Chronicling the near present, Joe Atkinson

Changing Times: New Zealand Since 1945
Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869407827

Whoever coined the title for this new history of New Zealand’s recent past clearly did not want to give anything away. It is hard to think of a blander, less committal title than Changing Times. Isn’t all history about changing times? Such a title might be taken to reflect our populist and relativist age where conclusiveness or the attribution of historical progression are widely considered to be culturally insensitive. Can history be written in such an age? This book testifies that it can, but it is less likely to be a critical history, unless it is one with biases so buried in a tangled thicket of parenthetical asides as to be virtually unreadable. Fortunately, this book is thoroughly readable, and it mostly wears its heart on its sleeve. Carlyon and Morrow are social historians with feminist sympathies who have collaborated previously on popular histories of Ponsonby and Remuera. Carlyon used to work as a teacher and a “researcher/writer for major corporates” and ran a small business, while Morrow was an historian for the Waitangi Tribunal and the Office of Treaty Settlements, and co-edited books on Auckland business history and Jewish lives in New Zealand. These experiences crop up at regular intervals and enliven the book’s liberal, feminist and business-friendly perspective on our recent past.

The book divides our recent history into three main periods: the Holland-Holyoake-Nash years (1945-65), the Kirk-Muldoon years (1965-84), and the Lange-Bolger-Clark-Key era (post-1984). The two earlier sections play to the authors’ strengths as accomplished social historians, providing a readable, balanced and well-illustrated account: of the immediate post-war years and the strains of adjustment to new social realities; of the diplomatic and military shifts and new alliances; of the literary and artistic disputes of the 50s and 60s and the influence of popular culture; of the elaborate orchestration through the late 60s and 70s of political opposition and street protest by women, Māori, Pacific Islanders, gays, and the peace and environmental movements; and of the fascinating history of race relations. Later chapters on the Treaty industry and Pacific and Asian immigration are also nicely judged, with well-chosen quotations from the affected parties. What is particularly valuable throughout is the shrewd weaving of feminist insights and perspectives, drawing heavily on the rich vein of secondary sources produced by the fiercely intelligent young women who began to flood academic history departments in the late 1960s. Here, previously neglected women’s voices are brought to the fore, and the men are always less than heroic. This re-balancing is both overdue and enlightening, and it occurs without unnecessary recourse to feminist flag-waving. Carlyon and Morrow are particularly good on the two earlier periods, providing a lively, informative and nuanced account of anti-tour and anti-nuclear social divisions, and their chapters on the women’s and gay rights movements and race relations are uniformly excellent. Their accounts are enriched with well-chosen personal testimonies and a generous array of black and white photographs. In each case, it is predominantly women’s voices and activities that feature. This is social history accomplished at a very high level, much of it reflecting the authors’ own research. But their sure touch in dealing with matters of social history is less evident on matters of political economy.

In a review of this book for the New Zealand Listener, Gavin McLean referred to the courage required in writing histories of the recent past which readers have lived through and feel they own the events described. There is another difficulty faced by chroniclers of recent events, however, especially when the chronicle in question is an ambitious general history of a nation: namely, the relative scantiness and uneven quality of secondary sources. This may not matter too much with specialist histories confined to an author’s area of established expertise, but the writer of a general history, such as this one, must rely heavily on the work of others. In the earlier chapters of Changing Times, where primary source histories and doctoral theses are fairly thick on the ground, the co-authors’ judgements, as far as I can tell, are reasonably sound. In later chapters, too, where their own past research equips them with particular expertise, as is the case with Morrow’s tenure at the Waitangi Tribunal, the lack of reliable secondary sources is less important. But with highly contentious, complex and far-ranging recent events, such as New Zealand’s radical neo-liberal reform process after 1984 (chapters 9-10), where scholarly accounts are thin or non-existent, Carlyon and Morrow have no option but to base their account on the self-justifying and conflicting testimony of the players themselves.

One of their well-thumbed sources, for instance, is Marcia Russell’s Revolution: New Zealand from Fortress to Free Market, a journalistic account built from interviews conducted with major players for a television documentary series, and very much a first draft of history, dominated by lively but less than fully digested testimony. Moreover, a rough trawl through the endnotes of the two chapters finds them largely captured by the reformers and their acolytes: 10 Cabinet members (Lange, Douglas, Bassett, Prebble, Palmer, Richardson, Shipley, Bradford, Birch, Bolger, Smith, Luxton, Clark, Cullen, Upton and Maharey); three Business Roundtable members (Gibbs, Myers and Deane) and one fellow-travelling biographer (Goldsmith); six Treasury economists (Bollard, Kerr, Fancy, Scott, Wilkinson and Grimes); and two fellow-travelling North & South writers (Mark McLaughlan and David McLoughlin). Ranged against these 22 true believers (18, if Third Way fence-sitters are excluded), only seven critics of the reforms are cited (Bertram, Easton, Dalziel, Jesson, Kelsey, Roper and Waldegrave). Moreover, since concision is especially hostile to political dissenters, it is hardly trivial that, when they do surface, these critical references generally take on the form of sound bites: bald assertions without argument or evidence. Bruce Jesson, for instance, is called on to comment critically on the Muldoon era, but his fully elaborated critique of the neo-liberal reforms in Only their Purpose is Mad is conspicuous by its absence. Other critics are similarly downgraded. The single Bertram reference is from Russell’s Revolution – no original written work is cited. There is a single quotation from Dalziel’s critical re-assessment of the reforms, but devoid of evidence.

This is largely popular history, of course, and so some reluctance to elaborate complex academic arguments is perfectly understandable, but the decision to simplify is not a license simply to follow the prevailing consensus, and the pattern of treating all arguments cursorily – those of the reformers, as well as of their opponents – is exacerbated by the popular social historian’s fondness for colourful anecdotes with uncertain implications.

In the chapter on Labour’s nine years of reform, for instance, Carlyon and Morrow approvingly quote Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s claim that, “notwithstanding a few teething problems”, the radical transformation of the New Zealand public sector “has been for the better” – a contestable judgement quickly bolstered by means of a colourful Richard Prebble story about the old Post Office’s $37 million Swedish computer debacle. This anecdote is recounted to illustrate New Zealand’s urgent need to be liberated from its supposedly awful pre-reform position as “the Poland of the South Pacific”. The insinuation is that radical surgery along business lines was urgently needed to improve efficiency. That inference might survive intact were it not for equally costly computer blunders in the post-reform public service.

In a concluding sub-section, “Weighing the balance”, balance is sought by juxtaposing statements of widely varying provenance and reliability. Carlyon and Morrow cite economist Paul Dalziel’s 2002 assessment that, “in spite of achieving microeconomic efficiency in some industries and obtaining its intermediate objectives of price stability and fiscal balance”, New Zealand’s free market revolution missed its core objectives of reducing poverty and increasing productivity. Indeed, Dalziel said, the evidence showed it had achieved the opposite: more poverty and less productivity. But, instead of laying out Dalziel’s evidence for our inspection, the authors oppose his conclusion with dogmatic statements of faith from reform proponents. The first, by a team of neo-classical economists and former Treasury officials (Evans, Grimes, Wilkinson and Teece), is so woefully outdated (1996) as to be risible:

[New Zealand] is on a trajectory to maintain its economy as a consistent high performer among the OECD. New Zealand once again appears to be emerging as a laboratory from which results will animate economic debate and policy throughout the world.

 

In light of New Zealand’s subsequent drift down the OECD tables, this is a reckless guess rather than a well-founded judgment. So Carlyon and Morrow update it by soliciting an equally Pollyannaish 2012 email from another architect of the reforms, Dr Roderick Deane: “[T]he reforms set New Zealand up in a much stronger position than would otherwise have been the case to cope with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007-08 … .” The authors see that Deane’s assessment is “obviously debateable”, but this does not deter them from concluding that (a) Keynesian intervention had failed (b) the free market was the only viable alternative and (c) on balance (contra Dalziel), the reforms worked well:

What is not [debateable] is that New Zealand had, in 1984, an ailing economy on a downward spiral … Successive governments had increasingly, but with little success, imposed controls to try and halt the decline. Things had to change.

Free-market ideas rapidly took hold … The economy began to improve in the 1990s …

The reforms have made the New Zealand of 2013 a more diverse, dynamic, varied society with choices and opportunities that did not exist in 1984 … [It is] more competitive in an increasingly global market place and able to react more quickly to fluctuation and changes in trading conditions …

[But also] a more socially divided country with greater extremes of poverty and wealth … collective responsibility … has eroded. But the values and ideals of the free market ethos are here to stay. ‘Fortress New Zealand’ is well and truly dismantled … and few have advocated a return to economic protectionism.

 

The authors’ favourable judgment of the neo-liberal reforms is tempered by their acknowledgement that market deregulation – in New Zealand and abroad – provoked a shift from productive to speculative investment. Investment bankers, finance companies, property developers, mergers and takeover specialists, currency and bullion traders, and short-term stock speculators, set off a stock market boom and bust cycle that plunged New Zealand into a calamitous five-year recession during which the economy stagnated, public and foreign debt rose and unemployment more than doubled. This certainly took “the gilt off the gingerbread”, as Carlyon and Morrow put it with deliberate irony, but they do not spell out the connection between neo-liberal policies and speculative finance. The impression given is that the boom and bust is a temporary aberration, rather than a persistent feature of the deregulated economy.

Against Carlyon’s and Morrow’s claim that few have advocated a return to economic protectionism, many of the voices raised since the global meltdown of 2008 are decidedly protectionist. Paul Krugman and Robert Wade are two of many examples. The so-called “Washington Consensus” on the virtues of minimalist states, light-handed regulation, and maximal market distribution of goods and services is increasingly discredited. Academic economists have finally begun to ask why markets so often function less well than claimed by their neo-classical acolytes.

It is simply not true that neo-liberalism has been, on balance, good for us. Between 1984-2000, the gap between the top and the bottom of our income ladder widened faster than in any comparable country. The bottom 10 per cent of our income earners now work longer hours, but are no better off than in the mid-1980s. The notion that radical reform would improve economic efficiency and productivity was a theory without any scientific basis. In fact, as Max Rashbrooke has recently pointed out, the more egalitarian economies (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) have generally grown as fast or faster over the last 40 years than the more unequal economies (the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand). Furthermore, over the 30-year period (1950-1973) when the income gap between rich and poor was steadily narrowing – what Krugman calls “The Great Convergence” – world GDP growth was far better (4.8 per cent) than in the period 1980-2009 when the income gap was growing fast (3.2 per cent).

The major problems of contemporary Western economies – slow growth and rising inequality, recurring financial scandals, wild swings from boom to bust, poor investment in research and development, worker training and public goods – have been attributed to the neo-liberal mantra of “shareholder value” with its focus on cost-cutting (via outsourcing and tax avoidance), short-term profits, and both worker and customer exploitation. Finally, the deregulation of broadcasting in New Zealand, and the race for the bottom that ensued, has become an object lesson to the rest of the world about what not to do with a public good. Market competition in this kind of industry raises prices and lowers the quality of programmes, which is exactly the opposite of what neo-liberalism promised.

 

Joe Atkinson teaches political studies at The University of Auckland.

 

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