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Politics

The first election I ever remember was the 1987 one. But don’t get too excited about any more memories about that election. All I can recall is being in Thames on a family holiday and my parents taking me down to the local primary school (the school my Dad went to as a child) so they could cast a Special Vote (as they weren’t in Auckland that day, obviously). After that I didn’t really know much, except I suppose a couple of years later I became aware that David Lange was the Prime Minister. In 1989 and 1990 the Prime Minister changed a fair-few times. We got fairly excited when Helen Clark became the deputy Prime Minister in 1990, as she was the local MP. After that, it was the 1990 election when I next really noticed this whole thing called politics (remember I was only 8 then).

In 1990 Labour got totally wasted, and I remember feeling a bit sad for Mike Moore as he had to relinquish being Prime Minister. But still, I didn’t really have much of an opinion myself. I was probably guided somewhat by my left-leaning parents, but then again at the same time the Labour government of 1984-1990 was hardly left-leaning, introducing much of the neo-liberal ideology that could be considered particularly right-wing (no surprises that two of its most influential politicians at the time went on to form the hardcore right-wing party ACT). At the time of the 1990 election I was in standard 2 and we had a small political discussion at school (as much as you can at that age). I think my opinion at the time was to favour Labour over National because Labour seemed to include many “green” policies, while National seemed not to. Of course this was a gross over-simplification, but I was only 8. Anyway, I suppose that between 1990 and 1993 I gained much of my initial political knowledge. With Ruth Richardson’s “mother of all budgets”, “Ruthanaesia”, cuts to welfare, policy changes that made people pay to go to hospital and so on, I developed a pretty strong distaste for National. It seemed like they really didn’t care about the welfare of the people, doing whatever they could to cut back spending and help make the rich get richer. I think my experience of National over those three years, even though I was only between the ages of 8 and 11, kind of cemented my opinion that I could never vote for them in the future.

By 1993 I was 11 and became much more interested in the world of politics. The election that year was tremendously exciting, with the final result not actually becoming obvious until a good few weeks after the election, due to its closeness. Whilst I was hopeful that Labour might force a victory (largely due to my distaste for National), my favoured party that year was probably The Alliance. Further to the left than Labour, I largely had the opinion that “Labour had been rubbish from 1984-1990, National had been rubbish over the past three years, so surely these guys can’t be any worse”. I read through their basic policies and they all fitted well with my nice ideological beliefs in free health and education, etc. Their highly progressive tax system seemed to make a lot of sense to me as well. Unfortunately, in 1993 we were having the last of our “First Past the Post” elections, which meant that although The Alliance won about 15% of the vote throughout the country, they only won 2 actual seats and were therefore pretty minor players in parliament.

Over the next three years the National government probably wasn’t quite as bad as it had been in the early 1990s. There was the rise of New Zealand First, basically thanks to a whole pile of racist New Zealanders getting freaked out by Asian people, Helen Clark took over as leader of Labour from Mike Moore, and they probably became a little bit more of my ‘party of choice’. However, in the end Labour and Alliance did agree on most issues (although Alliance was a bit more extreme) so I was pretty happy for either of them to do well. By the time the 1996 election came around MMP was the big buzz word, as the whole electoral system had the biggest change ever. Lots of people were enormously confused about it, grumpy that the number of MPs went up, and kind of scared about the possibility of the parties themselves deciding upon the makeup of the government, rather than the people, as coalitions would most likely be essential.

That 1996 election resulted in a huge bloody mess. New Zealand First found themselves in a “king-maker” position, and could allow either National or Labour to form a government, depending on who they wanted to form a coalition with. Eventually they went with National, which hacked me right off, but in the long-run was probably a good thing as the stupidity of their MPs over the next year or so (remember Tuku’s underpants and “youthful exuberance”?) discredited NZ First so badly they barely survived the 1999 election (only because Winston Peters won Tauranga by 60 odd votes). But anyway, the post-election mess didn’t really help anyone’s popularity much and the main goal just about everyone wanted from the next election was a result that didn’t leave the whole country hanging for months about what the next government would be. My beliefs stayed pretty much the same: I hated NZ First with a passion because of their xenophobia, National were slightly less horrific than they had been, but still kinda sucked, while Labour and The Alliance were definitely the prefered options. In pre-election debates Jim Anderton (Alliance leader) always impressed me: he had the best tertiary education policies by miles, a pretty important consideration for me as I finished school in 1999, while I still definitely supported Labour over National.

It was a bit frustrating that I was only a few months off turning 18 in time for the 1999 election. However, although poll results were neck-and-neck throughout most of the pre-election, once the All Blacks lost to France (gosh we have a habit of doing that) in the semi-finals of the 1999 rugby world cup, Labour most definitely pulled ahead of National in the polls, and were eventually able to form a coalition government with The Alliance (and some help from the Green Party, who entered parliament for the first time). This was the best possible outcome from my perspective, and for the first time I could remember I was actually pleased with the government we had. It was quite unusual not complaining about the government all the time at first, and although Labour hit a rough patch in mid-2000 (largely because business got freaked out by the possibility of having a government that actually didn’t put them above everything else for the first time in close to 20 years) they remained a pretty damn popular government for the next few years. The Alliance fell to bits in 2002, which precipitated an early election and was rather frustrating, as it meant Labour lost an important ally. This has turned out to hurt them over the last six years.

The 2002 election was the first in which I was able to vote. I considered splitting my vote, but in the end it was two ticks for Labour. I felt they had done an excellent job since 1999 in turning around what had been 24 years of crap government. There was still much to be done, but they had held my university fees at roughly the same level for all three years of my Bachelor’s Degree, they had reinvested lots in health and education, and they had managed to ensure the economy was doing well at the same time. National’s vote fell away hugely in 2002, with minor parties such as United Future, New Zealand First and Act picking up much of their previous vote. Without a decent coalition partner, Labour ended up cobbling together an agreement with both the Greens and United Future. It wasn’t great, but it worked, and United Future turned out to be a fairly easily satisfied partner in it all, even if half of them were crazy religious fundies.

By the time 2005 rolled along Don Brash had reinvigorated National into a force to be reckoned with. Frustratingly, he had done this largely through the same means that New Zealand First had gained popularity in the mid 1990s and in 2002: by appealing to the inner-racism of voters, although this time by attacking Maori, and also through promising crazily unrealistic tax-cuts. Election night was crazy, as at first it seemed like National would win, until lots of South Auckland Labour votes came through late on in the night and meant they ended up as the most popular party, although only just. I was particularly glad that Labour managed to win on this occasion, as Don Brash was definitely a relic of the early 1990s National Party that had been so particularly terrible. With his hardcore neoliberal ideas, a Don Brash led National government would have taken us back 12 years to the social catastrophes of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. On the down side, the Green Party missed out on having enough seats to form a government with Labour alone, and due to the stupidity of NZ First and United Future (who refused to join a government that included that Greens), Labour was forced to cobble together a pretty substandard government with both NZ First and United Future. We also ended up with the embarrassment of having Winston Peters as our Foreign Minister (although in hindsight he hasn’t been as bad as I thought he’d be).

So, that brings us up to date. I’m not going to rabbit on about the prospects for the election at the end of this year, as I’ll leave that to another post. But rather, I shall expand upon my opinions and why I might end up voting the way that I will. For the first time I am actually unsure about where I’ll cast my party vote at the upcoming election. No I haven’t gone to the ‘dark side’ like many other New Zealanders, and succumbed to John Key and his “we’ll be Labour but with different faces” facade. This time around I’m tossing up whether to vote Labour or Greens. Let’s look at each of them individually, and see if I can make some sense out of it.

