Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Labour's past and present ally

These three all agree. GST off food - no way!

None other than Don Brash (former Reserve Bank governor and leader of the National Party) has rushed to the Labour government's defence over their refusal to remove GST off food.

But will Don do Labour more harm than good? In his opinion piece in the NZ Herald he reveals how he worked with the Labour government of the day to implement this flat tax.

He claims that New Zealand has one of the best GST schemes in the world. The best for who? This clumsy champion of the rich and privileged gives us the answer by pointing out how businesses don't actually pay GST, only the end consumer.

What he’s worried about, of course, is that removing GST off food may undermine this major policy plank of neo-liberalism and lead to calls for GST to be scrapped completely. He may be right on that one.

Don Brash: Abolish GST on food? No way

30 April 2008

Abolishing GST on food would be a seriously stupid thing to do. Yes, I know, I was the chairman of the committee which designed New Zealand's GST back in the mid-80s, and so may be accused of being biased.

But we gave serious consideration to exempting food from GST at that time, and decided for three reasons not to do so. Those reasons are still absolutely valid today.

First, it is clear that every exemption from GST adds greatly to the compliance costs imposed on businesses collecting the tax.

People make the mistake of assuming that GST is like a sales tax, only levied on goods and services when they are finally sold to consumers. If this were the case, then it might be feasible to exempt some goods from the tax, though even in that situation there would be an increase in compliance costs.

But GST is not like a sales tax. Rather, it is a tax levied every time a product or service changes hands, and it is designed that way to reduce tax avoidance.

When a retailer buys goods from a wholesaler to on-sell to his final customers, he pays tax on those goods; when the wholesaler buys goods from the manufacturer, he pays tax on those goods; when the manufacturer buys goods from the farmer, or miner, or power company, he pays tax on those goods - and each one of them then claims that tax back as an "input credit" because GST is intended to be a tax only on final consumption spending. Claiming back the "input credit" is a very simple process when all the retailers' goods are liable to GST. He simply adds up the cost of all goods and services purchased, divides the total by nine to calculate the GST paid (at 12.5 per cent), and deducts that from the amount due the IRD for GST collected on sales.

The same process applies to every stage of the production process. But if some of the goods the retailer sells are exempt from GST that simple calculation goes out the window.

He has to start working out how much of his power bill is attributable to the sale of the exempt goods (because no input credit is available on that part of the power bill). And how much of his shop rental is attributable to the sale of the exempt goods; how much of his office stationery costs are attributable to the sale of the exempt goods; and so on. The time and cost involved in filing a GST return for everybody involved in providing the GST-exempt goods increases exponentially.

Secondly, abolishing GST on food would be a very inefficient way of helping those low-income families who most need help with their food bills in terms of the amount of government revenue foregone.

While it is certainly true that low-income families spend a disproportionately large part of their income on food, most of the money spent on food across the whole community, and therefore most of the revenue which would be lost if GST on food were abolished, is paid by middle and high-income families. If the Government sees a need to help those families most adversely affected by rising food bills, then the best way of doing that is by reducing the income tax levied on low-income families, or adjusting the Working for Families policy to help those on low incomes.

Thirdly, if GST is abolished on food, why not on other "essentials", like children's clothing, doctor's bills, books, and the like? In no time at all, political pressures would build up to exempt other goods and services.

Compliance costs would go through the roof. Revenue from GST would fall, with the result that the GST rate of tax would need to rise on the goods and services still subject to the tax (as has happened in most European countries). Or income tax rates would need to be higher than would otherwise be necessary.

New Zealand has one of the best GST systems in the world. Don't succumb to short-term pressures to bastardise it.

GST off food - the people are having their say!

The Maori Party and Greypower, two of the biggest membership organisations in NZ, have come out in support of RAM's GST-off-food petition. These two organizations are recognizing the public mood that’s out there. This support is most welcome. The Grand Coalition of Labour- National-Act, limply followed by the Greens, have failed to brush off and de-legitimise RAM's GST-off-food campaign. The people are having their say much to the obvious displeasure of the politicians. The GST-off-food campaign is growing in momentum with the recent media exposure. People continue to flock to sign the petition. This social justice issue is not going to go away before the election because it has such strong buy-in from the majority of New Zealanders, and because RAM will keep on campaigning with the support of the Maori Party and Greypower and no doubt other organisations.
Press release from the Maori Party supporting RAM's GST-off-food petition: 'Drop the GST on Food' call supported by Maori Party Tariana Turia, Co-leader of the Maori Party and Health Spokesperson Tuesday 29 April 2008 The Maori Party has welcomed the call for a wider debate about removing GST on food, sparked off by the latest grim report from the Child Poverty Action Group, 'Left Behind'. "Desperate times call for bold responses ­ and that is what the public is wanting ­ not policy cowardice" said Mrs Turia. "We need to be looking at the big picture ­ about how we can improve the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, now". "And yet what we get from Labour and National is that they have ruled out even talking about dropping GST from food with the excuse that it may be too 'complex' or 'difficult to implement'". "What utter rubbish" said Mrs Turia. "Since when have good ideas been squashed because they may involve a bit of tricky policy thinking?". "Being administratively challenging is not a good enough excuse to avoid being socially responsible" said Mrs Turia. "If there is a will, there is a way". "National and Labour need to stop thinking up reasons why not and get to grips with the urgent crisis facing this nation ­how the social and income inequalities are damaging our children". "We are not interested in playing a game of political point-scoring, heaping blame on the policy failings of the 80s and 90s - our focus is about investing in the future of this nation" said Mrs Turia. "If we are serious about eliminating poverty, and caring for the well-being of our children, we must listen to the good ideas of the people and be prepared to do something about it". "If it is so difficult, perhaps officials could talk to their counterparts in Australia or Britain to see how they have been able to achieve the goal of removing GST from food" ended Mrs Turia. Background € "CPAG tells us that tamariki are being 'left behind', deprived of material well-being due to insufficient disposable income, sub-standard housing, inadequate nutritious food and unequal access to health care". € "The Public Health Association has suggested the removal of GST from fruit, vegetables, bread and other cereals and milk is one way of responding to the long-standing health, educational and social disadvantage these children may suffer". € "The Manufacturers and Exporters Association (NZMEA) has said it would support the removal of GST on key food items; while the Residents Action Movement, has signed up more than 1000 people on its petition to abolish GST on food".

GST-off-food petition will continue until election

RAM - Residents Action Movement Media release 29 April 2008 In response to RAM's hugely popular petition calling for GST to be removed from food, parliament's politicians have spoken with one voice - "No!" Spokespeople from the Labour, National, Act and Green parties have dismissed the GST-off-food proposal as "too complicated", "simplistic", "populist" and so on. "What the politicians have in common is trying to turn a deaf ear to the vast majority of people in New Zealand," said Grant Morgan, chair of RAM - Residents Action Movement. "Over the GST-on-food issue we see a Grand Coalition of Labour-National-Act-Green politicians going to war against the wishes of people struggling to pay the bills." "That's why people are saying that 'the politicians won't listen to us'. We hear this over and over again at RAM stalls carrying the GST-off-food petition. It's a central reason why many hundreds are joining RAM in addition to signing the petition," said Grant Morgan. "Most people are so sick of not being listened to that they have contempt for politicians. Over the last few weeks, 1,200 of those people have become RAM members because we're seen as grassroots campaigners doing a good job around the GST-off-food petition." "RAM has pledged to work hard to turn GST-on-food into a big election issue. We have collected thousands of signatures in the few weeks the petition has been going." "RAM and our supporters will be carrying on collecting signatures until the election campaign, when our petition will be presented to all parties represented in parliament." "This issue will not go away despite the politicians hoping otherwise. The people are hurting. They are upset that the politicians won't listen. They are going to make their voice heard. You can bet on it." For more information, contact: Grant Morgan Chair of RAM - Residents Action Movement 021 2544 515 PO Box 13-157, Auckland

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Solutions to the food crisis: immediate demands and longer term goals

One of the main drivers of the current global food crisis is the conversion of plant crops into biofuels.

