This is the last in a series of three posts about the ‘third way’ strand of progressive thinking in New Zealand. Part one looked at Helen Clark’s perspective, while part two looked at Steve Maharey’s identification with the ‘third way’. An earlier post introduced the ‘third way’, looking at its leading UK theorist, Anthony Giddens.
Although Steve Maharey was the Cabinet minister most identified with the ‘third way’, the most indepth account of what a New Zealand ‘third way’ approach might mean can be found in a book that was published immediately before the 1999 election that brought Helen Clark and the Fifth Labour Government to power.
Entitled The New Politics: a Third Way for New Zealand, it was written by a group of eight academics and trade unionists and produced with the assistance of a progressive thinktank, the Gamma Foundation, that was active at the time (the Public Service Association and FinSec also provided support).
Although the book doesn’t have any identified editors, both the preface and concluding chapters were co-written by Peter Harris and Chris Eichbaum. Harris had been the economist for Council of Trade Unions (and prior to that for the PSA), while Eichbaum was a Massey University academic (who also had credentials with the union movement and as a former Labour staffer). Both would go on to become highly-placed ministerial advisors during the first term of the Fifth Labour Government, Harris for the second-ranked Labour minister Michael Cullen and Eichbaum for the third-ranked Labour minister Steve Maharey. Eichbaum then did a stint in the Prime Minister’s office before returning to academia. Harris later chaired the Ministerial Savings Product Working Group, which formed the basis for the establishment of the KiwiSaver scheme.
Therefore, The New Politics can be seen as reflecting a perspective that was very compatible with that of the Fifth Labour Government itself. In addition to Harris and Eichbaum, its authors included Peter Conway, who replaced Harris as CTU economist and is now their general secretary; Paul Dalziel, Canterbury university (later Lincoln) economist and brother of Cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel (he is currently a member of the Alternative Welfare Working Group); and academics Srikanta Chatterjee (Massey), Bryan Philpott (Victoria, now deceased) and Richard Shaw (Massey).
As it happens, I have worked with both Harris and Eichbaum and know them fairly well now, but I hadn’t met them at all when I read their book in 1999. (And I wouldn’t automatically ascribe exactly the same views to them today.) Going back and re-reading The New Politics, a few themes stood out for me with the benefit of hindsight.
In his chapter, Peter Harris writes:
There is a core idea that marks out the Third Way: people need jobs. It is a core part of their social persona, it contributes to more stable family life and so on. Dependency can never be a satisfactory long-term status and creates intergenerational cycles of dependency and despondence.
. . . A new consensus has to be built around some form of social concordat. In reducing previous protections via deregulation, privatisation and a free flow of finance and trade, the government assumes an obligation to make it easier for the displaced to get other jobs . . . The other side of the deal is that those who are dislocated must be active participants in job readiness and job search programmes.
Harris also sets out ’subsidiarity’ as a defining characteristic of the ‘third way’:
The principle of subsidiarity means that a decision should not be taken at a higher level if it can be more appropriately be taken at a lower level. For example, the state should not make a decison on what a school community can more appropriately make.
. . . There are two dimensions to this. One is that the state should not intrude in some areas. it should not absorb and stifle when there is no need to do so. The other is that the state should not be expected to do everything. There are structural levels of responsibility – individual, family, community, etc. that need to be both respected and expected. Subsidiarity involves the state ‘helping out’ by contributing indirectly to the ability of the social networks to contribute to that notion of public good.
Similarly, Eichbaum in his chapter writes:
The renewal of civil society, through the refurbishments of democratic institutions and the kind of institutional ‘in-building’ suggested by the stakeholder model [advanced by Will Hutton], is central to the new economics as well as to the new politics.
. . . The neo-liberal project is one that denies the legitimacy of interests within the policymaking apparatus on the grounds that credible policy must be manifestly independent of any ‘vested’ interests . . . In seeking a renewal of civil society, the Third Way holds out the prospect of a political economy that provides the kinds of structures capable of sustaining fexibility and commitment.
