Saturday, June 22

 A view from Tamaki, and from Sydney

I am currently in my home-town of Sydney, but have lived mostly in New Zealand for over 35 years. Most of that time has been spent in the electorate of Tamaki in Auckland, which covers several of the eastern suburbs from Orakei through to Glendowie on the coast, and inland through Glen Innes, St Johns and parts of Remuera. Till recently it’s been a ‘blue’ National electorate, part of which was the stomping ground of Muldoon and ‘Rob’s Mob’ in decades past. The poorer areas do vote Labour, but even in 2020, Labour supporters – of whom I’m one – couldn’t get their candidate over the line. In the most recent election, however, National MP Simon O’Connor was defeated by ACT candidate Brooke van Velden, Deputy Leader of that party, and now Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety (of which role, more anon).

What happened was that O’Connor embarrassed his Party earlier this year by expressing on his MP page, support for the overturning of Roe vs Wade (the US abortion law). Leader Christopher Luxon, despite being anti-abortion himself, didn’t want this issue resurfacing as National sought the centre-right vote. ACT then sensed the existence of a socially liberal vote base in Tamaki, especially among women, while National pushed O’Connor far enough down their List for him to need to win his seat to remain an MP.

The push from some women in the electorate to have an alternative to O’Connor was palpable. But what resonated with me was how many people weren’t aware of his stance on abortion, until it got into the media, and shocked them. There really are many tribal voters out there, who just give their two ticks without taking account of their actual candidate (and, to be fair, not just in National seats).

In any case, Brooke van Velden ran a strong local campaign. She letterboxed the constituency regularly and held many public meetings. She was young and personable, and lacked O’Connor’s conservative baggage (he had also been against same-sex marriage, as well as against the bill outlawing gay conversion therapy). I had the sense too that some left-leaning people voted strategically for Brooke in their eagerness to see the last of O’Connor, figuring that she was more likely to defeat him than the Labour candidate (Fesaitu Solomone).

Brooke has remained visible on her Facebook page since the election, and her most recent posts continue to offer an impression of electorate engagement.  One featured an afternoon tea with the Auckland City Missioner, and the latest has her at the Glen Innes School Christmas Community Gathering and BBQ – Glen Innes being the electorate’s poorest suburb.

But we’ve still ended up with the ACT full-on free-market ideology. Between the two posts I’ve just mentioned is a series of no fewer than ten others, written on account of Brooke van Velden’s new role as Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety. In the new coalition government she has steered through Parliament the abolition of Labour’s framework for Fair Pay Agreements. And what a barrage of rhetoric!

Said rhetoric is however very repetitive, and to me, very familiar. I’ve been reading it since I encountered Rogernomics on my arrival in New Zealand in 1987. The focus is very much on advantages to business. The government, and ACT members in particular, ‘understand[] the pressures that businesses are facing’. This is supposedly to do with ‘more bureaucracy being piled onto businesses’ via ‘red tape and compliance costs’. ACT, we are told, ‘delivers flexibility and certainty for employers’ because ‘unfair pay agreements’ have been repealed so as ‘to preserve agile and flexible work places’. ‘Flexible’ is clearly a buzz-word for the neo-liberals.

The rhetoric does gesture towards the welfare of employees. Flexibility is great for encouraging employment, apparently, so that the repeal of Fair Pay Agreements will foster ‘wage and job growth for workers’. The new government supports higher wages: businesses will ‘have money to pay staff more’ because of government policy.  And all of them really will, OK? That is, pay higher wages, rather than continue to give the kinds of big donations to ACT which fund full-on, expensive electoral campaigns like Brooke van Velden’s and help keep Labour out?

There’s a part of me that senses that Brooke knows that people will find all this unconvincing – hence the barrage of posts. She nowhere explains why legislation that is aimed at fair pay should be construed primarily as a bureaucratic burden on businesses, as distinct from a measure that might oblige some to pay more. Of course everyone hates ‘red tape’, hence this spin in the rhetoric, and hence the word ‘flexible’ being made to do so much heavy lifting. ‘Flexible’ implies that people negotiating employment arrangements possess similar levels of power – but overarching agreements like Fair Pay ones actually respond to the reality that this is often not the case.

Unluckily, no Fair Pay Agreements had been activated by the time of the election: possibly if they had, Brooke would have found it hard to be the Grinch who actually stole Christmas. But the groups in the pipeline were low-paid workers. They included the cleaners who work unsocial hours, often on the minimum wage; the grocery staff who had to toil during the pandemic and were accordingly lauded by all political parties; and the hospitality sector. It’s the low-paid workers who make up much of the population of Glen Innes, and the people who are needing the local foodbanks; they also loom large in the ever-growing clientele of the Auckland City Mission. I couldn’t attend Brooke’s afternoon tea with the Missioner, but had I done so, I’d have tried to make the link between ongoing low pay and the Mission’s increasing need for funds to help the low-paid.

As for the hospitality sector, what I’m reminded of is the two women who often put out press releases during the pandemic, urging the government to give them more support / let their businesses open up. You could tell when there was a press release, as these two Hospo Ladies would pop up on all the radio and TV programmes. You couldn’t avoid them, and you could get the impression that the pandemic was really a conspiracy against their sector. Waaa! (Like the Briscoes Lady, but more annoying.)  Eventually, of course, hospitality did open up, but there were not for a while longer the tourists and back-packers who were willing to work temporarily for low wages. Cue return of the Hospo Ladies, Waaa! Now people who could get better pay elsewhere didn’t want to work in hospo….. They flexibilised their way out into something more lucrative, or at least liveable. But I guess the existing workers and prospective workers in hospo got the message: hence the Fair Pay Agreement application.

So what has Sydney got to do with all this?  One phenomenon made much of in the last few years is the tendency of New Zealanders to move across the Tasman to get higher wages and salaries than they can command at home. For people on low wages who are in a position to move, won’t that choice become tempting? On my next trip to Sydney, might not the plane be full of New Zealanders doing just that?  Including some from Tamaki? Is that the agility Brooke van Velden and her government really want? But it may be the cost of acting like a Hospo Lady.