The global food crisis is impacting big time in New Zealand. People are hurting as they try and cope with food price hikes. As reported in the NZ Herald (26.4.08) an average trolley load of groceries has increased by 28% over the last year. Ominously this could just be the start of higher prices, with a number of factors pushing international food prices upwards. Including extreme weather conditions caused by climate change destroying food crops; a wave of speculation in basic commodities after the bursting of the housing bubble and global credit crunch; and the insane rush to turn plant crops into biofuels rather than food for people. Over the past 12 months food prices globally have gone up 40% on average. 37 countries have been forced to declare a food crisis. There have been food riots and protests around the world. Continue

Latte liberals, neo-liberals and RAM's GST-off-food petition

by GRANT MORGAN Chair of RAM 29 April 2008 RAM seems to have really got under the skin of Labour's latte liberals! One of Greater Auckland's media-obsessed blogs that most fervently supports Queen Helen is Public Address. Usually they don't like to admit that "awkward people" like RAM even exist. That, however, has changed following the media scrum around RAM's GST-off-food petition. The Public Address editor, who admits to being "relatively well-off", has begun sneering at the "quite clever" way that RAM is mobilising "the poor people RAM claims to represent" who clearly want to remove GST from food. Yet, after trotting out the usual lame Labour Party excuses why GST simply cannot be removed from food, and then saying how hard it would be to introduce any other policy of real benefit to the increasingly dispossessed majority, all our esteemed editor can come up with is "the future seems to demand that something be done". Well, golly gosh! Does this accurately reflect the penetrating intellect and popular conscience of Labour's latte liberals? Just for once, why can't this comfortably-well-off social tribe show a degree of solidarity with the much more numerous and often deprived communities living in modest-income burbs like Manurewa, Henderson and Mangere? Well, if they did that, it would call into question their lack of coherent opposition to the market-driven neo-liberal strategy followed (despite narrowing policy differences) by both Labour and National. You see, unlike the latte liberals, RAM has a plan. We want GST off food because it is the tax cut of most benefit to people struggling to meet the bills, who pay a far high proportion of their total income on food than do the wealthy. And we want GST off food because it would erode GST as a regressive taxation system which punishes the poor so the rich can receive income tax cuts. GST is one of the central pillars of neo-liberalism which, over the last 20 years, has resulted not in a trickle-down to the bottom (as we were promised) but instead a flood-up to the top. Once we build a People Power movement that forces the politicians to remove GST from food, then we may well have the momentum to start removing GST from everything else. And that would open the way towards a more progressive taxation system which benefits the majority of low-to-modest income earners. Of course, that may not suit the "relatively well-off" editor of Public Address. Never mind. Have another latte and get over it. In fact, why not come down to my local cafe in Mangere Bridge and I will shout you a --- latte! FYI, below is the Public Address article in question.
PUBLIC ADDRESS 29 April 2008 It's quite clever on the part of Residents Action Movement to have latched onto the removal of GST from food products as part of its move to launch on the national stage But the idea itself is completely daft. Many other countries have chosen not to apply their GST-style taxes to some or all foodstuffs, but that's typically more a nod to social sentiment than practicality, consistency or effectiveness. Who'd bet against the 12.5% saving on food being at least partially swallowed up by increased margins, or simply more price rises of the kind we're already seeing? The cost, meanwhile, would be both in the simplicity and relative ease of compliance in the system we have, and in more than two billion dollars in government revenue. Critically, such a policy would benefit relatively well-off people who spend more money on food - that'll be me - far more than the poor people RAM claims to represent. The more straightforward solution - although it may not be any more politically palatable in an election year where the middle class feels it's struggling too - is to increase the household incomes of the poorest families, both through the device of the minimum wage and, if not raise benefit levels per se, bump up family support payments. Steve Pierson at the Standard has a more developed line of thinking on the issue It's unlikely that Labour will take up all the recommendations of the Child Poverty Action Group Labour has actually achieved genuine movement on child poverty, and may be feeling it has missed its chance to do more (you may imagine the political furore when benefit increases are followed by what seems like an inevitable rise in unemployment as the year proceeds) but with nearly a quarter of New Zealand children relying on fixed benefits, the future seems to demand that something be done.

Grey Power Disappointed Over Scrap GST Dismissal

Press Release: Grey Power New Zealand Tuesday, 29 April 2008 Grey Power is very disappointed that the Prime Minister has rubbished a proposal to exempt GST from food. Superannuitants are very adept at making every cent of their National Superannuation count but the ever-escalating costs for essential items such bread, milk, meat, electricity etc (with tax cuts now not expected until 2009) are making further "belt tightening" impossible. It would appear to us that this government puts a huge surplus in the economy before the electorate. We would remind the PM that many of our members now go to bed early during the colder months or at least wrap themselves in blankets to keep warm because of the high and ever-rising cost of electricity. It would therefore be helpful if the Prime Minister could advise our membership of an alternative for food. Grey Power is a nationwide organization with 79 associations and 90,000 members.

FOOD CRISIS: "The greatest demonstration of the historical failure of the capitalist model"

"If the government cannot lower the cost of living it simply has to leave. If the police and UN troops want to shoot at us, that's OK, because in the end, if we are not killed by bullets, we'll die of hunger."
— A demonstrator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

by Ian Angus

In Haiti, where most people get 22% fewer calories than the minimum needed for good health, some are staving off their hunger pangs by eating "mud biscuits" made by mixing clay and water with a bit of vegetable oil and salt.[1]

Meanwhile, in Canada, the federal government is currently paying $225 for each pig killed in a mass cull of breeding swine, as part of a plan to reduce hog production. Hog farmers, squeezed by low hog prices and high feed costs, have responded so enthusiastically that the kill will likely use up all the allocated funds before the program ends in September.

Some of the slaughtered hogs may be given to local Food Banks, but most will be destroyed or made into pet food. None will go to Haiti.

This is the brutal world of capitalist agriculture — a world where some people destroy food because prices are too low, and others literally eat dirt because food prices are too high.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Says U.S. Preparing Military Options Against Iran

by ANN SCOTT TYSON Washington Post Staff Writer 25 April 2008 The nation's top military officer said today that the Pentagon is planning for "potential military courses of action" against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government's "increasingly lethal and malign influence" in Iraq. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a conflict with Iran would be "extremely stressing" but not impossible for U.S. forces, pointing specifically to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force. "It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability," he said at a Pentagon news conference. Still, Mullen made clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution to the tensions with Iran and does not foresee any imminent military action. "I have no expectations that we're going to get into a conflict with Iran in the immediate future," he said. Mullen's statements and others by Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently signal a new rhetorical onslaught by the Bush administration against Iran, amid what officials say is increased Iranian provision of weapons, training, and financing to Iraqi groups that are attacking and killing Americans. In a speech Monday at West Point, Gates said that Iran "is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons." He said a war with Iran would be "disastrous on a number of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat." Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who was nominated this week to head all U.S. forces in the Middle East, is preparing a briefing soon to lay out detailed evidence of increased Iranian involvement in Iraq, Mullen said. The briefing will detail, for example, the discovery in Iraq of weapons that were very recently manufactured in Iran, he said. "The Iranian government pledged to halt such activities some months ago. It's plainly obvious they have not. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way," Mullen said. He said recent unrest in the southern Iraqi city of Basra had highlighted a "level of involvement" by Iran that had not been understood by the U.S. military previously. "It became very, very visible in ways that we hadn't seen before," he said. But while Mullen and Gates have recently stated that the Tehran government certainly must know of Iranian actions in Iraq, which they say are led by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, or Quds Force, Mullen said he has "no smoking gun which could prove that the highest leadership [of Iran] is involved in this."

Sunday, 27 April 2008

The struggle to redefine the workday

In the photo above ordinary Venezuelans meet together in a Communal Council to discuss community issues and the revolutionary process. The Venezuelan constitution recognises the importance of everyone having time in the day to participate in these democratic structures. In his article 'The capitalist workday, the socialist workday' (included below) Micheal Lebowitz says that the Communal Councils are part of the struggle to redefine the workday.

In New Zealand today there's a democratic and social deficit being created by low pay and overwork. Working people are struggling (and often failing) to earn enough money to meet the most basic human needs, like housing, food, electricity etc. This is having a terrible impact on the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. Lebowitz argues that this human cost is ingrained in capitalism, it's the direct result of the exploitation of workers' labour - the source of the capitalist's profits.

In his conclusion Lebowitz says:

"[W]hen we look at the workday from the perspective of socialism, we see that the simple demand for reducing the workday is a demand from within capitalism. Its message is simple - end this horror! This is an "infected" conception of the workday. It starts from a view of labour as so miserable that the only thing you can think of doing is reducing and ending it.

When we think about building socialism, however, we recognise that the demand is to transform the workday - to recognise all parts of our workday explicitly and to transform that day qualitatively. Rather than only "free time" being time in which we can develop, from the perspective of socialism it is essential to make the whole day time for building human capacities.

In short, there are two ways of looking at the demand for the reduced workday: one way talks simply about a shorter work week and thus longer weekend vacations; in contrast, a second way stresses the reduction of the traditional workday in order to provide the time on a daily basis for education for self-managing, for our work within the household and our work within our communities. In other words, it is the demand to redefine and transform our workday."

Should we in New Zealand make the struggle to redefine and transform the workday a core part of the broad left project?

The capitalist workday, the socialist workday

by Michael A. Lebowitz

from Links - International Journal of Socialist Renewal
24 April, 2008

As May Day approaches, there are four things that are worth remembering:

1. For workers, May Day does not celebrate a state holiday or gifts from the state but commemorates the struggle of workers from below.

2. The initial focus of May Day was a struggle for the shorter workday.

3. The struggle for the shorter workday is not an isolated struggle but is the struggle against capitalist exploitation.

4. The struggle against capitalist exploitation is an essential part but not the only part of the struggle against capitalism.

What I want to do today is to set out some ideas about the capitalist workday and the socialist workday which I hope can be useful in the current struggles in Venezuela and, more immediately, in today's discussion.


Thursday, 24 April 2008

Climate Crisis — Urgent Action Needed Now!

April 23, 2008

Statement initiated by participants in the Climate ChangeSocial Change conference, Sydney, Australia, April 11-13, 2008

The following statement was started by the participants in the Climate ChangeSocial Change conference. It is being distributed to environmental, trade union, Indigenous, migrant, religious and community organizations to help build the movement against global warming.

Anyone who agrees with it is welcome to add their signature, and an updated list of signatories will be issued on a regular basis. To add your name, email

1. The latest climate science shows that the global warming crisis is already here
The evidence about global warming is more alarming than ever. It is likely that critical “tipping points” once believed to lie in the future have already been passed (see Climate Change and Trace Gases, by James Hansen et al, 2007, available at

Arctic ice loss reached 20% by extent over the past two years as against 7% a decade over the period between 1979 and 2005; the volume of Arctic summer ice is estimated to have fallen by 80% over the last 40 years; glacier movement in Greenland is speeding up, producing massive “ice quakes”; in Antarctica the 2002 collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf and the recent splitting of the Wilkins ice shelf raises the spectre of the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (and sea levels rising 5 metres).


Wednesday, 23 April 2008

10 Commandments to Save the Earth

Speaking at the United Nations on 21 April popular left-wing Bolivian president Evo Morales proposed 10 commandments to save the planet, life and humanity. They were:

1. Acabar con el sistema capitalista
Putting an end to the capitalist system

2. Renunciar a las guerras
Renouncing wars

3. Un mundo sin imperialismo ni colonialismo
A world without imperialism or colonialism

4. Derecho al agua
Right to water

5. Desarrollo de energías limpias
Development of clean energies

6. Respeto a la madre tierra
Respect for Mother Earth

7. Servicios básicos como derechos humanos
Treat basic services as human rights

8. Combatir las desigualdades
Fighting inequalities

9. Promover la diversidad de culturas y economías
Promoting diversity of cultures and economies

10. Vivir bien, no vivir mejor a costa del otro
Living well, not living better at the expense of others

What do UNITYblog readers think of Evo Morales' 10 "commandments"? Post your feedback by clicking 'comments' beneath this post. Or maybe come up with your own list of commandments.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Solidarity Union placed into recess

Union to be reactivated whenever possible In 2006, Solidarity Union was established to bring campaigning unionism to South Auckland's small industrial worksites which had not seen unions for decades. The union's gutsy successes did not, sadly, translate into enough fee-paying members to sustain a full-time organiser. Therefore the union's old executive has reluctantly decided to place Solidarity Union into recess. We advise our members to join the National Distribution Union which is in the process of combining with two other unions to form New Zealand's biggest "blue collar" union. We thank everyone who helped, financed and joined Solidarity Union. Your solidarity has not been in vain. Our union's official registration will be maintained so that, whenever possible, Solidarity Union can arise to continue the important job it began two years ago. Statement authorised by Solidarity Union's old executive 20 April 2008

In the VAN-guard: Building a broad left alternative in Lower Hutt

by Grant Brookes
VAN activist

A new political force has entered the electoral arena in Lower Hutt. A broad, green-left network embracing socialists, centre-Left supporters and anyone in between. A grassroots coalition of ordinary people, none of whom had ever stood for election before, committed to collective action for social change. Its name is VAN – Valley Action Network.

Lower Hutt, population 98,000, is in many ways a typical, mid-sized New Zealand city. The opportunities and difficulties in establishing a grassroots alternative there, and the debates and experiences of the activists who launched VAN, will be valuable as groups like Auckland's Residents Action Movement (RAM) move towards building a broad left alternative to Labour nationwide.

Building from scratch

The idea of VAN was born in February 2007, at a meeting between myself and RAM organiser Grant Morgan. A discussion was held about activists in the Wellington region standing on a grassroots ticket in the October local body elections.

This idea had been raised before, in the lead-up to the 2004 Wellington City Council elections, by the short-lived Community Action Network. But it foundered on the scale and cost of such a campaign in the capital, the fact a credible left campaign already existed in the Green Party (unlike Green candidates elsewhere, those in Wellington stand independently and not as part of a Labour-led ticket) and internal disagreements about what the Community Action Network should be.

For Socialist Worker members, the idea of a grassroots ticket in the 2007 elections flowed naturally from our organisation's national strategy of building a new, broad left. Despite doubts from some members about building from scratch in a short space of time, the Wellington Socialist Worker branch endorsed the idea in April. Hutt City was selected as the best place to run.

For the previous year, a small group centred around the Socialist Worker branch had succeeded in building up the readership of the Workers Charter newspaper in the greater Wellington region. People on the mailing list in Lower Hutt were canvassed about the idea, and expressed strong support. Workers Charter readers comprised the bulk of the activists who launched the electoral coalition at a meeting on 27 May.

Apart from RAM and the Workers Charter newspaper, the other main source of inspiration was RESPECT, the British political party fronted by anti-war MP George Galloway. Formed just three years earlier, RESPECT had succeeded in making inroads into Labour's local dominance in a cluster of city councils.

RESPECT, in turn, were drawing inspiration from the early days of the British Labour Party. Michael Lavalette, a RESPECT city councillor in Preston, wrote a pamphlet titled, George Lansbury and the Rebel Councillors of Poplar. It told the story of a maverick Labour Party group in the East London borough of Poplar, who defied the party hierarchy to build grassroots movements in their local community in the decade after World War One. The pamphlet was read by VAN activists. It seemed to express our vision of a different kind of local body politics:

"Poplarism [as the movement was known] offers a shining example of what a militant struggle for reform can look like. It showed what elected councillors can do if they are part of a broader movement for change. If they stand with that movement, and embedded within it, then it is possible to deepen and enrich the struggle and fight for the needs of local communities."

Labour's withering roots

But if the sources of the ideas behind VAN reached half way round the world, the conditions which allowed those ideas to become a real force were closer to home. The opportunity to establish VAN came, above all, from the withering roots of the local Labour Party. Labour's decay in Lower Hutt is a local manifestation of a national trend.

Walter Nash first won the Hutt parliamentary electorate for Labour in 1929. The party held the seat continuously until 1977, and has held one or more of its successors through boundary changes up until the present. Today, Hutt South is considered "Labour heartland" and a safe Labour seat for Trevor Mallard. Yet in recent decades, this outward appearance of strength has concealed an increasingly hollow core.

Crucially for us, Labour had been unable to replicate its parliamentary success in local body elections. Since the 1960s, Lower Hutt City Council (later Hutt City Council, after amalgamation with Petone, Eastbourne and Wainuiomata in 1989) has been controlled by Labour only once, from 1977-1980.

In 1995, in a bid to strengthen its local body presence, Labour pulled together the coalition known today as Hutt 2020. But the coalition failed to revive Labour's fortunes. It flopped four times in a row, winning only one or two council positions out of 12 in each election from 1995-2004.

Even as it failed to inspire voters, however, Labour was able for a time to exert hegemony over the left and trade union leaders on the basis of its parliamentary success and the formation of the Labour-Alliance coalition in 1999.

In 2001, Porirua -based Labour MP Winnie Laban was stretching the truth when she described Hutt 2020 as "a coalition of Labour, Alliance and Green supporters working to achieve greater community participation in local body affairs". Nonetheless, there were a few left wing people involved. As late as 2004, Hutt 2020's list of candidates included one Green Party member.

But by 2007 Winnie Laban's description was no longer the case by any stretch of the imagination. Labour's hegemony over the left, through Hutt 2020, had collapsed. The Alliance had disappeared from public view in the Hutt Valley, while debate had re-opened inside the Greens over relations with Labour in the wake of Rod Donald's death and the government's rightward drift. Despite efforts driven from the Green Party national office, no local members were willing to stand in last year's local body elections on the Hutt 2020 ticket. According to a former parliamentary executive secretary for the party, in 2007 there was no formal connection at all between Hutt 2020 and the Greens.

As the few left-leaning people drifted away, the composition of the Labour-led coalition changed. Hutt 2020 lurched further to the right.

In 2007, Naenae resident Arie Edmonds was working for banking and finance sector union Finsec. As an organiser for a union affiliated to the Labour-aligned Council of Trade Unions, she was shoulder-tapped to work on the Hutt 2020 election campaign. "I went along to one of their meetings", she said. "People were pretty open about the parties they supported. There was a mix of parties – of left and right, including ACT Party people."

As a coalition stretching from Labour to the far right, Hutt 2020 was unable to take a clear, united position on any issue, further alienating it from grassroots people. "There were fundamental differences of opinion at the meeting", said Arie. "You're never quite sure of what they're about. But are Hutt 2020 really left wing? No, they're not." She joined the VAN campaign instead.

Its candidates reflected this, too. All of the people chosen to stand for council for Hutt 2020 were public sector managers, while those running for other positions included the likes of Dave Stonyer, a businessman and prominent local supporter of United Future. None of their candidates could be described as "trade unionists" or "left", much less "grassroots".

This withering of Labour's roots – in the community, in the political left and in the unions – left a huge political vacuum.

Wide sections of the population were unrepresented and effectively disenfranchised. Turnout in local body elections in Hutt City sank. In 2004, just 39 percent of eligible electors cast a vote – the third lowest urban turnout in the country. The reason was clear. For ordinary people, there was no-one worth voting for. The older, wealthier and more conservative minority who did vote ensured that the council was dominated by a cabal of business representatives, Christian conservatives and people with links to fringe parties to the right of National.

This would emerge as the single biggest obstacle to establishing a grassroots electoral alternative. With the council firmly in the hands of a far right, pro-business cabal, and no credible alternative on offer in recent memory, many grassroots people had simply "switched off" from local body elections entirely.

A stirring at the grassroots

But low turnouts in local body elections didn't mean that ordinary people in Lower Hutt had become "apathetic" or "apolitical". It was simply that mainstream council politics was so distant from ordinary people that resistance, when it exploded onto the scene, was expressed through other channels.

In late 2006 and early 2007 a local grassroots revolt erupted in the south of the city, which sparked a crisis for the council large enough to overshadow the election. The immediate issue was a plan to abolish the city's three elected community boards, in the leafy suburb of Eastbourne, the mixed community of Petone and the working class enclave of Wainuiomata. But anger was fueled by many other issues, too, like the cosy relationship between council and big property developers which allowed free-for-all high rises and threatened heritage buildings and green spaces. Council services in Petone, including libraries and swimming pools, also faced the axe.

A new group called Eastbourne Rights sprang up to spearhead opposition. The public meetings it called – the biggest in Hutt City in a generation – seethed with anger at the council. Hutt 2020, predictably, was split over the movement. Its elected representatives on the Petone Community Board drove forward a huge petition campaign against the council, while the Hutt 2020 regional councillors attacked the campaign. Lacking a connection to a stable political party and winning a few quick back-downs from the council, the movement subsided as quickly as it had risen. But the simmering grassroots resentment remained.

At the same time, other Petone residents were organising through the Exide Pollution Action Group over the council's failure to protect people from toxic lead emissions from the Exide battery recycling plant.

Public concern was also growing over council inaction on Petone's polluted streams and on climate change. Three other councils in the Wellington region had signed up to a group called Communities for Climate Protection – New Zealand. Although group membership carried no obligatory targets for actual greenhouse gas reductions, Hutt City Council ignored calls to take even this small step. A new Carbon Reduction Action Group sprang into existence.

And largely away from public view, the biggest and richest multinational corporation in the valley, mall operator Westfield, was pushing for an extension of its three-year, $3 million rates holiday.

Get on the VAN

None of these grassroots concerns were being taken up and expressed by any existing political force. This was the immediate factor that impelled a wide range of people to get active in VAN.

"My biggest bugbear", said Arie Edmonds, "was there didn't seem to be a party that had the things I felt were important – what do we do for needy families, for 'problem areas' like Naenae, and so on". James Cross, an IT specialist who describes himself as "centre-left", had gotten involved in local issues through the community group advising council on the clean-up of the Waiwhetu Stream. His decision to join VAN was based on "an interest in what was happening in the local area, and lack of faith in the existing options".

Juanita McKenzie, a home-maker from an affluent suburb on the Western Hills, became politically involved in the peace movement after the invasion of Iraq. "Following that", she said, "I started to feel a clearer understanding that while our problems are political, economic and social, the underlying issue is one of spirituality – a collective spirituality of 'me first'. Profit is our god.

"I got involved with VAN", she added, "because it was a local political movement that was covering environmental issues, and represented the unrepresented members of society. It enabled grassroots issues to be given a voice."

Michelle Ducat, a primary teacher and NZEI union rep for her school, would go on to become one of our council candidates. "I hadn't been politically active before", she said. "I'd been intimidated about being public about what I believed in. But it was about the issues, not the individuals. These issues were not going to be talked about in the election unless we did it."

Foreman Foto had moved to the Hutt Valley from Zimbabwe, where he was involved in the Movement for Democratic Change. "The MDC is a broad-based organisation", he explained, "mainly driven by labour and non-government organisations. I was their parliamentary affairs coordinator."

"I got involved with VAN because first, you were quite interested in the Zimbabwean situation. You came along to show solidarity. VAN was also an opportunity for refugees and new migrants to have a say in public affairs. Your perspective as well on climate and environment. It was very important to ensure there's a voice around these issues."

Our first meeting unanimously endorsed the six popular issues we would campaign on:

Grassroots democracy – Community boards for all, with extra powers
A Human City – Putting people before big business interests
Free Council Services – Not just protected but extended
A Green City – Action on climate change. Zero tolerance for polluters
Free and frequent public transport – It makes climate sense and serves the people
Rates justice – Reductions based on need. Residents before greedy corporations

But as the British RESPECT pamphlet about the rebel councillors of Poplar explained, "While what they did was crucially important, there was a relationship between this and their focus on the big ideological questions of the day. It was the combination of improving peoples' material situation together with a focus on debates about the nature of society, defence of the Russian Revolution, and support for the trade union struggles, that kept councillors and their supporters engaged and focussed on the big picture."

Without a connection between immediate issues and the bigger picture, it's easy for a local body campaign to get sucked into "parish pump" politics – to be drawn into minute details about inconsequential matters. So as well as specific campaign issues, VAN also produced a statement organically linking them to a vision for a different kind of politics and a different kind of society:

We stand for social justice.

For the majority of Hutt City residents the status quo is not enough. Corporate interests cannot continue to run rampant. We need social change, from the ground up so the social and political interests of our multi-cultural communities are empowered and represented.

We stand for the environment.

Council leniency towards polluters must end. Rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions threaten the current generation of Hutt residents, and our children. Serious action, starting at the council level, is needed to tackle human-induced climate change.

We stand for democracy.

We do not believe that decision making, affecting the lives of Hutt City residents, should be monopolised by a few, or confined within the walls of council chambers. We know that too often, elected representatives are captured by the system and lose touch with those who voted them in. We pledge to promote full council accountability to the grassroots.

Our goals are far-reaching.

Our goals are far-reaching but we do not promise what cannot be delivered. Achieving these goals will take the active involvement of many Hutt City residents. With our eyes on the prize, together we can re-shape our future. We understand that social and environmental forces affecting Hutt City residents are often shaped at the regional, national and global level. We will seek to link up with authorities and grassroots campaigners in other places to tackle these forces.
We put residents first.

If elected, we will use our positions on council to give voice to community campaigns for social justice and environmental sanity. We will encourage residents to come together to discuss solutions and take action with us.

Although we were united on campaign issues and on a bigger vision, it would be wrong to believe there were no debates inside our broad group. There were, and they reflected wider trends in grassroots political movements. Two debates stand out.

Why stand?

In contrast to all the other electoral tickets in Hutt City, VAN was not made up of would-be career politicians and their hangers-on. We are a coalition of grassroots activists, with a wealth of experience in community campaigns, socialist organisations, unions and social movements.

Within these wider milieu, however, there is a school of thought which views elections with suspicion or outright hostility. According to this view, participating in the stunted democracy of council or parliamentary elections is at best a distraction from the real struggle, or at worst a route to co-option and betrayal of grassroots people.

Even in VAN, which was formed for the purpose of contesting the 2007 Hutt City elections, this viewpoint found an echo. Since we had this new group, why couldn't we just focus on grassroots campaigning? Along with our lack of experience and confidence in electoral politics, this created our biggest practical challenge in building a broad grassroots alternative – finding people willing to stand as candidates.

But fundamentally, however broad the range of issues taken up initially by a grassroots movement today, it will ultimately tend to become trapped within the confines of single-issue politics. And the weakness of single-issue movements is the way that their concern can be taken in isolation, incorporated into the agenda of a mainstream political party and neutralised. This was even seen in the Hutt elections. A closet National Party member standing for regional council took up the demands of the Exide Pollution Action Group to stop toxic emissions, even as he promoted other kinds of pollution with a strong pro-roads agenda.

Standing in elections allows grassroots activists to break out of single-issue politics and present comprehensive solutions to inter-linked issues. As Victoria University student Anna Potts put it, "I had been active in a number of causes – some environmental, some anti-war, a lot of workers' rights issues. But VAN gave me the opportunity of drawing those things together, and looking at how to put them into practice."

At this stage, organs of grassroots power capable of transforming society across the board do not exist in this country. So standing in elections is currently an essential part of challenging the system as a whole. Most ordinary people, who must collectively comprise the motor of any fundamental social change, instinctively realise this. Standing in elections also allows an emerging broad left alternative to relate to these people, draw them into common activity and grow.

Joe Kelly, a member of public sector union NUPE, became the public face of VAN's election campaign as the "poster boy" on our billboards. He explained "you need to give those people who are not activists a chance to feel they can connect with you and make a difference, Standing in elections helps them to make that first step."

Anna concurs. "There definitely is a danger in standing, but on the other hand, for a lot of people politics is electoral and this is a way to engage with them. Community campaigning is important, but both can happen side by side."

In fact, standing in elections gives a stronger mandate for community campaigning. People can see that you're willing to put your money where your mouth is.

Propaganda or practical policy?

Related to the debate over whether to stand for election is a second – how to campaign, and to what end? According to one school of thought, the main goal for radical groups standing in elections should be to use the platform this provides to publicise their ideas and attract a few new recruits. Because the campaign focus is on the radical ideas of the group, rather than the diverse concerns of ordinary people in the community, this is a route to building a small, narrow radical party – not a broad coalition.

Although this "narrow party" trend is negligible in New Zealand politics as a whole, it does have some influence on the socialist left, where some VAN activists hail from. Specifically, it was expressed in 2007 in local body election campaigns by the Workers Party in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Since the main goal of the Workers Party was to spread socialist ideas without seriously trying to get elected, they chose to run for the highest profile position in each city – mayor.

At the very first VAN meeting, the question was raised. Was our goal to get elected, or simply to spread propaganda? We agreed unanimously. Our campaign would be about popular grassroots issues, not socialist propaganda, with the goal of winning positions to practically advance these issues further. We chose to stand not for mayor, but for more winnable seats on council and community board. For this, VAN was denounced by Workers Party members in internet forums like Indymedia.

But as Joe Kelly argues, "By standing and not trying to win, you're commencing a campaign by handing over some of your credibility. It's seen as a token gesture. What's worse, you're sending the message that your issues can never win. By not talking realistically about what you would do if you win, you're not valuing the people who are voting for you."

"I don't believe that long-term change is going to come from electoral bodies", adds Anna Potts, "but that doesn't mean they can't have some impact. Even if you're just going at it for publicity purposes, you're going to get a lot more publicity if you're elected."

The election campaign

At the start of June, four months out from the election, VAN had policies, a vision, $50 in the bank and 14 people on our mailing list. Our election campaign was going to be run on a shoe-string.

"The way we ran our election campaign made sense", said Joe Kelly. "One of its strengths was that we attempted to connect with people quite broadly – visually, personally, and through the media."

VAN candidates and activists spoke to hundreds of people on the doorstep and at meetings. We leafleted events and letterboxes. We issued a stream of press releases, which were well reported in local papers. But learning from RAM's 2004 campaign in Auckland, the main thrust of our election campaign was based around billboards.

Every election sees a sea of barely distinguishable billboards colonise plots of public land. On the door-knock, we quickly found that residents resented their neighbourhoods being taken over, without their permission, by these "billboard farms".

As with our policies and our vision, our billboard campaign would be outside the mainstream and with the grassroots. Unlike all the other billboards, our eye-catching designs would highlight the issues, not the individual personality of the candidate. Our billboards would not contribute to the visual pollution. They would only go on fences, along main roads for visibility, where residents gave their permission.

With around $4,000, raised entirely from donations by ordinary people, we got billboards up on fences across the Harbour and Eastern ward. Our eye-catching signs contrasted strongly with everyone else's and looked great. It wasn't just us who thought so. Two weeks before the election, I got a phone call out of the blue from MORE FM breakfast host Nick Tansley. He said that VAN had won the radio station's "Most Attractive Billboard" award. (Sadly, he added, there was no prize money attached).

One anecdote from the billboard campaign stands out. At one property, tenants had given permission for VAN to put billboards on the fence. But the landlord took exception, pulled them down and phoned me to take them away. I told him that my understanding of the law was that tenants had the legal right to quiet enjoyment of the property without interruption by the landlord. However, not wanting to put the tenant in a difficult position, I agreed to his request. On arriving at the house, however, I saw our signs still up on the fence. I knocked on the door. "Fuck the landlord", said the tenant (a union delegate at WINZ, as it transpired), "the billboards are staying up. Besides, you can't take them down, even if you want to. I've put them back up with hundreds of nails in each one."

Other VAN activists have their own stories. "I really liked that our billboards didn't get vandalised", said Paul Kennett. "All the other billboards, with glossy faces created by some wanky design company, got vandalised to hell. Their formula was – picture, name, tick. Utterly vacuous. They had low faith in the voters. Ours had real messages."

Doing politics differently – "Stop the Cross Valley Link" campaign

Midway through the election campaign, a new issue arose – one that gave us the chance to walk the talk about "encouraging residents to come together to discuss solutions and take action with us". At a mayoral forum, all the candidates expressed strong support for a new $80 million, heavy traffic bypass – the Cross Valley Link road – to be funded by rate-payers. VAN swung into action against the road, and for the public transport alternative.

"We'd been talking about ways of generating public awareness of VAN", said Michelle Ducat. "This was an obvious point of difference for us. We'd learned from the campaign against the inner-city Wellington bypass. They had walks along the proposed route, talking to residents. Having a petition was a great way to focus discussion on the doorstep."

Taking our petition against the Cross Valley Link to the residents caught the attention of the Hutt News. Under the headline, "Road spending pointless – VAN", reporter Simon Edwards rattled off arguments against it: "So many times roads are upgraded, only to shift the bottleneck a little further down the highway. It makes far more sense to invest heavily in public transport, VAN says. 'It's an idea and way of thinking that's time has come'."

It also allowed us to gather contact details, both for our election campaign and for a future public meeting, if and when the council goes ahead with the road. It was an example of how to combine grassroots campaigning and building electoral support.

"It was time-consuming", said Michelle. "But it was great to talk to people about the issues and where we're coming from. The overwhelming response we got says that people ARE interested in local issues. It's about finding a way to get them involved."

Paul Kennett added, "It allowed us to engage on an issue that wasn't being represented by anyone else. It was taken as common sense by the others that everybody would agree with a new road. The amazing thing was, most people were against it."

Going door-to-door along the route of the Cross Valley Link road highlighted one of the surprises of the election for us. Not only were residents opposed to a new bypass, they also supported the alternative of Free and Frequent Public Transport.

The same response was found elsewhere. "I leafleted at the Saturday morning market and round Naenae", said Arie Edmonds. "The response I got was that we're being sensible. A lot of people thought that free transport was a good idea."

Socialist Worker and the broad coalition

Shortly after VAN was publicly launched, a long-standing member of the Hutt South Labour Party emailed us to say that other members of the Labour branch were labeling VAN, "a front for the Socialist Workers Party". This label was an attempt to marginalise and discredit our embryonic campaign. It was based on the fact that I, the organiser and public face of VAN, was indeed a member of Socialist Worker.

I phoned the Labour Party member straight away. I explained that neither in our composition, nor our candidates, nor our policies were we a socialist-dominated organisation. We were a genuine coalition, united on policies we could all accept, even though they didn't express the complete views of any one person or group. There would be no subterfuge, no "front", I added. As a VAN candidate, I told her, I would publicly declare my political affiliation as a socialist – unlike the candidates of every other electoral ticket who keep their party links under wraps. She accepted this assurance, and became a key ally for VAN.

My explanations were all true. The relationship between the socialist minority in VAN and those coming from other political perspectives was one of working together openly as equals. Decisions were made by consensus where possible, and majority vote where necessary. The different viewpoints were respected and valued. Benefits flowed both ways.

"It was a good team of people to work with", reflected Socialist Worker member Anna Potts. "A lot of them were from different backgrounds than I was used to working with. You had to engage with that, which wasn't a bad thing at all."

Joe Kelly, another member, saw it the same way. "In general, the situation was win-win, for us and for others. For us, it was a good opportunity to avoid the navel-gazing that small groups can indulge in. It made us engage in other people's issues. We extended our contacts and learned lessons about campaigning. For other people, it showed them who Socialist Worker is and what we care about."

Seeing Socialist Worker up close, the other VAN activists valued our contribution. "You were better organisers", commented Michelle Ducat, "I assume because of your previous political activist involvement. You knew how to get momentum, so something actually happened."

This did not come about by accident. For Socialist Worker members, it grew from a particular way of working inside the broad left movement. "How did we operate?", asked Joe. "I don't feel we operated as a bloc. We shared our political standpoint, then went to work with everyone else. Perhaps the one thing we did [as socialists] was to push a social agenda, whereas some of the other activists were more interested in the environment."

Paul Kennett concluded, "VAN's campaign was something that reflected the people involved, and those in the community, Decisions were consensus-based, not ideology-based. This meant our choices were more democratic. It's a credit to you, Grant, that as VAN organiser you were willing to facilitate the consensus of the group and follow that."

Yet the experience of the broad coalition also confirmed the need for Socialist Worker to retain an independent existence, too. Two days after voting closed in the local body elections, on October 15, 300 police smashed their way into houses across the country to arrest so-called "terrorists". Unlike RAM in Auckland, a majority in VAN did not support involvement in the growing civil rights protests. "It was good to be part of a broad movement, allowing for diversity of opinions", said Anna. "But the October 15th raids showed the need to keep our analysis and be prepared to be step ahead, or to the left of, the broad left movement."


Postal votes closed on October 13 and the counting began. The result saw the democratic deficit in Hutt City worsen.

Turnout was virtually unchanged on the low level of 2004. The unpopular right wing mayor, target of huge grassroots anger throughout the year and even abandoned by many of his erstwhile allies, was returned to office. Just 11 percent of eligible electors had voted for him, but on the poor turnout this was enough for him to win.

Among the minority of people who did vote, there was a swing to the right. The Labour-led coalition, Hutt 2020, lost their sole councillor and control of their stronghold, the Petone Community Board.

VAN's electoral success was always going to depend on motivating some of the non-voting majority to tick the box for us. But most people had "turned off" so thoroughly that our new group was unable to reach them on its first attempt.

As our post-election statement put it, "The legacy of past betrayals by politicians was too great for VAN's hopeful alternative to make much of a difference... But the ordinary people too disillusioned with official channels to vote will, sooner or later, find other ways to express their needs. VAN will now turn towards grassroots campaigns to connect with these people, build on our achievements, and grow our support base for future elections."

Difficulty finding people willing to be candidates meant that VAN only stood in two wards out of six. Even so, for a group formed from scratch just five months out from the election, we won a respectable total of 2,150 votes (comparable to winning around 30,000 votes in a city the size of Greater Auckland). Our results ranged from 25 percent of the vote needed to get elected, to 68 percent. Our best result was for the Petone Community Board, where we polled 844 votes – less than 400 shy of the number needed to win a seat.

But while it matters how many votes we win, other, less tangible results of VAN's campaign are also important. "We raised awareness of issues in the valley, and presented another option", said James Cross. "We weren't just an unknown. The vote we got was a huge achievement, starting as late as we did."

Without even winning a seat, the awareness we raised around our six policy points is influencing council decisions. The mayor who wanted to abolish the three existing community boards 18 months ago now publicly wants two new ones and "community boards for all". Council officers are recommending they get "extra powers".

After no action on toxic emissions from the Exide plant for a decade, the Greater Wellington Regional Council announced during the last days of the election that they were finally taking the US multinational to the Environment Court. Council officials said the decision reflected the level of community concern – surely amplified by VAN's billboard message of "zero tolerance for polluters" on fences all over the neighbourhood, backed up by press releases calling for "prosecution to the full extent of the law".

A review of Hutt City Council's District Plan is promised, limiting the freedom of big property developers. And the biggest public backer of rates cuts for big business, Ray Wallace, has suddenly discovered "rates justice". He is now calling for rate cuts for householders in the poorest suburbs.

"We made them sit up and notice", believes Arie Edmonds. "We didn't get anyone elected, but we never went out and said we were going to. The new council has adopted some of our policies. To have made even this much difference is brilliant."

The council is paying attention because they know that the grassroots popularity of VAN's ideas and policies is greater than the election results suggest.

"We showed that normal people, everyday people can make a difference", said Arie. "That was the biggest thing. Talking to people on the street, we made them understand that we're just like them. And people responded. A lot of people recognise there's a difference between people who have money and people who don't, and wonder why can't we make it fairer."