On the side of voting Labour, undoubtedly this is the safest vote to try to prevent National from forming the next government. Often I find the best way to decide who to vote for is to work out who you definitely DON’T want to be the government, and then figure out the best vote to try to stop them from winning the election. I know I only have one vote, but I like to think of it as potentiall THE crucial vote that might decide a final result. After all, in MMP every single vote does get counted and every single vote does matter when deciding how many seats a party gets (well unless you vote for some wacky party that’ll never reach 5%). I do think that the Labour government we’ve had in the past 9 years has been the best NZ’s had in a very very long time. The government has managed to increase social spending quite dramatically, but at the same time has run a sound budget and has (until recent months) watched over an economy that has enjoyed a the longest run of growth since World War II. There have been some great social policies as well: civil unions, legalising prostitution and criminalising the physical abuse of children. They also managed to handle the “Iraq situation” amazingly well, by avoiding becoming embroiled in the war but at the same time maintaining good relations with the USA. That’s not to say things have been perfect though: they have watered down climate change policy and still haven’t actually enacted an emissions trading scheme, even though we ratified the Kyoto Protocol a LONG time ago. They cut my student allowance in 2005 over some stupid rule change, they haven’t made it particularly easier to get student allowances, they haven’t really reduced university fees at all, and have made it really difficult for universities to maintain their top staff through chronic underfunding. Furthermore, until recently they avoided much investment in rail infrastructure while spending billions on more motorways. And, of course, by not adjusting the tax brackets for inflation, they effectively increases taxes quite significantly over the last 9 years. However, no government is perfect and they’ve certainly done a much better job than most.

On the other side of the fence, there’s the Green Party. I like their ideology, as they seem the only party that’s really got their head around climate change and are focused on making sure we don’t screw the planet up in the long-run, even if that means a bit of short-term pain. I’m really into their transportation policies, promoting rail over roads and halting furtehr motorway developments, which will be totally pointless if petrol prices continue to rise. They definitely seem to be the party that has got a grip on the big issues that we are facing in the world at the moment, and has good plans that actually look beyond the short-term vote-gathering compromises that can bog-down larger parties. Furthermore, as current polls put National way ahead of Labour, it may be necessary to vote for the Greens as there’s the potential situation that National may be forced to do a deal with them in order to form the next government.

If the polls get closer, I will probably end up voting Labour. It’s the safest bet to ensure National don’t get in. However, if it seems obvious National will get in, then at least a vote for the Greens might mean National has to compromise on many of its hardcore right-wing policies to gain the Green’s support in a government. However, at the same time, if too many people do that there is the potential for Labour to end up in a similar situation to National’s 2002 election result, which would be a sad end to what’s been a very very good government.

Trains

So it’s now about three and a half weeks since we got back in New Zealand. Life feels like it’s returned back to normal, although obviously we’re still talking obsessively to anyone who’ll listen about how cool Europe was. The utter normality of life back in NZ has been a little depressing I suppose, although it does feel that over time that has settled down a bit. Going from the warmth of a European summer (especially the hot cloudless days we had in Venice) back to the New Zealand winter, which has seemingly got colder and wetter, hasn’t particularly helped things though.

I suppose with this blog, Europe did help kick start it back into action, although I’ve spent much of my last three weeks trying to backdate entries so that I didn’t miss anything particularly significant from our holiday. Obviously there was masses to write about, whereas once again back in NZ I’m often thinking “hmmm… not sure if that’s really worth writing about”. I suppose that a few posts in a row that get me back into the habit might help. As I was discussing before the Europe trip, I probably need to develop an obvious new direction for my blog, as what seemed to work in the past doesn’t seem to be working particularly well anymore. Perhaps a subtle shift from explaining what’s happening in my life, to an outlet for me to have a bit of a rant about things, might be a good way for me to still be motivated to write in this blog. As always, I think it will just take something to spark me back into the habit of it all… and then I’ll be sweet as.

