Monday, January 16, 2012

Lying low

Halfway through January, the political temperature is starting to rise, but still the parties are lying low. And up to a point, that's fair enough: most politicians work bloody hard all year, and for the party leaders, ministers and major spokespeople especially, the relief of three or four weeks out of the public glare must be sanity-restoring. Just meeting their families again—'Hallo, which one are you?'—can only be life-enhancing, if not ego-humbling. Wellington anniversary day (this year, the 23rd) is usually the day when the cabinet has its first meeting of the year and that's when the politicians come bounding out of their boxes again, like greyhounds after the lure.

Having said that, it still seems remarkable that virtually none of them have said a word about the Ports of Auckland dispute. The dispute is no petty squabble; quite apart from its economic significance for a major Auckland employer and the people of Auckland, who (you might have forgotten this) actually own the port company, it raises urgent questions about workforce casualization, worker rights, union power, the privatization debate and the nature of business competition and productivity. Yet no government minister to my knowledge has even passed an opinion on it, let alone proposed a way out of the impasse.

Some will say it's no business of theirs, but by that criterion no minister would ever say anything about anything. Even during these holidays Gerry Brownlee has popped up to comment on government departments relocating out of the Christchurch city centre, Nick Smith fronted the media when the Rena broke, and Phil Heatley has ventured a view on oil exploration. It seems they have all sorts of thoughts, but not of ports.

There is, it's true, a perceivable political rationale for the National Party government staying out of this. Not so with the Labour Party, or at least not a rationale that reflects very well on a party whose very name, if it still means anything, suggests—no, insists—that it should take a stand on the dispute. New leader David Shearer has now been in the job for five weeks, but has said not a thing (about pretty much anything, actually, let alone the port dispute).

Extraordinarily, over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar argues that if Shearer spoke up in sympathy with the Maritime Union workers involved, 'it would just pigeonhole him as captive to the unions which fund the Labour Party... He is the leader of the parliamentary Labour Party and of the Opposition—he is not a union spokesman.'

Eh? A party leader can't comment on a major issue without being seen as somehow compromised? To buy this line would be to accept that politicians should be bland neuters above the fray; spectators in their own country.

One Labour person who has said something at length in public during the past two weeks—Rangitikei candidate Josie Pagani—says Labour will get nowhere if it doesn't reconnect with working people and their aspirations. Leaving aside some disturbing implications of Pagani's article, which I hope to revisit when I've fully digested them, her argument begs the question why Labour has not visibly connected with the Auckland watersiders. If they're not working people of the kind the party claims to represent, then who are?

At the very least, Labour MPs need to counter the kind of spin being put on the dispute by one National politician, albeit a very junior one, who has commented: the new Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross, who argues for a 'significant overhaul' of legislation to stop unions occupying a 'privileged position in New Zealand’s employment law.' Even the Labour MPs' blogsite Red Alert has not responded to that.

One can accept that the Labour Party collectively is having a Very Big Think about the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and its place in the scheme of things, but I'm not sure that staying shtum on the big issues of the day is entirely the right way to go about it. All very well to speak out boldly against 'asset sales' but that's a bit like being anti-whaling: a relatively safe stance to take. Engaging vigorously in more contentious, complex debates is the real test of a party. To paraphrase E M Forster, one might say to Labour: how do we know what you think until we see what you say?

ps If it's true, as Farrar says, that Labour's labour spokesperson Darien Fenton at one point joined the Maritime Union's picket line, then I apologize for implying she hasn't taken sides in the dispute. But we still haven't heard from her this year.

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