This subterranean response is laying the foundation for the most significant result of all to come out of VAN. By creating a new political pole of attraction, independent of the Labour Party, which resonates with grassroots people, VAN is helping to foster a realignment on the left. Local Greens, environmentalists and trade unionists who previously had to hold their nose and look to Labour now have another option.

"VAN has been positive for other groups that are working for the same causes", believes Juanita. "I was at a Transition Towns meeting last week [mid-February], and a woman from the Carbon Reduction Action Group was talking about how wonderful it was to have VAN. We enabled other groups to get their issues heard."

Or as the simple email message from a Green Party councillor in Wellington put it, "Congratulations for putting up the real alternatives. Look forward to working with you."

Even some people very close to Labour are attracted by what VAN is doing. The long-standing party member who contacted us about Socialist Worker's role in VAN is one. Another is the Hutt 2020 candidate who succeeded in getting elected, then emailed us to say, "Your vote recorded for the Petone Community Board under-represents the amount of support there is in a community for the demands advanced. Thank you for standing and for putting forward a left programme."

The support is not just verbal. During the election, sizeable individual donations flowed in from office holders in the Green Party and in local and national trade union bodies.

Cohering a new, broad left opposed to Labour's social liberalism and all that flows from it – oil wars, sham environmentalism, hollowed out democracy and entrenched social injustice – is an historic task for grassroots activists in Aotearoa.

The Maori Party has already led a breakaway of one section of Labour's traditional support base. By going nationwide this year, Auckland's RAM is attempting to pull a broader section of Labour's base. In this, they are part of a global trend. From Respect Renewal in Britain, to the German Left Party and the Venezuelan PSUV, new broad left parties are rising.

VAN activists are watching these developments with interest and looking forward. Whatever shape the new broad left takes in Aotearoa, Juanita McKenzie sums up the key lesson from VAN: "We've just got to keep on doing more of the same – building the community grassroots movement. We'll definitely take more and more people along with us next time."

RAM calls for an Auckland Parliament

RAM - Residents Action Movement Media release 22 April 2008 On the last day of submissions to the Royal Commission on local governance, a de facto Auckland Parliament has been proposed by RAM - Residents Action Movement. "Bringing all the region's elected mayors, councils and community board representatives together for all-in discussions twice a year could serve as an antidote to undue corporate influence over councils," said RAM chair Grant Morgan. RAM's submission to Royal Commission on local governance in Greater Auckland by Grant Morgan Chair of RAM - Residents Action Movement RAM wishes to make a verbal submission to the Royal Commission that expands on this brief written one. RAM is generally supportive of the submission to the Royal Commission made by Manukau City Council, with the proviso of this one major addition: RAM proposes a twice-yearly General Assembly of all elected local government representatives in Greater Auckland. Such a General Assembly, which included all mayors, councillors and community board members, would begin life as a whole-of-region discussion forum, probably over time evolving into a decision-making institution. It could grow into something like an Auckland Parliament which could help to narrow the democratic deficit in Greater Auckland. This democratic deficit has arisen because of the market-based power that corporate elites have over local governance in this region. This can be seen in the moves towards the commercialisation and contracting out of council services despite majority opposition. Increasingly we are seeing councils coming under the sway of the corporate principle of "one dollar, one vote" rather than the democratic principle of "one person, one vote". So it's not surprising that only about one person in three now votes in council elections. Until this democratic deficit is bridged, any type of political mechanism for local governance in Greater Auckland will suffer from a lack of popular legitimacy. RAM believes that a General Assembly, evolving in the direction of an Auckland Parliament, is a practical proposal to enhance the role of all elected representatives and roll back the undue influence of unelected corporate elites. We think our proposal could sit comfortably alongside the proposals made by Manukau City Council. RAM will be happy to expand on these brief comments in our verbal submission.

Monday, 21 April 2008

South African dockers refuse to unload guns from China bound for the Mugabe regime

A rally of MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) supporters in Zimbabwe. The actions of the South African dock workers helps their struggle.

South African dock workers have defied the South African government and refused to unload the Chinese arms ship bound for Zimbabwe. The ship has been sent packing into the Indian Ocean looking for another port to unload its cargo.

The Mbeki government, who has maintained a close relationship with Mugabe, was politically embarrassed by these workers.

Randall Howard, general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), to which the Durban dockers belong, had given this staunch warning: “If they the Mbeki government bring replacement labour to do the work, our members will not stand and look at them and smile."

The Zimbabwe ISO, who’ve been throwing their energies into the democratic movement against the brutal Mugabe regime, “salutes what the South African workers have done. If similar actions can be done globally in solidarity with the working people of Zimbabwe, Mugabe will be removed.”

“Mugabe’s intentions to import arms shows how prepared he is to cling to power by hook or crook. These days armed police and military are found everywhere on the streets of Zimbabwe, whilst they've initiated a terror campaign in most rural areas. People are being killed and some tortured”, says the Zimbabwe ISO.

The Maritime Union of NZ has sent a message of solidarity to the dockers’ union in South Africa, passing on the full support of New Zealand maritime workers for their principled stand.

UNITYblog has previously featured an appeal for the Zimbabwe ISO, who are doing great work under extremely difficult circumstances. $1000 dollars has been sent already.

If you would like to donate money to help comrades in Zimbabwe as they struggle for democracy email

NZ Labour - a party without principle

A recent headline in The Guardian (18 April) reads: ‘Chinese ship carries arms cargo to Mugabe regime’. Here we have a ship full of arms for Robert Mugabe so he can repress the democratic revolt in Zimbabwe, supplied by the same Chinese regime which the Labour government in New Zealand has embraced in a free trade deal, held up by a dockers’ strike in South Africa which, if done in New Zealand, would be illegal under the Employment Relations Act passed by Helen Clark's administration in 2000. Makes you think doesn’t it? This series of events on the on other side of the world highlights just how far Labour is from a progressive politics grounded in basic human rights. It’s all about the almighty dollar, and to hang with basic principles like democracy and workers’ right to strike. To secure a free trade agreement with China that will boost the profits of Fonterra and other NZ companies, Labour is willing to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in China. And what chance that Helen Clark is going to loudly condemn gun-running by China to help a despotic Zimbabwe regime crush a broad based democratic movement? Not likely. This is the tangled world of pro-corporate profit driven politics without principle that the Labour Party has embraced. The party is no longer a progressive force in New Zealand.
Chinese ship carries arms cargo to Mugabe regime by David Beresford in Johannesburg The Guardian 18 April 2008 A Chinese cargo ship believed to be carrying 77 tonnes of small arms, including more than 3m rounds of ammunition, AK47 assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, has docked in the South African port of Durban for transportation of the weapons to Zimbabwe, the South African government confirmed yesterday. It claimed it was powerless to intervene as long as the ship's papers were in order. Copies of the documentation for the Chinese ship, the An Yue Jiang, show that the weapons were sent from Beijing to the ministry of defence in Harare. Headed "Dangerous goods description and container packing certificate", the document was issued on April 1, three days after Zimbabwe's election. It lists the consignment as including 3.5m rounds of ammunition for AK47 assault rifles and for small arms, 1,500 40mm rockets, 2,500 mortar shells of 60mm and 81mm calibre, as well as 93 cases of mortar tubes. The carrier is listed as the Cosco shipping company in China. Continue

Venezuela: Steel nationalisation marks 'new revolution within revolution'

by Fred Fuentes
from Green Left Weekly
19 April 2008

Denouncing the "coloniser attitude" and "barbarous exploitation" of workers by the management of the Sidor steel company, Venezuelan Vice President Ramon Carrizalez announced at 1.30am on April 9 that President Hugo Chavez had decided to nationalise the company.

"This is a government that protects workers and will never take the side of a transnational company", said Carrizalez.

The decision of the Chavez government to nationalise Sidor has begun the process of returning to state hands one of the most important steel factories of Latin America, located in the heartland of Venezuela's industrial belt in Guayana.

Sidor was privatised in 1997, one year before Chavez was elected. The major share-holder has been an Argentinean-controlled conglomerate Techint. Since privatisation, the workforce has been slashed from around 15,000 to just over 5000 and the company has used contract labour in violation of a government decree banning the practice.

