The role of the centre-left in the campaign against asset sales

Joel Cosgrove

With the dismissal of the Maori Council’s water rights claim to the Supreme Court and the submission of the Anti-Asset Sales petition for a referendum, one phase of the broad campaign against the sale of assets has ended and the next has begun.

Within the initial campaign against asset sales there were three main approaches; the challenge in the courts, the attempt to build a protest movement, and the attempt to initiate a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum on the question.

Much faith was placed in the challenge made by the Maori Council in their appeal to the Supreme Court that the partial privatisation of the government-owned power companies would interfere with the ongoing Treaty of Waitangi settlement process. In the judgment Chief Justice Sian Elias outlined the reasoning of the court. In the reasoning it was claimed that the Crown provided reasonable assurances to Maori in regard to water rights, that the Crown had the capacity to provide equivalents and meaning redress, and that the Crown had shown a proven willingness and ability to provide redress.

The relatively quick resolution of the court case has meant that the majority of the news reporting and analysis has more recently been focused on the final moments of the campaign for the CIR.

The CIR campaign has been a relative success. It has achieved what it set out to do, namely to initiate a referendum on the question “Do you support the Government selling up to 49 per cent of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?”.

At its core though the referendum campaign has been a passive one, focused around the efforts of the Green and Labour parties to win an organisational arm-wrestle between the two.

In a document leaked to National Party activist David Farrar, at the point where 300,000 signatures were collected, the Greens had collected 150,000 signatures, Labour 105,000 and the Unions with 40,000. What this confirms is the political dynamic that became clear over the length of the campaign.

A bureaucratic arm-wrestle
Initially it was the Labour Party who were seen as being the organisation that would lead the campaign with its much vaunted ability to “mobilise the base” by organising its activist and general membership base when it was needed.

But quite quickly it became clear that the Greens were getting more people out on the streets and were collecting more signatures than Labour. Their structures were stronger and better organised. What is interesting about this is the wider jockeying between the Greens and Labour. A precursor to that situation in the electoral context could well be seen in the degree of national/local organisation, depth, and effectiveness from the political organisation.

So the strong showing of the Greens in this campaign is a major step in the public perception of the Greens as being political equal to the Labour. A noticeable lessening of focus and promotion of the campaign by Labour was matched by a steady increase in the focus and publicity given to the effort by the Greens.

A passive campaign, not an active campaign
What has united both organisations has been their lack of interest or contempt for any effort to build an independent, organic movement of active opposition towards the privatisation agenda of the National government.

The organisation that has focused efforts to oppose the sales on the streets is Aotearoa Not For Sale which Socialist Aotearoa coupled with the Mana movement helped to initiate. In practice the drive behind organizing protest and direct action has been led by elements of the radical left and in part from people organised/radicalised by the occupy movement.

While Labour and the Greens (as well as the unions and other NGO groups) endorsed the movement, sources inside the Greens have confirmed that the focus within both the Greens and Labour was on freezing out any organising that was not directly controlled by them. When momentum was large enough not to be ignored, both organizations got on board, but made concerted efforts to undermine or ignore any action outside of the major demonstrations that took place across the country. They preferred to focus on the more passive and controllable task of petition gathering. Specifically with the Greens, there has been an influx of activists and supporters coming on board in reaction to the strong mobilisation campaign, due in part to the hiring of full-time campaigners and the building of a strong structure to incorporate people keen to do something practical. A large effort was placed on subverting radical activity in order to not put the referendum at risk. and directing people towards signature collection as the best way to do something.

We’re on the road to nowhere, come on inside
A wider point to understand is that this attitude of keeping things under party control is something mirrored in other campaigns. Within the campaign for marriage equality, MPs Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague were actively hostile to efforts to build a conference around the issue of same-sex marriage and wider questions, independent of either Labour or the Greens. Party hacks would appear at meetings only when they needed to appear to chide people from acting out of the minimal framework that the Greens and Labour were trying to impose. They argued against discussing anything that went beyond a legal union of two people. They argued that such discussion would be going to far too soon, that it would put the campaign at risk, and it would antagonize regular New Zealanders. They put pressure on activists to maintain a friendly and unchallenging campaign.

The basis of this perspective is to use the hard-work of activists outside of the centre-left but attempt to deny them the ability to speak their politics.

This is why a petition-signing campaign is preferable to established parliamentary parties than an active campaign that seeks to build and make arguments for broader social transformation. Within the petition campaign the pressure was on during collections to not talk to people in the street but to maximize petition gathering. With the marriage equality campaign there was an attempt to portray the campaign solely as an attempt to pass a piece of legislation in parliament and to smother any wider/deeper discussion/campaign around the question of human sexuality and companionship.

Where to next for the asset sales campaign?
Labour have been ambivalent, with leader David Shearer refusing to make a clear stand on the matter of whether a Labour-led government would re-nationalise the assets if elected in 2014. Finance spokesperson David Parker, in a speech to a business audience, talked about what he conceived of as being “strategic assets” which needed to be controlled by the government, electricity generation was described as not being in that category.

There was a similar shade in the Labour campaign against the GST rise to 15%, where they opposed the increase but were clear that they would not repeal the tax increase. Similar again was the Greens inclusion of the tax increase in their shadow budget.

The crux here is that this campaign has been an initial salvo ahead of the upcoming election. Working on the general opposition to asset sales is an easy platform to take pot-shots against the National government.

It is about proving points and mobilising forces. In that respect, it is interesting that 40,000 signatures gathered under the umbrella of the Council Trade of Unions, and in comparison Unite Union were able to gather 160-200,000 signatures in a 6-month burst during the failed living wage campaign. If the Greens outshone Labour in the competing stakes, then the CTU and its affiliated unions were a non-event.

John Key repeatedly stated that he was refusing to change tack irrespective of the result of the referendum. The framing of the anti-assets sale campaign as being overwhelmingly a question of parliamentary “change” benefits Labour and the Greens. With the apparent end of the legal challenge and with the protest movement running its course, there will be little pressure on the major parliamentary parties to do anything more than campaign for votes. And there is little evidence that a vote for them will actually change anything.

The question for the radical left is one that continues from the questions raised by the Occupy movement, namely the lack of momentum and the lack of an organised presence beyond the fringes of the debates of the day.

While there have been some impressive protests, the last protest in Wellington was attended by barely more than one hundred people. This has allowed the discussion to be one about whether to vote National or whether to vote Labour/Greens. As opposed to this the socialist left needs to emphasise the need to re-nationalise assets. It has to raise the questions about the entire process in which “our” assets are managed in “our” name along the corporate lines of the private sector.


  1. Clearly didnt come to the protest in Palmerston North on the day of action last year. Was entirely run by the of the official local branch Keep our Assets campaign, which was dominated by Labour. Labour relied on volunteer labour, which is extremely difficult over such a prolonged period of time, with the greens using parliamentary resources to gather a large number. Independent people were certainly welcomed to join in the signature collection, and some played a big role. May I ask how many signatures the workers party collected?

%d bloggers like this: