Desperate Remedies – The campaign for MMP in 2011

Between 1984 and 1993 New Zealand underwent reconstruction as a powerful coalition of politicians and merchant bankers fought to create a dreamworld of neo-liberalism in the south Pacific.

Aotearoa/New Zealand was once thought of as a country of hope and justice and set an example to the world. Samuel Parnell and his band of carpenters in Wellington could look on their new land with pride in 1840 as the home of the eight-hour workday. In 1893 Kate Sheppard could smile at a polling booth clerk on general election day, elated that she and the suffragettes had made world history as New Zealand women went to vote for the first time. Rua Kenana built a new Jerusalem in the high hills of the Ureweras, a community free from the acrid horror of the Great War and the grinding poverty of New Zealand’s colonial cities and towns. Norm Kirk, standing on the wharf at Devonport as a frigate departed in 1973 to Muroroa to protest nuclear testing would say, “We may only be a small nation but we send a message to the world by this act.”

After 1984 these dreams of a land of prosperity, equality and independence were smothered by the new right whose names- Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson, Michael Fay, David Richwhite are now synonymous with greed and right wing political barbarism. The neo-liberal finance ministers Douglas in Lange’s Government, and Richardson in Bolger’s Government, along with the Treasury Department hijacked the state and instituted the world’s largest privatisation programme, the deregulation of the labour market, demolition of trade and industry protection and the abandonment of fiscal policy guided by social goals of full employment.

The workers and farmers of Manurewa and Mahia reaped the whirlwind begun in Wellington. The removal of price stabilisation for farm products and the 1987 stock market crash meant many undercapitalised farmers went bust and were foreclosed. In some areas farmers groups stopped mortgagee sales with direct action. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs as the removal of tariffs left a trail of destruction in suburbia. Factories relocated to sweatshop countries, communities dislocated into ghettos.

Ruth Richardson, under the banner of ‘The decent society’ promoted by Bolger at the 1990 election undertook a brutal offensive against a working-class that was disoriented by Rogernomics, disorganised by bureaucracy and disciplined by a series of brutal industrial confrontations such as the Pulp and Paper lock out and the breaking up of the national awards.

Richardson’s blitz against the welfare state came in 1992 against a number of immovable obstacles. The most unpopular of Richardson’s reforms was the hospital user charge of $35-50 per night that was sunk by a massive boycott campaign, similar to the anti-Poll tax fight that sunk Thatcher. 20,000 New Zealanders refused to pay the bills. Other reforms that sparked widespread conflict were bulk funding in schools, user pays tertiary education and the market rents for state houses.

Between 1991 and 1993 rage against the system spilled out onto the streets of Aotearoa as the social cost of neo-liberalism turned into a rising wave of popular rage against the system. In 1991 a stretch limousine operator in Auckland would bemoan that ordinary people had begun, with the election of the National Government attacking his car with bottles and handfuls of compacted dirt. Punk rockers turned up to a National Party meeting where Social Welfare Minister Jenny Shipley was speaking, dressed as KKK members, blowing trumpets and taking over the rostrum. Taxi drivers convoyed down main streets calling for the Government not to deregulate their industry. In Hamilton 50 protesters ransacked the local National Party office, throwing files out the fourth floor window and drawing swastikas and obscenities on framed photos of Bolger and the Queen. Beneficiary groups called for a ‘national shoplifting day’ to beat the benefit cuts. Paint bombs followed National ministers into hotels and community halls. In Auckland in May 1991 long-baton armed police were deployed against hundreds of street fighters who broke away from an anti-Government march and smashed into a National Party office, overturning furniture and barricading themselves in, seeking, as the Auckland Star editorialist put it, 'class warfare confrontation with police'. Cuts to prison services provoked prisoner riots and prison warden strikes.

Perhaps the most poignant symbol from this time is the line of small fishing vessels strung across the channel of Whangarei harbour in protest against more market reforms of fishing catch allocation. Against the tide of neo-liberalism.

This was a time when National and Labour were coming apart at the seams. The membership of both parties dissolved over this period as caucus’s fractured. This was the era when Michael Laws, one of Bolger’s 1990 intake, was organising the unemployed to Wellington to protest against his own Government’s benefit cuts. When Gilbert Myles and Hamish MacIntyre, would split away from the Nats to join the Alliance in protest against Richardson. Where political barons like Winston Peters and Jim Anderton could lead renegade armies of outraged superannuitants and displaced intellectuals out of the clutches of the political establishment into new insurgent formations. A country where MPs like Graham Kelly and David Lange would call for open civil disobedience against the Government’s health reforms. The hour was dark, but the cracks in the system widened by the day.
The priest wore no clothes- in 1991 a Baptist Minister stripped to his undies in Auckland’s council chambers against the sale of council houses; he ‘likened his undies to the last vestige of dignity council tenants would lose if the council sold their homes’. Chris Trotter’s No Left Turn, is easily the best historical account of how MMP came into being. The gods may just have been smiling on Aotearoa when Rod Donald’s Electoral Reform Coalition defeated the anti-proportional Coalition for Better Government, fronted by the former Chairman of Telecom, in the 1993 referendum on MMP.53.9% voted for MMP, a staggering victory for the grassroots Electoral Reform Coalition, which spent nine times less than the big business Coalition for Better Government. New Zealanders voted for revolution. The neo-liberals would never again have the same power. Bolger was forced to sack Richardson as finance minister. The victory of MMP in the 1993 referendum ensured that no party could push through unpopular and cruel policies like the hospital bed charge ever again.

The 1993 election was a staggering blow to the neo-liberals. The National Party’s vote went from 47.82% to 35.05%. The Alliance took 18.21% of the vote and New Zealand First took 8.4%. The massacre was so severe that National only had a majority from 1993-96 because Labour supplied the speaker of the house. Yet between 1993-6 the structural adjustment programme of the National Party did continue in housing, education and health. It was the last time however that a Government could rule with only 35.05% of the vote.

The sneering editorial in the Listener this week decries that governments are often hostage to a public unwilling to put up with 'unpopular' policies. This is how it should be in a democracy. The Listener’s editorialists have no doubt forgotten the days when commercially driven public hospitals lavished private consultants with exorbitant fees but couldn’t afford helicopter flights to save lives. We should never forget the gloomy years when doctors and nurses blamed National Health Minister Simon Upton for patient deaths because he was forcing through unpopular reforms. MMP was for just this, so politicians couldn't force through what the people did not want or need. When parliamentary democracy stops working for the elite, when the media's hegemony breaks down, the ruling class will always resort to the use of state terror and intimidation of opponents to push through unpopular reforms. This was the situation in New Zealand in the early 1990s.

As we head back to the polls for the MMP referendum it is important that we understand the historical context of how MMP came into being. It came because people wanted more control over their country when both major parties had been taken usurped by the radical right, and the destruction of New Zealand’s social security net was on the cards. It came because in 1992 only 10% of New Zealand approved of Jim Bolger's government and his version of a "decent society".

Verna Smith of the scare Campaign for First Past the Post in 1992 said, “We have the right to paint the worst case scenario. The onus is on the Electoral Reform Coalition to prove it’s wrong.” What is the worst case scenario had FPP been retained in 1993? The structural adjustment programme of Richardson and Douglas would have continued for another half decade. Douglas and Richardson have made their unfinished business clear:

• Abolish the minimum wage
• Cut all benefits
• Privatise superannuation
• Sell of public hospitals and bring in a US health insurance system
• Sell TVNZ, abolish Pharmac, all public transport, etc
• Sell schools into private ownership and bring in voucher schools
• Flat taxes
• Remove rights to collective bargaining
• Privatise prisons and allow prison slave labour
• Protect corporations rights to pollute without restriction

The country they desire and tried to create in New Zealand is a barbarous neo-liberal paradise. A dream world for merchant bankers who got rich through privatisations (we used to have a decent rail system) and bailouts (the original bailouts, BNZ style) then blew the money on yacht races and private islands. And of poverty and prison for the poor. Their influence lives on in the real ambitions of politicians like Key, Joyce and English, who in private will admit their intention to drop wages and privatise Kiwibank.


In 1993 the high camp, New Zealand made, operatic Desperate Remedies was an official selection at Cannes. In a 19th century colonial town called Hope, the hero, a lesbian dressmaker wrestles with a world corrupted by drug addiction and financial turbulence. She, her lover and a mysterious radical from overseas are able to vanquish the corrupt, war profiteering MP who craves her business and her marriage and is able to depart the port of Hope in search of a brighter future.
MMP was the desperate remedy sought by people who did not give up hope on the idea of a really existing decent society in New Zealand. The sickness of neo-liberalism, the plague of unrestrained capitalism and the cancer of corporate power required an anti-dote. MMP proved that mysterious radical from overseas. It slowed, then halted, then allowed the reversal of significant parts of Rogernomics & Ruthenasia. Those who seek to return New Zealand to the days of FPP also crave to continue the course of neo-liberalism. s the global economic crisis deepens, the ecological meltdown continues and the spirit level drops the fight against neo-liberalism continues. A former currency trader runs a ‘smash and grab’ Government that does nothing about the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders unemployed and on low wages, but loots the public purse to shower the super-rich with banquets. With three months until the election all those who remember the horror of the 1990s and vowed never again must campaign for MMP against National’s dark dystopia of private prisons, stagnant wages and benefit cuts.

On November 26th a vote for MMP, alongside a vote for MANA, is a vote against the exploitative power of capital and oppressive state bureaucracy and for a new generation continuing the struggle for another Aotearoa. A struggle which weaves the legacy of Sheppard, Kirk, Parnell and Kenana into a longing for a better tomorrow for working people in these shaky isles. In 1993 working people voted for MMP as a desperate remedy. In 2011 we should vote again for MMP as we march the finance capitalists from the Beehive. “We may only be a small nation but we send a message to the world by this act.”

-John Ball, SA Auckland


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