an end to all wars and a major increase in the minimum wage.

McCarten also outlined the exciting development of the Maori Wanunga tertiary educational institutions which have been developing, amongst other programs, basic literacy projects with assistance from the Cuban government.

Resident Action Movement

Morgan shed light on another aspect of the “general grassroots discontent”, speaking about the Resident Action Movement in Auckland. RAM was initiated after Auckland Regional Council (ARC) increased rates by 500-600% in 2003. More than 100,000 people revolted and refused to pay. Socialist Worker activists involved initiated RAM as an ongoing “movement against the corporate politicians who've run Auckland forever”.

Despite the intense opposition from the NZLP — which Morgan said had one idea “kill RAM” — RAM won 90,000 votes across the eight ARC seats it stood in, and got one councillor elected. Morgan said the group had been able to win “the battle of ideas” through its high profile campaigning for rates justice, public transport, grassroots democracy and an opposition to the corporate politicians.

The day after the election RAM decided to run a free buses campaign. “This goes to the heart of the whole RAM project”, said Morgan, “we said, no matter how many, or even if we get people elected we have to build a mass movement outside of the council because that's where it's got to be won if we're going to knock down the institutions of corporate power.”

The buses campaign will also challenge NZLP plans to introduce toll roads. There are even discussions at what Morgan referred to as “the whacky end of free market extremism” about bringing in a toll for pedestrians and cyclists!

Morgan believes that RAM demonstrates that a “mass political break to the left of Labour is possible in NZ even despite the historic weakness of the union movement — so long as we tap into popular discontent with methods and language the grassroots can relate to.”

Morgan also reported about discussions on the NZ left about the launching of a broad left paper as part of the fight to win the battle of ideas and bring together the forces for a new left party.


From Green Left Weekly, 6 April 2005.


April 2005

First published by
Green Left Weekly

For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism