‘Was it naive to expect a change Govt?’
G’day mates. I write to you from the land of dreamtime, ScoMo, a capital gains tax, and a family holiday where my father and I have just concluded our annual performance of ‘Tax Debate’. My brother’s girlfriend went walkabouts part way through and my husband is lying on the floor in the foetal position. Mum did an excellent job of trying to referee and we are all still talking to each other.
It’s the third big ol’ debate I had this Easter about the CGT following the Prime Minister’s announcement that she was dumping it last Wednesday and although I wrote two months ago that I was apathetic about it, my full and rigorous debate schedule on the issue indicates otherwise.
My apathy related to it not being a particularly revolutionary piece of tax policy. It certainly wasn’t going to be any kind of silver bullet for the housing market and I hoped the CGT stayed ‘if only to signal that Labour isn’t crippled by short-termism’. I had obviously forgotten that it cripples every government, and this government was to be no exception.
Ardern has done the only thing she could do, demonstrating a mastery of realpolitik and the kind of pragmatism that wins second terms. I can accept it but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Even after bottling the single biggest bit of tax policy the Labour party has campaigned on over the past three elections, the Prime Minister was insistent that the ‘coalition is still making "incredible progress" and "transformational change"’ as recently as last Wednesday.
Perhaps we were all a bit naïve to ever think that a coalition government that included New Zealand First was going to be transformative. I have never known politics without Winston Peters. Nor has Ardern. Peters took his first parliamentary seat on 24 May 1979, before the PM or myself were born. Peters has been one of the most impressive players of the political game for as long as we’ve both been alive - outwitting, outplaying and outlasting most, if not all of his peers. He is both emblematic of political game-playing and the reality of it all at the same time. If political cynicism were to be embodied, it would be holding up a ‘NO’ sign while grinning like the cat that got the cream.
For all that we might celebrate Ardern’s political pragmatism, we’re also celebrating political cynicism. We’re celebrating yet another victory for the Winston Peters school of political game play. To everybody that’s happy that this latest move will probably guarantee a Labour-led coalition a second term in which they can get on with the transformation they’ve been heralding since coming to power, I ask – how do you propose they get on with this against the backdrop of political reality? Compromise comes at a cost and it increasingly feels like the price being paid is getting too high.
The environment is in serious trouble. Child poverty and inequality look to have increased not decreased since this government took office. The housing crisis is still very much a crisis, teachers are still underpaid and overworked, productivity and wages remain static – we work more hours and get no further ahead and the fate of our mental health system rests in the hands of yet another working group.
These are all challenges that successive governments have refused to address because as hard and urgent as transformative action might be, it turns out playing the game of politics and winning is harder and more important.
For all that a Capital Gains Tax might not have been anything that revolutionary, it came to represent something more exciting and hopeful. It signalled a shift away from supporting unfettered wealth accumulation through property and suggested we had a government which might be willing to look beyond the next election cycle towards a fairer future.
Ironically, it was Peters who said when announcing the coalition: "Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe. And they are not wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible - its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations."
When I look around for examples of transformative change in this country, one of the best examples I think we have is Perpetual Guardian shifting to a four-day working week. Staff work four days but are paid for five. To me that’s what the human face of capitalism looks like. That’s a company who’ve decided to place as much emphasis on enhancing the lives of workers as they do on profit. That is revolutionary, that is transformative.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped hoping for the government to step up but instead took our cues from companies like Perpetual Guardian. Perhaps instead of the government talking about making transformative change, their rhetoric should shift to talking about creating the playing field for others to make transformative change. As the Prime Minister keeps saying, transformation takes time but if governments are continually trapped in this everlasting cycle of electioneering, vote winning and compromise, perhaps it’s time we looked elsewhere for the bold moves required to deal with some of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced.