Issues of economic inequality have been absent from the parliamentary political system in recent years. Few political actors now raise questions about the distribution of material wealth. Quite simply, economic inequality does not matter in New Zealand politics. This reflects the general decline of the political left, and the defeat of ideologies and movements that are most associated with combating economic inequality. Class politics has been at a very low ebb in recent years, and the ideas of socialism, Marxism, egalitarianism, anti-capitalism have been largely discredited and out of fashion in both New Zealand politics and academia. The left itself – whose traditional raison d’être has been the struggle for greater economic equality – has been both marginalized and transformed into something other. In general the left in New Zealand – and elsewhere – has become less concerned with issues of economic inequality, and more concerned with other forms of social inequality and struggle, leaving a substantial lacunae in politics. The ‘old politics of equality’ has been superseded by ‘the new politics of equality’ which rejects the previous goal of economic egalitarianism in favour of an emphasis on anti-discrimination legislation and rights for identity groups. This might be termed the victory of ‘identity politics’ over class politics. Yet this situation is now changing in some key, albeit tentative, ways. A combination of factors, including the arrival of the worst economic recession since the 1930s and the unraveling of the identity politics project, has produced a small but significant revival of interest in issues of economic inequality in the last few years. Class politics is not yet re-emerged to structure or characterize New Zealand politics like it used to, but we can see the signs that it is at least partially alive, and therefore economic inequality may yet come to matter again in New Zealand politics. The blog post below is the first in the series of posts on inequality in New Zealand. The first four posts in this series are taken from a draft paper that I delivered to a interdisciplinary Workshop on Inequality at the University of Otago in June entitled ‘Why Economic Inequality Matters’. [Read more below].
There is plenty of evidence of the increasing economic inequality in New Zealand society, and that this has coincided with the implementation and entrenchment of radical neoliberal economic policies over the period of 1984 to 2010. This blog post is not concerned with proving and detailing this growth of economic inequality – a later blog post will do that – but instead with showing how, counter intuitively, this increased economic inequality has coincided with a greater public acceptance of the increased gap between rich and poor. In 2010 the existence of significant economic inequality is now hegemonic – that is, it is seen as part of the natural order of things, necessary, and not entirely undesirable. The sections below provide evidence and examples of how economic inequality does not matter in New Zealand.
There is plenty of opinion surveys that indicate a softening of attitudes toward economic inequality. The International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) carried on here by Massey University’s Prof Phil Gendall has noted significant falls in ‘the proportion of New Zealanders who believe that the government should reduce income differences’. For example, in 1999 75% of respondents agreed that ‘income differences in New Zealand [are] too large’, whereas by 2010 the proportion was only 62%. Similarly, according to the ISSP, in 1992, 71% believed that ‘people on higher incomes [should] pay a larger share of their income in taxes than those on lower incomes’, but by 1999 this proportion had dropped to 61%, and by 2010 it was down to only 53%.
The New Zealand Election Survey (NZES) has also been surveying voter opinion triennially since 1993 and has produced a number of indicators about issues relating to economic inequality. The following NZES data indicates that over time the public has become less inclined to believe that economic inequality matters.
When asked whether the government should ‘Tax rich people more and redistribute income wealth to ordinary people’ (as opposed to ‘let rich keep their income and wealth’ because ‘they are taxed too much’), about half of the survey respondents agreed in 1993. But as Chart 1 shows below, by 2005 this percentage had fallen to only a quarter of recipients.
Clearly there is no longer a significant proportion of the public that believes that economic inequality matters, and it clearly matters less and less. It seems that the age old class-less myth about New Zealand society is now stronger than ever.
Recent general elections in New Zealand have not revolved around issues of economic inequality. No parliamentary political parties campaign upon the issue of economic inequality – especially since the demise of the Alliance party in the early 2000s. In fact, economic-related issues have been declining in importance for voters and parties in elections. Party competition is increasingly configured not by materialist-economic-class issues (that is, by the traditional left-right cleavage), but by postmaterialist issues such as conflicts over immigration, sexual politics (prostitution legalization), foreign policy (intervention in wars, bans on nuclear ships), environmental issues (such as genetic modification and climate change), and personal behaviour (such as alcohol and drug use, and anti-smacking). As a result, a liberal-conservative dimension increasingly structures party competition.
In the 2008 general election, it was law and order that dominated the campaign. Virtually all parties concentrated on showing how conservative they were on issues of crime and punishment. Where materialist issues have been of a concern in elections, they have not been configured by a concern for inequality but often quite the opposite – a concern for tax cuts, etc.
The major political parties in New Zealand now all agree on the basic post-Keynesian economic framework that dominates discourse and policy formation. No party fundamentally challenges the paradigm shift that occurred with the neoliberal revolution that occurred from 1984 onwards. All parties now agree, explicitly or implicitly, that the market is the best mechanism for generating wealth and distributing good and services. Within this ‘new policy consensus’ there is, of course, room for some limited discussion of when and where the state should intervene to correct market failure, but because there is essentially no debate of any substance around material/economic issues.
The lack of parliamentary focus on solutions to economic inequality
Where are the parliamentary parties campaigning for the following issues of economic inequality? Certainly there are no parliamentary parties campaigning on any of the following policies that might have a significant role in decreasing economic inequality:
- Free access to primary health care
- Comprehensive inheritance taxes
- Free public transport
- Abolishing GST
- Introducing a much more highly progressive taxation system
- A move to a 35-hour working week with no loss of pay
- Resetting benefit levels at the current day equivalent of pre–1991 benefit cut levels
- The right to strike to enforce collective agreements, to oppose lay-offs, to support other workers and for political reasons
- Free education to tertiary level and the abolition of student loans
- A comprehensive capital gains tax (without significant exemptions)
- Significant new state housing construction
- Scraping the expensive expenditure on defence
- Getting levels of inequality back below pre-1984 levels
It should not surprise us therefore that there are fewer New Zealanders than ever before that think there is too much economic inequality in New Zealand. This simply reflects the fact that few politicians campaign on these matters and lead the debate. We do not have leftwing political parties that can foster the public consciousness that puts issues of economic redistribution on the electoral and parliamentary agenda. Economic inequality is therefore largely a non-politicised factor in New Zealand society – it is currently a sleeper issue. So although economic inequality, poverty and class are intrinsic parts of New Zealand society, they have not been converted into ‘active’ political cleavages in parliamentary electoral politics.
Civil society and economic inequality
Beyond parliamentary politics there are other parts of civil society that no longer play a role in making economic inequality matter. The universities no longer properly play the role of critic and conscience of society because issues of economic inequality are mostly avoided. Certainly in the fields of political science and sociology – for which I am most familiar – there is relatively little interest in issues of economic inequality. And if you take a look at any general New Zealand politics textbook you will find very little material on anything to do with economic inequality, class, Marxism, socialism, etc. In fact there are few New Zealand academics (especially political scientists or sociologists) that stand out as being public intellectuals on issues of economic inequality.
Similarly within journalism and media, there are few voices writing about economic inequality. The main exceptions are Simon Collins and Chris Trotter. Our news reporting – especially television – generally no longer investigates economic inequality.
All these factors combine to mean that although economic inequality should be a pressing concern in the political arena, it simply does not matter at the moment.