The Head Prefect/Student President syndrome that has usurped left wing politics in New Zealand

Chris Hipkins, the boy from Lower Hutt who has assumed Ardern’s legacy of identity politics

I was going to write something on May Day, which still provides a focus on trade union and labour mobilisation around the world. Not just the full on confrontation with the State that we see in France. It is a living tradition in many countries, irrespective of political systems, from Cuba to Australia. Actually the mass event in Cuba was cancelled due to a fuel shortage. But it is also a non-event in New Zealand despite, or because of, the fact that the Labour Party holds a parliamentary majority – what seems a very significant position belies a labour movement that is emasculated, moribund, and can’t organise politically.

This is the legacy of Jacinda Ardern. But rather than indulge in more name-calling, which is what her media cheerleaders still do, I want to be a bit more analytical. There were at least two dominant forces within Ardern’s electoral coalition that can mobilise: the first is the Maori sovereignty activists; and the second are the LGBQT activists. Both these strands are very active, but aren’t necessarily still attached to Labour, as opposed to Ardern. The Maori sovereignty activists can find representation in the Maori Party, which is also present in the Parliament. While the sexual politics activists also lean towards the Green Party. As we saw when someone named Posie Parker tried to visit New Zealand, both of these strands can mobilise, if not become mobs, when the politicians suggest their rights are under threat.

Not so much the labour or trade union movement. It’s not that they don’t get policy gains from having the Labour Party in power, and that they can mobilise when right wing parties return to government and threaten these so-called gains. Unfortunately, the labour movement does not retain its own identity and have the ability to mobilise those that identify with it, in the same way that Maori sovereignty and the transgender activists are able to march in the streets. Ardern was happy to be with them when she was in opposition, and could count on their votes, but her electoral coalition is about to splinter. And her successor, Chris Hipkins, can do nothing about it, even if he had personal charisma or a similar media savvy approach to political management. Neither of these two things would save Ardern’s premiership.

Ardern always retained something of a head girl/prefect sort of persona, along with the goofy grins that made her look like a teenager at times. I don’t think that she was a student politician, but many of her male lieutenants were, including national student presidents like Grant Robertson and Andrew Little; and the other student politicians were James Shaw and Chris Hipkins at Victoria University in Wellington. I was a contemporary of James Shaw in 1993, though older and a postgraduate student by then. While Chris Hipkins was the VUWSA president in 2000-1, and went on to work in Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office not long after that, along with long term allies Robertson and Ardern. Hipkins had also been Head Boy at a small secondary school in Lower Hutt, before it was closed in the 1990s. I happened to go to the main secondary school out there – Hutt Valley High School – and my brother was head boy.

Most of the head pupils and prefects go on to bigger and brighter things, and perhaps some fall by the wayside like me. I hated almost every second of being a student politician and wished I had never done it. This was less political at that point, and more about my experience as a postgrad student and the way that academics conducted themselves. Playing favourites is about the best way to put it, and if you did not do what they wanted, within their ideological positioning, they wouldn’t bother to help. Unless you were well connected they did not feel any need to actively supervise a thesis, but did want to keep the fees already paid. This experience was very different to that of most undergraduate students who tend to be deferential to academics, just repeating what they are told, and the undergraduates becoming student politicians had a similar approach to dealing with the university administrators.

So the lesson for student politicians was to make connections for their own career, and most were open about that being the reason why they went into it. But prior to the 1990s the student presidents and national leaders often appeared in the media, presumably because they represented a movement. I tried to have that debate in 1993, when we needed to strongly oppose the introduction of the student loan scheme, but that battle had already been lost. So in that sense student politicians lost significance, and only remained relevant when the media decided to focus on specific aspects of student hardship, but not policy. But behind all that was the fact that policymaking had become more elitest, and most significant aspects had to be beyond the reach of all ordinary elected politicians, especially in regard to economics.

In previous posts I have effectively referred to a kind of policy tyranny over Covid vaccination, in which everybody had to be deferential and ‘follow the science’ – i.e. the academic experts – even when they advocated removing fundamental civil rights. Despite the data for vaccine efficacy being weak the public health experts wanted citizens to be forced into vaccination, and this was facilitated by politicians like Ardern and Hipkins. Ardern thought she was making the correct ‘captain’s call’ based on the science, but was really just deferring to an academic agenda, and Hipkins followed suit. Indeed, the experts also want every policy situation to be framed in this way, and to impose their agenda directly into policy.

A clearer version of this can be seen in economic matters, especially with monetary policy, where the sanctity of the central bank requires that it has to have constitutional independence. This means that it is meant to focus on inflation, narrowly defined by a statistical index, irrespective of any other economic consequences, and the effect on public finance. There are still some questions about the accountability of having an all powerful central bank governor, but the end result is all that matters, and politicians have no influence. Of course, in New Zealand we have seen that the central bank engaged in untargeted ‘quantitative easing’, with an influx of liquidity in the banking system during Covid lockdowns. The result was domestic inflation, to go with rising oil prices due to war, and this meant the central bank was obliged to hike the rate of discount for the banks. But the cash rate in New Zealand is much higher than in other countries, and the governor literally wants to engineer a recession in what is an election year.

This proves that macroeconomic policy is actually determined by the central bank governor, as the independent expert, just like it is in London. The result of hiking base interest rates is a massive re-distribution of income from mortgage holders to the banking system, and in New Zealand this means mostly foreign-owned banks. All of this is apparently necessary to keep domestic inflation below 3%. But the policy is actually based on an economic theory that denies the fact of there being a fiat currency which the government should manage, with appropriate parliamentary accountability. Ardern, Robertson and Hipkins were powerless to control the ‘magic money tree’ all along. Just like, as student politicians, they were powerless to influence the education policies or practices that affected tertiary students. All they learnt was to be deferential to those who had power and expertise, and just try to occupy empty positions of power. Remember the first thing that Ardern did when she had won the landslide 2020 election: she said that there would never be a wealth tax while she was in power. So much for actually being in office, she wasn’t really in power at all, and Hipkins makes this more obvious every day now.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s