The move to re-nationalise Sidor came after more than a year of intense struggle by the Sidor workers, together with the people of Guayana, against not just Sidor management but also the policies of the local "Chavista" governor, Fransisco Rangel Gomez, and the labour minister Jose Ramon Rivero — both of whom have been accused of anti-worker actions.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Malaysia: Newly launched People’s Alliance claims it is ready to topple government

from LINKS - International Journal of Socialist Renewal There have been dramatic developments in Malaysia since the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional ­ BN) government had its majority in parliament reduced sharply in general elections on 8 March. Opposition parties, which won five out of 13 state governments, formed a new People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) on 1 April. Police disrupted a large opposition rally on 14 April to mark the end of the government’s five year ban on opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim participating in politics. Anwar claimed at the rally he now has enough defections from government MPs to form federal government but will not make the move till he increases his majority. At this stage, the People's Alliance comprises the Justice Party (Parti Keadilan - PKR), the Islamic Party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Peter Boyle, from the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia interviewed S.Arutchelvan, the Secretary General of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) on 18 April. The PSM won a state and a federal seat in the recent elections, running under the logo of the Justice Party because the government refuses the PSM registration as a political party, having branded it a “threat to natonal security”.

You were present at the police disrupted April 14 opposition rally addressed by Anwar Ibrahim last week. Can you describe what happened?

It was a huge rally drawing easily more than 20,000. The crowd was very well-behaved throughout the program which was held in open air sports complex. The speeches besides Anwar’s were very short. Around 10.20pm, about 20 police personnel moved towards the rostrum while Anwar was still speaking. The crowd was irritated with police interference. Anwar spoke to the police, told the crowd to be calm and then he announced that he is ending his speech. He thanked everyone. The crowd then dispersed peacefully. At 6.30am the next morning the police went to serve 111 notices to four leaders of Pakatan Rakyat including the new Chief Minister of Selangor state, Khalid Ibrahim, and PKR President Dr Wan Azizah Ismail. This is sheer harassment and an infringement of the freedom of assembly.


Rod Donald was right

Chinese free trade deal will cost human rights and environment
from Green Weekly 16 April 2004 Like a free lunch with Roger Douglas, there is no such thing as ‘free trade’ with China. “Business will go out of business, workers will be put out of work and Labour will lose the support of labour,” said Rod Donald. China’s labour standards make Dickensian sweatshops look enlightened with the number of work related deaths per year equivalent to the population of Greater Wellington. The list of human rights violations are long and include; exporting goods made by bonded and prison labour; prohibiting strikes; repressing attempts to organise unions apart from one government controlled entity; and not ratifying international conventions eliminating forced labour and guaranteeing workers the right to organise. “Free trade means we’ll be forced into a ‘race to the bottom’, as our own labour and environmental standards will be compromised, and our trade deficit with China will balloon past the present $1.3 billion,” said Rod.

Jim Hansen, the Big Ice Melt & the Mainstream Media

Jim Hansen, head of the NASA climate science team. Why's his research not appearing in the mainstream media?

by Bill Henderson
15 April 2008

Imagine you have a choice between two scenarios on the future impact of climate change:

Scenario A: Climate change is real and human-caused, a gradual increase in global temperature that we have a long time to do something about (2050 targets) before drought, sea level rise, etc. get too severe; climate change can be effectively mitigated within continuing political and economic business as usual with carbon taxes and more efficient green technology.

Scenario B: Climate change is an emergency where we must make Draconian cuts to our use of fossil fuels immediately and globally in order to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere this decade so that we don't continue over a tipping point where both polar ice caps melt completely, sea level rises by 75 meters, and conditions become fiercely inhospitable to humanity and most of the species with which we share this small blue planet. Political and economic business as usual is far too slow and path dependent for mitigation of this scale, so we must innovate a World War II-style government mobilization so that a systemic reconfiguration of the global economy is possible.

Thousands of mainstream media articles and commentaries on TV, in newspapers and magazines, inform about climate change Scenario A, but there has been minimal, almost nonexistent mainstream coverage of Scenario B even though its main proponents - James Hansen and his NASA climate science team - have released several papers explaining this nonlinear vision of climate change focusing upon the unpredicted rapid melting of the polar ice caps.

Very few people outside of climate scientists and climate activists even know about Hansen's polar ice melt hypothesis and what it means to each of our distant and more immediate futures. There is probably a scientific debate raging in labs and symposia about this new and compelling vision of climate change, but since publics globally remain, surrealistically, almost completely uninformed, how would we know?.

For example, Andrew Revkin, the NY Times expert and dean of American climate science reportage, mentioned the Hansen et el latest paper Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? only through his Dotearth blog with no coverage in the Times newspaper at all. At Dotearth he quotes from the paper's summery:

Humanity today, collectively, must face the uncomfortable fact that industrial civilization itself has become the principal driver of global climate. If we stay our present course, using fossil fuels to feed a growing appetite for energy-intensive life styles, we will soon leave the climate of the Holocene, the world of human history. The eventual response to doubling pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 likely would be a nearly ice-free planet.

Humanity's task of moderating human-caused global climate change is urgent. Ocean and ice sheet inertias provide a buffer delaying full response by centuries, but there is a danger that human-made forcings could drive the climate system beyond tipping points such that change proceeds out of our control. The time available to reduce the human-made forcing is uncertain, because models of the global system and critical components such as ice sheets are inadequate. However, climate response time is surely less than the atmospheric lifetime of the human-caused perturbation of CO2. Thus remaining fossil fuel reserves should not be exploited without a plan for retrieval and disposal of resulting atmospheric CO2. Paleoclimate evidence and ongoing global changes imply that today's CO2, about 385 ppm, is already too high to maintain the climate to which humanity, wildlife, and the rest of the biosphere are adapted.

But the vast majority of NY Times newspaper readers, Americans in general, and people globally have never even heard of this emerging vision of climate change let alone been informed and educated by critical commentary from those with relevant expertize.

Hansen's emerging climate change vision and climate change A are almost mutually exclusive. Today's nascent climate change mitigation measures, including carbon taxes and cap and trade, remain completely within the gradual, linear, conventional wisdom. This level of mitigation does not address the big ice sheet melt as a crucial tipping point. No governments anywhere - not even those governments that have led in acknowledging climate change as a real and serious problem - are even remotely considering mitigation measures of an immediacy and scale needed to try to return atmospheric CO2 emission levels below 350 ppm.

Climate change B is an impossibility within our present political and economic systems.Which is probably why you haven't heard about Hansen's new climate change information and possible Draconian mitigation strategies in the mainstream media.

If you want to know more about climate change B, you can go to Hansen's web site and read the papers and other presentations detailing this vision. You can search through blogs for a critical appraisal of the science and what it means for present mitigation strategies.

And there is an excellent presentation of the Arctic melt science, including invaluable communications and policy formation chapters based upon this science by two Australians, Sutton and Spratt, in a report, Climate Code Red, published in February. Their characterization of this climate change as an emergency requiring immediate action beyond the capacity of political and economic business as usual arguably makes Climate Code Red the most important document published so far this year - a possible Nobel Prize contender even. But you almost certainly have never even heard about its existence before now, because Climate Code Red received no mainstream coverage at all, not a single mention - let alone pertinent critical coverage.

An equivalent report, even one released by an NGO (Climate Code Red was published by the NGO Friends of the Earth) usually receives media coverage averaging over one hundred Google News citations. A report on commercial adoption of genetically modified crops, released the same week in February, for example, had more than 160 citations with coverage by all mainstream broadcasters and publishers. Sutton and Spratt's emergency response message was obviously too heretical, hence this outrageous news anomaly.

So your choice: a climate change that doesn't threaten your lifestyle and future aside from a couple of pennies increase at the pump (the new climate change denial?), or you can choose to search out more about this year's very inconvenient truth about climate change, a sobering vision of climate change equivalent maybe to receiving the news from your doctor that you have a potentially terminal disease with only a slim chance of survival (our kids' future, humanity's future) - unless you make seemingly impossible, drastic lifestyle changes immediately.