This is something that’s been bugging me for a while. Frequently in online conversations (usually over at The Standard) people have been pointing to the speech made by Annette King at the Labour Party’s 2010 conference* – usually to indicate a change of direction by Labour, a solid differentiation from National, a clear plan to change things for the better and focus on Kiwi kids’ lives.
But … I just didn’t get it. There wasn’t a concrete, specific thing I disagreed with, just a niggling little feeling that we had not in fact entered some Brave New Age of Labour finally remembering to be the party of giving a fuck about poverty instead of clawing for “centre” “middle” “mainstream” “average” New Zealand (also known as pretty-fucking-well-off middle-class heterosexual white families who like to think that getting their daughter to stop texting during dinner is The Worker’s Struggle.)
I did have to ask myself if this was just prejudice. If I just had real trouble accepting For Our Children rhetoric from a Labour Deputy Leader who said in 1996 that the child tax credit isolated “beneficiaries from other families, treats them like lepers and worst of all it treats their children differently. What is different about a beneficiary child?“, then sat by as a member of a Government that fought against the Child Poverty Action Group’s complaint against Working For Families treating beneficiaries’ children differently,** and now (following an election when the left decided to stay home because they might have felt a bit fucking disillusioned) wants to say “Oh sorry, I guess that obviously unjust thing was obviously unjust*** but we totes care about the kiddies, honest! Social justice, what what?”
… Yeah, I’m obviously having a bit of trouble buying that.
But was that affecting my reading of Annette’s conference speech?
Obviously the only way to check was to rip the shit out of it and see how many points make me go all capslocky and sweary.
Don’t pretend you’re not turned on right now.
Part One: Attack of the Waffle
As New Zealanders we like to think our country is the best place in the world to bring up children; we call it “God’s own”. We say things like the future of New Zealand is with our children; our children are our greatest asset; every child deserves a decent standard of living; every child should have the ability to reach their full potential. We value our children. Children matter.
Absolutely nothing in the intro tells you that this is a Labour Party speech. Paula Bennett could happily begin a speech with this. Sir Roger Not Dead Yet Douglas could say this. Why not just fucking say “I love coming to … ROTORUA! *pause for cheap pop* You guys are great! Not like those guys in … TAUPO! *pause for boos*”? Why not “As a New Zealander, a lifetime fan of Barry Crump and a regular eater of Watties Tomato Sauce, I think puppies are cute” if we’re just going for fucking empty suck-up platitudes?
Part Two: There Is No Permanent Record
All those statements are true, but are they true for every child in New Zealand?
Obvious answer is obvious, and YOU FUCKING KNOW WHAT IT IS GIVEN YOUR FUCKING PARTY DEFENDED USING BENEFICIARIES’ KIDS TO BULLY THEIR PARENTS.
For the past 18 months, we in Labour have been thinking and re-examining all our policies. A time in Opposition allows for that!
Apparently Labour didn’t think “thinking” was something they had time for in government. Suddenly the 2008 defeat makes a lot more sense. But seriously, what kind of excuse is this? Is Annette, and by extension Labour, trying to pretend that they honestly couldn’t have done anything different in their last term in government, or even their first term? I’m on record as being very critical of the classic “you had nine years” rhetoric, but seriously, Labour did have nine years and it was so pathetically obvious a bribe attempt to announce six months out from an election “oh yeah and we’ll totally get around to that universal student loan thing, which we have coincidentally remembered just when polls have shown we’ve fucked our student support base!”
Then some genius decided to bring up the statistics:
New Zealand is not doing as well for children as are other comparable countries. We sit in the bottom third in OECD rankings for most child indicators.
And yes, obviously, social change isn’t an overnight thing. It takes a while. So the party who’ve recently been in charge for a solid decade might not want to raise the question of what the fuck they did, especially when the answer is “defend to the death our right to starve beneficiaries’ children”.
Part Three: The Tells
It seems picky, but language is so important. Especially when a speech is being sold as a step-change (whoops, there I go) and a new direction and a turnaround from nasty neoliberal politics … and contains phrases like:
looked at where our emphasis should be for future investment
It is this period, the report states, that needs to be given the highest priority for investment.
tilting public expenditure towards the early years of life.
The tilting one is particularly awful. God forbid we invest more into children, apparently it’s all about putting them at the top of the list (who gets bumped down?) and shifting the scales in their favour (and whose side of the see-saw has to go down for theirs to go up?)
And it’s really heartening to see a rejection of that whole “social engineering nanny state” bollocks from the last election:
Labour has developed a new, fresh family and whānau policy narrative, not based on the government bringing up children
Oops. I realise I’m not a politician, much less one with Annette’s level of experience, but I can’t help but think it’s a bit fucking stupid to buy into your enemy’s narrative, especially a narrative which is a barely-disguised attack on all social funding and all government support for families. Ditto for the “our early childhood education is underfunded” and “our social services aren’t well integrated” bits.
Part Four: Oh, Right, You’re Not Saying Anything
But here’s the clincher, the bit my brain kept skipping, the core of what’s so not-actually-A-New-Hope about this.
Today I want to give a broad outline of our policy – “Putting Children First”. Detailed announcements, including costings will be made in due course.
I don’t expect detailed costings and a shadow Budget a year out from an election. But I do want more than a long hand-wavey Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Everyone Was Nice chat-ette from the Deputy Leader of a party who wants to be leading the next government.
Labour has developed a new, fresh family and whānau policy narrative
We just, um, don’t know what it says yet. Except it’ll take 6 years! Because 6 makes us seem serious and committed without reeking too much of “you can’t criticise us unless you elect us to a second term.”
Part Five: Except for the Fucking Obvious
Annette does share some very important facts, though. Like, poverty is bad! And poverty is cyclical! And kids raised in poverty are a lot more likely to have shit lives than kids who got iPods with their parents’ tax credits! And the early years are totes important! It’s like somebody left a Sir Robert Winston DVD in the Labour caucus room.
Part Six: And Some Really Non-Specific Specifics!
Under the heading “Legislative and Structural Change” (ooh, so beguiling) you’d hope to get some solid information on what Labour wants to do.
And you do, if your definition of “solid information” includes a lot of “commitments”, and “reporting”, and “new policy”. Not new policy on anything, in particular. And as with the intro, there is absolutely nothing to separate this “policy” from anything National would say to describe their position either. It’s all “kids are important, and we’re going to make government departments focus on kids, and we’ll change the way things are done, and we’ll totally make it work.”
Basically, if you were hoping for specific teacher-pupil ratios or a commitment to not fuck over Plunket or specific funding to train more ECE teachers … well, the closest you’ll get is
Labour also proposes … all babies at birth would be enrolled with a Well-Child provider
Labour’s going to make a currently-available service compulsory! Woo-hoo. That’ll definitely help with the “governments not raising children” sell.
Conclusion: Go-Home Sequence
Come on, Annette! Show us some fire, make us proud, keep it original and fresh and … oh.
To quote Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel –
…Labour proposes an Agenda for Change for Children. The full details will be there for all New Zealanders to see before the 2011 Election. There will be a clear choice – tinker and talk or bold action that will finally put our children first and makes New Zealand the best place in the world to bring up all our children.
A Nelson Mandela quote and “stay tuned for more details of this amazing offer”. Yeah. That’s a speech to keep me warm on the cold 2011 campaign nights, when I find myself wondering “but has Labour changed?”
The warmth will be coming from my righteous fucking fury.
*Incidentally, Labour, your website’s search function blows big floppy donkey dick.
**CPAG lost on the discrimination front, in a decision praised by Paula Bennett (nice philosophical company you’re keeping, Labour) because hey, starving these kids now might force their parents to take minimum-wage jobs in the future! And hey, we have to make sure work pays better than benefits, which would totally be a concern if benefits weren’t already set at below-survival-requirements levels!
**Not that any senior Labour MPs, as far as I’m aware, have ever directly addressed the discriminatory nature of
their bribe to the middle class Working for Families. Happy to be corrected but may pass out from shock.