I wish people would stop saying that we have a centre right government. What does that even mean to you? As many people will know, New Zealand recently had its general election, and the National government increased its majority at the considerable expense of the Labour and Green Parties. A couple of times in recent history I have heard this National government referred to as a “centre right” government. In fact Prime Minister John Key used that term on the night of his party’s election victory. Terms like “left” or “right” always carry a degree of subjectivity. To the left of what? But still, there are at least some measurable markers of left and right, surely. Marx and Lenin were surely somewhere left of centre, even if some political figures are more difficult to measure.
In addition to the inherent subjectivity of concepts like “left” and “right” there is the influence of bias or skewing. Who would you most naturally ask about how to measure the “leftness” or “rightness” of the state of a nation’s laws? In reality, probably your friends in person or on social media. But if you set out one day on a quest to ask the most informed people, who would you ask? Inevitably, the people who will have deliberately spent time focusing on political analysis will be people who themselves have fairly strong and well-developed political views. You might suggest that to get an assessment of where the New Zealand centre really sits on the left/right spectrum you should ask a lecturer in political science. But according to research from the University of Toronto (where it is significant that Canada and New Zealand have comparable political climates), 75% of social science faculty and a whopping 81% of humanities faculty identify as “liberal” rather than moderate or conservative. According to the study, “The most left-leaning departments are English literature, philosophy, political science and religious studies, where at least 80 percent of the faculty say they are liberal and no more than 5 percent call themselves conservative.” A political science professor may well hold one of the more skewed perspectives that exists. To someone who lives within the walls of that subculture, a party in the centre will seem considerably more “right wing” than the observer.
The evidence in terms of the actual law and policy that our current national government supports does not support the depiction of them as occupying the centre of the “right.” There are specific, identifiable policies they currently support that – to an outsider who is unfamiliar with our familiar political rhetoric – places them either in the centre of the spectrum or else somewhat to the left of it – or at the very least almost certainly not to the right of it. Those identifiable markers are as follows:
Progressive taxation is where you pay a greater proportion of your income in tax as your income increases. Depending on your perspective, progressive taxation eases the burden on the less wealthy (this would perhaps be a more “left wing” interpretation) or “punishes the more productive” (this is generally the more right-wing take on things). New Zealand’s most right-wing party in Parliament, the ACT party, is the only one to say that they advocate a “flat tax.” But they have described this “flat tax” in a way that reveals it to be a progressive tax: The first portion of income is tax –free, and there is just one rate beyond that (according to their current written policy, no more than 20%).
The National government is now into its third term and it clearly supports a very progressive taxation scheme. For the first $14,000 of income, you pay 10.5% in income tax. There are four tax rates in all, the highest being 33%, which individuals pay on all of their annual income above $70,000.
Socialised education and health
We’re in a bit of a social bubble here in New Zealand. We take a lot for granted, and two of the things we take for granted are socialised (that is, state-owned and taxpayer-funded) healthcare and education. We are so accustomed to these things that we think of them as the “normal” marker. Any arrangement without socialised universal healthcare (in particular, free hospitals), for example, looks extreme to most of us. Whether such arrangements are good or bad (this really isn’t about what I think is a good system), the fact that so many in New Zealand would regard them as extreme tells us something. Of course, nearly all other developed nations also provide some sort of universal healthcare, simply showing that virtually nobody takes a libertarian approach to healthcare (or basic education).The United States, until recently, was exceptional. But this doesn’t mean that state health and education are at the centre of the political spectrum. It only shows that pretty much everybody thinks that the state can or should administer some social services. We all believe in at least (here comes the dreadful word, block your ears, conservatives!) a little bit of socialism.
Every political party, if it wants to survive in New Zealand, advocates state welfare for the less wealthy in some form. That’s what our political arena is like – there simply isn’t a space for those who don’t believe in welfare. In practice, our spectrum runs from those who believe in more welfare than some (e.g. the Greens) to those who believe in less than most (e.g. ACT). But if you say that there should be no state welfare, virtually nobody will vote for you. That tells us something about where the New Zealand “centre” is at.
Our current government provides fairly comprehensive welfare programmes. Those who are unable to find work can receive Jobseeker Support. Those on low incomes can receive an accommodation supplement to help them meet housing costs. There are many other types of welfare assistance for people in a range of circumstances in New Zealand (browse most of them here).
Both major parties talk about raising the minimum wage, albeit by different amounts and in different timeframes. Our current National government wants to keep the current minimum wage of $14.25 per hour a little longer. But in 2013 New Zealand had the seventh highest real minimum wage in the OECD. That our current government does not want to jump to the number one ranking hardly places them on the right. It only means that they are not on the very far left.
A regulated market
In principle New Zealand law allows for heavy regulation of markets. As Chapman Tripp summarise :
Part IV of the Commerce Act contains a mechanism to impose price controls on particular goods and services. There are no restrictions on the industries to which Part IV may apply.
Part IVA requires the Commerce Commission to establish performance thresholds for electricity line businesses and gives the Commission the ability to impose price controls on businesses which breach those thresholds.
Other industries subject to specific market regulation include:
- telecommunications (under the Telecommunications Act 2001)
- dairy (under the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act 2001)
- gas (under the Commerce Act 1992).
It was suggested to me today that the National government is really on the right overall because they carried out partial state asset sales, where they sold minority stakes in large assets like Mighty River Power. But this hardly suffices as evidence. In the first place, the state still owns a majority share. Secondly, the fact that the state does not completely own the means of production is nowhere near enough to indicate that they fall anywhere on the right of the political spectrum. State regulation of private enterprise is also a hallmark of left-wing economics, and here we have a situation where the government still owns a majority share and heavily regulates the industry, to the point of being able to impose price controls. Only at the most superficial level could this be construed as “right wing.”
While the National government is apparently planning to make some reforms to the Resource Management Act to make compliance easier for farmers, and while this sort of “cutting red tape” will be seen by some as a mark of the political right, remember that the National government introduced the RMA in the first place, and they are only talking about moderate reform, not abolition (the ACT party wants it abolished). The RMA continues to represent significant state control around what landowners may do with that land.
Sit back and take all these facts in. If you’re a New Zealander, they might not sink in. You might just say to yourself, “but those things are just NORMAL.” Correct. That’s the point. They are what we regard as the norm here even though together they mark out a political territory to the left of centre. Even if, as may be the case, there are those within the current government who might wish for policies that were further to the right, the National Party has no such policies. You don’t know what right-wing economics even look like if you live in New Zealand, so to fill that gap in your conceptual apparatus, you insert whatever is to the right of you. But in identifiable, measurable terms, it is a real puzzle that so many of us uncriticially by the rhetoric that Labour is on the left and National is on the right. We have a left-leaning centrist government.
Feel free to come up with other examples of policies in the comments!
And now since I know that some idiots… I mean fellow citizens in my country don’t agree with me: HAVE AT YOU!