The political climate is heating up: Guyon Espiner is asking his simulation of hard questions–cutting away from discussions on child poverty to talk about the New Zealand flag–while Phil Goff is getting actual air time, either showing himself to be an experienced politician and campaigner, or, depending on who you listen to, giving himself enough rope to hang himself and his party.
‘Catching up with Australia’ is the easiest of our political tropes. It is rolled out from any party in opposition, at any time, in order to attack the government. In its most basic terms, it’s a simple racing metaphor, with no apparent metrics, which everybody can understand. This constantly recycled picture, inevitably, is shaded with the ideological blinkers of whoever is reproducing it. For the left, catching up with Australia entails catching up with their wage increases and employment conditions, providing is evidence that we need a higher minimum wage. For the right, catching up Australia requires increased GDP, which can only be done, we are told, through reducing restraints on trade (tax and regulation), increasing primary production (dirty mining and farming), and, probably, slashing benefits. For all sides of the ideological divide it’s a simple process: what you do is say the magic words–’we need to catch up with Australia’–and then follow it up with a (poorly evidenced) restatement of your ideological position.
The ACT paid political broadcast was instructive. When Don Brash wasn’t shaking hands with well-placed brown-but-not-Maori people, he was making a lot of noise about the wage difference between Australia and New Zealand: nearly 40%, and rising. This, to him, is evidence that we need to follow through a series of neoliberal policy reforms such as slashing the minimum wage, selling state assets, reducing the influence of unions, that kind of thing. In order to compete with Australia and draw our workers home, according to ACT, we need to do precisely the opposite of what Australia does with its $15.51AUD/h minimum wage and strong union involvement, seeking instead a low-wage economy hostile to labour organization. In order to draw back the workers who leave for Australia, ACT argue, we need to allow them to be employed for any value and ensure their working conditions are as unpleasant as possible. That’ll work.
For the major parties the game is less dishonest but just as dangerous. National, in opposition for nine years, attacked Labour on the continuing upswing in emigration; part of National’s campaign ticket in 2008–if it actually had one–was that it was going to help to ‘catch up with Australia’. We haven’t. Yet Labour is now using using the very discourse–one it should be challenging–to advocate its ‘tough choices’; broadly, for them, catching up with Australia entails solidifying a weakened neoliberal agenda under the auspices of social democracy. I’ve got more sympathy for this than I do for ACT’s use of the trope, but I still can’t dispel the feeling that I’m being had: how will the small-scale policy adjustments of a Labour government undo thirty years or more of macroeconomic divergence?
Can we finally just ditch this hackneyed trope?