OK, so rant number one is going to be about trains. I suppose that going around Europe and seeing the awesomeness of their trains has frustrated me about their pathetic state in New Zealand. Fortunately, this year has been somewhat promising for the country’s rail future. A few months ago the government paid a crap load of money to buy back what seemed to be a few rusty locomotives and a few more rusty wagons. At close to $700 million for all this, it did seem like a heck of a lot, but it does seem like this is a step in the right direction towards us finally developing a rail system that does not belong back in the 1950s. While I don’t know particularly much about how rail freight works around the country, I know that there is only one inter-city passenger train service (and that barely survives) and I know that while Auckland’s passenger system has improved a lot in recent years (most obviously through constructing the Britomart terminal) it’s still pretty crap. Less crap than it was though, as when it plumbed its depths in the early 2000s there was usually just one train per hour across the lines off-peak (up to one per half hour at peak times) and not even any services on Sunday.

With fuel prices going nuts, in particular the deisel which powers all Auckland’s trains and buses, it seems like if there’s ever going to be a time when train commuting in Auckland takes off, and also potentially where inter-city travel by train becomes viable again, now is that time. I’ve looked into catching the bus to work myself, and may well either end up doing that or finding a good bike to ride on the days when I don’t have to head over to the Shore after work to pick up Amalia. However, as all the buses and trains are powered by deisel, it seems inevitable that fares will rise again soon, just as they did back in 2005 when petrol prices first started to increase dramatically. For now, the Regional Council is doing their best to stop that from happening, through subsidies to the bus companies, but it seems like it’s only a matter of time until bus fares start going up again. Train has the potential to break free from its link with deisel – as we found out in Europe with just about all the trains there running from either a ‘third rail’ or from an overhead power supply. However, unfortunately once again we’re stuck in the 1950s with our trains still running on deisel. Electrification plans have been around for a while, and are taking good steps towards actually happening, but in the meanwhile we’re still stuck with noisy, slow, polluting deisel trains.

I don’t think I can over-emphasise how important the project of electifying the rail system is. Auckland is already pushing deisel trains to the limit through Britomart, which is actually the largest underground railways station in the world that is used by deisel trains. The trains are slow in their acceleration, they’re noisy, they can’t travel in the long-tunnels that will form the future of any expansion to our train system, and they’re just way crappier than what a modern electric train can be. Electrification doesn’t come cheap of course, with a good $500 million needed to upgrade the lines and about the same again to buy new trains. However this investment is essential if our train system is to move into the future. By not being reliant upon deisel for power, rising fuel prices won’t necessarily mean that train fares will need to go up, giving train a comparative advantage over cars as the means of commuting for a sizeable chunk of Aucklanders. Furthermore, the trains will be faster, more reliable, and much quieter. Wellington has had an electrified train system for decades now, and manages to transport significantly more people around the city by train each day than Auckland does – even though it has barely one third the population.

If Auckland’s train system is to develop beyond what is currently an incredibly limited system, electrification is utterly essential. A CBD loop tunnel has been proposed, which would turn Britomart into a through station, continuing underneath the city and eventually linking up towards the current Western Line near Mt Eden. Obviously, such a long tunnel could only be used by electric trains. Another potential project, a harbour tunnel, has also been proposed (although probably not to be built within the next 10-15 years) would involve a deep tunnel underneath the Waitemata Harbour, linking with the current busway next to the Northern Motorway (the busway would obviously be turned into a rail line). With another deep-level tunnel proposed, obviously once again electrification is essential. Another project, a rail link to the airport, isn’t quite as dependent upon electrification, but it would still be very much beneficial. In any case, while electrification is up in the air nobody’s going to buy new trains and nobody is going to want to invest on expanding the rail network.

There is good news though. With the government now owning the railway tracks and also the existing rolling stock, they’re in a position to want to invest in upgrading the stock. Just last week the government also passed a law to enable regional councils to raise money through a fuel tax they would impose within their regions. This allows the regional councils some certainty that if they decide to proceed with purchasing electric trains (which for some reason Auckland is expected to do, whereas Wellington got the government to pay for 90% of their new rolling stock, but this isn’t going to be a rant at how Auckland always gets shafted), they have some certainty about being able to pay for them. So I suppose that nothing really stands in the way of electrification happening… well at least unless the National Party wins the election at the end of the year and decides to reverse everything. Which I guess is possible. Perhaps I can have a politics rant next time.