Inside Labour's conference
By Richard Harman (author)
A week ago Labour's former deputy leader Sir Michael Cullen set his party a challenge when he asked it to define its purpose.
On Saturday afternoon he told a closed workshop at the party's conference, to which POLITIK was invited that Grant Robertson’s Commission on the Future of Work had done exactly what he wanted.
He wasn’t alone; Robertson’s presentation set the tone for the whole conference.
His document is a complex one but it sets out to address the impact that digital disruption and globalisation is having on the New Zealand workforce.
Labour is the first political party in New Zealand to address these twin issues.
Of course, the headlines have focussed on his proposal that businesses should pay some sort of levy if they don't commit to training worker or to have apprentices or interns.
In turn, that got slammed by business lobby groups.
But there was much more to Robertson’s document than that policy.
It committed to an active labour market and floated the idea of assessing trials of a Universal Basic Income. (UBI).
In the closed workshop, there were questions about the UBI and a warning that it could easily lead not to a work based but a welfare based society.
However, the document does focus on what happens to workers who lose their jobs because of technological change.
Robertson proposes that they would get up to six weeks of free retraining along with the already-announced entitlement to three years of post-school education or training over their lifetime.
Employers with workers likely to become redundant because of technological change would be required to have skill development plans to prevent them from becoming unemployed on redundancy.
And within schools, teachers would be able to learn computer coding so they could teach that and all students staying at decile 1 to 5 primary schools would have access to their own portable digital device and schools would be encouraged to establish “code clubs” for young geeks to practice their craft.
School students would also be able to get their driving licence and be financially literate as well as having their own personalised career development plan.
The former Mayor of Otorohanga Dale Williams introduced a similar plan in his town, and it led to a much lower rate of unemployment among the town’s youth.
There’s a proposal for a wage subsidy for employers who take on apprentices but also encouragement for collective bargaining and a proposal to abolish secondary tax.
Andrew Little’s speech to the conference highlighted a proposal to provide PEP-style work for young unemployed, principally working on the DOC estate.
(Little's speech did not mention John Key at all --- clearly part of a strategy to have Labour look positive and forward thinking.)
The jobs proposal looked like a move to bolster support for the party in the Maori electorates where jobs are scarce in the provincial hinterland.
(Labour knows it has got problems with its Maori vote and its Maori caucus are said to be unhappy that the Caucus will not agree them sending a delegation to Cannonball in North Dakota where thousands of Native Americans have been camping out in since April to protest against a pipeline that is meant to cross sacred burial grounds and the Missouri River - the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.)
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the whole proposal was a section of Robertson's speech when he said that young people “talked to us not so much about the jobs they would do in the future but rather the work they would create.
"Many more New Zealanders are self employed, managing a portfolio of work that is built around their lives."
That is a fundamental break with Labour’s long time regard of itself as a party largely of the employed.
In a way, it simply acknowledges the self-employed digital economy --- such as games developers --- some considerable time after the Greens embraced it.
But even so, it was part of what seemed to be a new approach to the private sector which was also evident in a panel discussion chaired by David Parker.
There's a suggestion that Labour has had to come to terms with the private sector because research based on the last election showed that the electorate had little faith in its ability to manage the economy.
So the party has been actively courting private sector leaders and it looks as though it is beginning to pay off.
Parker's panel included two faces you might have thought would be unlikely to show up at a Labour party conference.
Andrew Barclay, an investment banker from Goldman Sachs, told the conference that though superficially the New Zealand economy looked good, it had failed to deliver any real growth per capita and had mounted up a huge amount of consumer debt which would eventually cause a correction which would be “very very painful”.
Michael Stiassny, a principle of Korda Mentha and Chair of Vector, argued that our dairy and meat industries in their present form would not provide for our grandchildren.
But much of the panel discussion was about wealth inequality.
Barclay said that the answer was not to have a discussion about personal tax rates.
"The big gain here is to be made from those people that are multi nationals in our country who are enjoying an exorbitant privilege because they are generally in a two player market where they cannot help but make a fortune," he said.
"We must make sure they pay the right amount of tax.
"It's not hundreds of millions of dollars; it's billions.
"By taking that money and then recycling it into the bottom; funding programmes, helping people, using it as the lever to give people a leg up is the way for us to be thinking about tax.”
But there was still plenty of Labour's traditional; arguments for more state spending.
Deputy Leader Annette King’s key note speech ticked off calls for more spending on health, education and mental health in particular.
And perhaps behind much of the debate was the question raised at the Fabians Forum the week before --- how would the next Labour Government restore democratic socialism to New Zealand.
There is a widespread view among the party faithful that much as they appreciated the Clark Government putting an end to Rogernomics they also felt that it had not reninvented democratic socialism for the age that we live in.
Cullen believes that Robertson's Commission goes a long way towards answering that question.
However they are clearly not there yet.
Their social policies are still ad hoc and though they like to link them together under the banner of the "Kiwi Dream" they have not been subjected to the intellectual rigour that Robertsons work policies have..
The ultimate question, of course, is can they win next year.
Andrew Little says they can; but it was perhaps a bit premature to use the "it's time" slogan which a video played to the conference did.
They have certainly cemented their relationship with the Greens and the presence of the Green leadership on Friday night was a successful move.
Beyond the friction with the Maori caucus, there seems to be little of the bitter dissent that has marked previous conferences though the party hierarchy made sure all of the remit sessions were behind closed doors to avoid any of that dissent (if there was any) percolating out into the public.
But then National deal with that problem by simply sanitising their conference remits so that there is no room for dissent.
In the workship attended by POLITIK, there was a discussion about the party's history and the question was raised as to where the party was now compared to other election cycles.
It was suggested that in fact it was 1969 with a three-term National Government running out of ideas and beginning to look tired but with Labour not quite ready to take over.
There was surprisingly little dissent with that proposition.
Labour’s gamble is that the electorate will tire of John Key and will seek a serious answer to the country’s problems which with Robertson’s Commission and Little’s demeanour they showed this weekend they are ready to provide.
The only question is whether that will be next year or in 2020.