Cullen's curse: clamped in the jaws of a vice of hunger

Why is Michael Cullen so uptight that he made himself hostage to TV1’s camera last week? Because he is clamped in a vice.

One jaw of the vice is an unsatiable public hunger for government supplies, services and money. The other jaw of the vice is public hunger for material goods and personal services which needs tax cuts, now the boom and easy debt are fading.

The only escape from the jaws of Cullen’s vice is through a new politics that tames or sublimates the hunger. The Greens say they have such a new politics and have elected a bright, presentable new-generation co-leader, Russel Norman, to promote it — a trans-Tasman transplant, but, as Norman put it, better than Joh Bjelke-Petersen whom we gave Queensland.

But 95 per cent of voters either do not want the Greens’ new politics, or think it won’t work or do not understand it or have not heard enough to form an opinion and anyway don’t care — hunger is a human condition.

However much Greens think the way of life they promote is healthier and happier and their politics consensus-decided and principle-driven, too few think them relevant. The great majority of voters are locked into the vice politics they know.

So Cullen wriggles in the jaws of his vice and his successor will, too. For a time while exports boomed, then house prices bubbled, the jaws of the vice were wide apart and the politics relatively easy. But now the jaws have closed in.

First, health care.

Actually it is sickness care for there is far less interest in healthy lifestyles than in repairs, which to a fair extent result from unhealthy lifestyles.

Technology, often horrendously expensive, continually widens the range of repairs available. That supply whets demand and the sick whistle up media rucks when denied the latest.

So the sickness industry each year gorges on the largest share of any new spending. It has done for a long time now. Demand is unlimited and the cost of meeting demand is on an exponential upward curve.

This is not a simple matter of a sickness ideology. National doesn’t have answers either — except, so far, to spend even more, judging by its line of attack. Sacking a few hundred administrators, even if feasible, would gain only a short respite.

Second, education.

Any sensible long-range workforce strategy needs a big expansion of high-quality pre-school education and high-class lower-primary teaching to rescue the big numbers of poor children whose awful home life bequeaths them low or zero aspirations. Retired baby-boomers in 2020 will need those kids productively working at the end of school, not on the streets or in prison.

That means far more money than Trevor Mallard’s start last year. Parental choice, National’s mantra, will by definition not fix it.

Tertiary education is besieged by an insatiable middle class, insistent their kids shall get meal tickets to hold on to their middle class status. Hence the blank cheque for tertiary students in Cullen’s big Budget. But that has denied universities and polytechnics funds for research — our long-term future — and teaching.

Third, law and order.

There is an insatiable demand for protection and revenge. That means far more police than Ron Mark’s paltry 1000. And more prisons and prison guards. And, if protection is to be lasting, many more expensive intensive rehabilitation schemes.

Write your own list — roads, for example. Your list will be many times longer and fatter than that of early social democrats such as the 1935-49 Labour government. Then fair shares were the objective: a decent chance for people to make the most of their options and protection from, or sustenance in the face of, forces beyond their control.

In those simpler days the “economy” was a decent wage so householders could live in modest dignity. Taxes were low.

Now, beset by immodest public hunger, social democrats have to bother a lot about getting the economy to grow faster. Hence the latest wheeze: expand the state-owned companies. That’s a lever politicians can pull and be seen to pull.

Cullen — and whoever follows him — need higher real household incomes to push back that jaw of the vice. Average households’ insatiable need for material goods makes them feel poor. Since gross incomes are fixed by employers (and, behind them, by too-low productivity), the only place left to turn to is the government — to get higher net incomes through lower taxes.

Cullen’s fancy Working for Families package goes part way — but there is hunger for more. Some of Cullen’s union mates could tell him this is not journalists’ hype or self-interest.

He has one consolation of a sort: the vice will also squeeze National and allies in due course. There will be the advantage of freshness but that doesn’t last. Hear the middle classes bellow if tax cuts make their kids’ meal tickets cost more and hear Labour shout if grandma can’t get her hip done.

The Greens say: try our simpler-lifestyle solution. Their problem: 95 per cent prefer Cullen’s vice.