And on macroeconomic policy he takes issues with Giddens, arguing that it must go beyond simply “macro stability” to address “the institutional environment with which policy is developed and implemented” and recognise the importance of the “institutions of macroeconomic management”.
If we add to these prescriptions Maharey’s focus on the ‘knowledge society’, then it is possible to see ‘third way’ ideas as permeating much of the Fifth Labour Government’s activity, even though it was not framed as such at the time.
The focus on employment as the “best social policy”, which was reinforced and validated by historically rates of employment growth, became a lead feature of social development policy, and informed the design of Working for Families, which was at least partly founded on the conception of making work pay.
It also fed into Jim Anderton’s idea of the economic development portfolio as a ‘jobs machine’. But this area also reflected an attempt to answer the question about how to operate the “institutions of macroeconomic management”.
And increasingly it also reflected an effort to conceptualise and achieve a New Zealand ‘knowledge society’. This also inflenced the new institutional framework for tertiary and science policy.
The way the government went about things also reflected the emphasis on stakeholders and the rejection of the neo-liberal delegitimation of ‘vested interested’. Consultation and partnership became watchwords for the public service, and periodic efforts were made to improve the footing of community sector. (It’s worth noting that Harris and Eichbaum’s final chapter includes an admirably clear-eyed and prescient account of the likely challenges that increased reliance on the community and voluntary sector would bring.)
On the other hand, the principle of subsidiarity made only an intermittent appearance. More often, it seems to have been eclipsed by the centralising tendencies of the state in general and Labour instincts in particular.
What is also intriguing is how many specific proposals made in The New Politics seem to only be making it onto the policy agenda now, ten years later, in the post-defeat post-’global financial crisis’ Labour Party:
- Chatterjee, Dalziel and Eichbaum all called for reform of monetary policy;
- Dalziel argued for workers at a particular worksite to be allowed to vote by a suitable majority for compulsory union membership at their site (a ‘closed shop’);
- Philpott argued for tighter controls on the overseas purchase of existing assets including land;
- Dalziel advocated for a greater involvement of the government in capital production; and
- Harris, Eichbaum, Chatterjee and Dalziel all talked about the urgent need to “restore some order to finance markets”.
Perhaps, in fact, the real ‘third way’ is not an historical relic. The name may have been discarded, but it may be that it is only now really beginning to take root.
Another way of looking at it is to identify three different components to ‘third way’ thinking.
Firstly, there is the partial accommodation to the Right’s critique of the capacity and effectiveness of the state. This is where the UK ‘third way’ has drawn most criticism from other progressives. As we have seen, however, ‘third way’ thinking in New Zealand included some rather more extensive revisiting of neo-liberal ‘nostrums’, though much of this wasn’t taken up in government at the time. In this sense, post-Crisis progressive rethinking may involve more continuity with its ‘third way’ tradition in New Zealand than was the case elsewhere.
A second component relates a particular style of government (subsidiarity, partnership, reverence for ‘civil society’). Some aspects of this got more traction than others, and some of it has gone out of fashion, but the appropriation of this approach by the Right in the UK (David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’) suggests that it still has quite a bit of mileage left.
Thirdly, the idea of an ‘investment state’ informed thinking about a ‘knowledge society’, the primacy of employment and the ‘institutions of macroeconomic management’. Some of the language and the framing of ’strategies’ has faded a little, and economic conditions no longer as propitious for a focus on employment growth as a driver. Nevertheless, this was a central and generally still well-regarded aspect of the Fifth Labour Government’s tenure.
In my next series of posts, however, I want to explore some emerging trends in progressive thinking that may amount to a significant move away from the ‘investment state’ approach.
Srikanta Chatterjee, Peter Conway, Paul Dalziel, Chris Eichbaum, Peter Harris, Bryan Philpott and Richard Shaw, The New Politics: a Third Way for New Zealand (1999) — available online from Wheelers Books.
Brian Easton, The Model Economist: Bryan Philpott (1921-2000) (2000)