Labour, Greens and versions of security

Labour triggered four of the biggest items of last week’s politics and in different ways they touch on security — appropriately as Anzac Day looms.

Enabling same-sex couples to marry adds a bit more legal security for those couples. Some argue the state should stick to legally safeguarding civil unions and leave it to couples to consecrate their union as they prefer. But the state will not get out of marriage so those wanting equality needed the next step.

Contrast New Zealand’s relaxed attitude on this with Australia’s fraught debate in which even a female Labor Prime Minister kicks for touch. That illustrates that Anzac is not just “family” but also “foreign”, exhibited nowadays in divergent ambitions for the single economic market.

New Zealand was different even before Gallipoli in 1915 where Sir Winston Churchill impaled our two forces in an ill-advised, worse-executed and losing adventure.

Historians such as Massey Professor of War Studies Glyn Harper intone that Gallipoli was where we “lost our innocence” and “cemented our national identity”. That was Sir Keith Sinclair’s view, too: that defeat made us who we are. And we seem to agree: 62 per cent told UMR this month Anzac Day is more important to them than Waitangi Day versus 8 per cent for Waitangi Day.

Actually, we didn’t become really independent — that is, in our minds, our arts, our small-c culture and our international outlook — until the 1970s and 1980s. Michael Joseph Savage and Sir Sidney Holland made that point for their eras by their words and actions.

Australia and New Zealand took different paths in the second world war and the Vietnam war. Then the Lange government pricked Americans’ pride in 1984-5, so they and a furious Australia kicked us out of the Anzus treaty. It wasn’t until Jenny Shipley fronted with troops alongside Australia’s in Timor Leste in 1999 that we got back some respect in Canberra.

Now John Key will get a bit more security-related respect in Canberra (and Washington) by belatedly beefing up the Government Security Communications Bureau’s legislation.

But that took till the Dotcom bungle. And it exposed Key to embarrassing needling in Parliament which gave him another brain fade. There was yet another last week over where he got Ian Fletcher’s phone number from. Brain fades don’t enhance a Prime Minister’s authoritative image, as this month’s poll dips for him and for National have shown.

Moreover, the government was defeated in Parliament on a matter dear to most in business. First-term Labour MP David Clark played effectively to New Zealanders’ love of skiving to squeeze a majority for his bill to Mondayise Waitangi and Anzac Days. That brings more security of holidays and, because more cash, for domestic tourism operators but less security, because more cost, for most other businesses.

Defeats in Parliament do not enhance prime ministerial authority.

All this — Labour’s same-sex marriage win, its Mondayisation win over Key and another small Key brain fade in response to Grant Robertson’s trivial questions — bucked up Labour morale.

On Thursday afternoon in Parliament that buck-up translated into a chirpiness not seen on Labour’s side since Helen Clark’s heydays. That came after catching National off-guard on electricity prices at lunchtime with a proposal, in league with the Greens, for a Pharmac-like body to buy power off the generators to onsell at a less extortionate rate to retailers and thus households.

National’s response was a mixture of the smart-alec and the orthodox.

In the smart-alec category was Steven Joyce’s sourcing of the state buyer idea from the “North Korean school of economics” as a “Soviet Union-style nationalisation” and Simon Bridges’ divining in it “Albanian economics”.

In the orthodox category was a list of price-rise-slowing competition improvements since 2008, notably switching assets among state generators, beefing up the Electricity Authority’s powers, allowing line businesses to be retailers and much easier consumer switching among suppliers.

But that still leaves a market dominated at both ends by a few big firms in which the price is in effect set less by marginal consumer demand as in real markets than by the marginal price of generation. Such oligopolistic markets need regulation. The difference between National and Labour-Greens is over how to regulate.

And last week Labour-Greens looked a bit like an alternative government — and on an issue on which householders have a self-interested view. National’s heavy reaction risked building this alternative Labour-Green government as a real prospect in voters’ minds and, as a result, also adding to the downward push on the Mighty River share price.

The risk to Labour-Greens is that Joyce’s criticisms stick and Labour-Greens looks like the wrong government-in-waiting — that is, promising insecurity, not security.

Which risk is greater will not be decided for a while. But there is a contest. There was not in 2011.