Sir Michael Cullen had a habit of asking his beloved Labour Party awkward questions.
In 2016, just before the party’s annual conference, he told a Fabian Society meeting that the party needed to build a model of social democracy which was relevant for New Zealand for the 21st-century.
“I don’t think we are at that point yet,” he said.
“I don’t think I see the kind of language which would enable us to say to young people that we understand the way they think and the kind of society they want to create.”
A week later, the party, or more particularly its finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, gave Sir Michael the answer he was looking for.
In front of the conference, Robertson unveiled the report of his Commission on the Future of Work.
Right from his maiden speech in 2008, Robertson had argued for a “modern, inclusive New Zealand, where we equip our people with the skills and knowledge to succeed in an ever-globalising world.”
And his 2016 report followed on from that.
“We believe that every person who has their work disrupted or eliminated in the changing world of work needs to be supported to be trained and retrained,” he said.
Robertson comes from an old Labour family, and perhaps, because he is from Dunedin, where Labour’s history often seems ingrained, he understood more than many that the state would have to play the main role in facilitating any substantial long term retraining initiative.
“We want this to be delivered through a partnership of government, business and unions to identify training needs early, and deliver on those continually, to support people into new and meaningful work,” he told the conference.
And there the matter seemed to rest; apparently forgotten after he became Finance Minister in 2017 and found his days dominated by having to navigate his way through the politically dysfunctional coalition which was the 2017 – 2020 Ardern Government.
Then, of course, came Covid, and though Labour now has no coalition partners to worry about, the virus has more than replaced them as a distraction.
Yet it is out of the Covid response that Robertson draws the inspiration which he believes indicates that 2016 report.
“I think what Covid has made absolutely clear to me is that the state as an active partner is not only the right thing to do, but it’s actually the expectation now,” he told POLITIK.
He said that internationally governments had been there “using the levers that they had such as central banks or fiscal responses or other responses.
“The question for me is where the balance of that lies,” he said.
“So you’ve got a crisis?
“The government arrives rather than sort of lurching.
“Now, how does the government actually behave in a more consistent way?”
At this point, he pivots to what will be a major, if not the major political issue by the end of the year; a Social Unemployment Insurance scheme which is currently being worked on in the backrooms of Wellington by Government officials and representatives from the Combined Trade Unions and Business New Zealand.
It is a radical idea that would see an Accident Compensation Commission type structure provide replacement income for those made redundant by technological or other change, thus enabling to retrain to re-enter the workforce.
“We had the Covid Replacement fund which we ran for people who lost their jobs in the first round of Covid, and one of the things we directly drew from that was, hang on, if we’re having to make these ad hoc kinds of responses, what does income support and income security look like going forward?” he said.
Robertson’s account of the genesis of the proposal is, at this point, politically smart, albeit slightly disingenuous.
As he tells it, after Business New Zealand and the CTU wrote to him under a joint letterhead proposing talks on an insurance scheme, “you’re probably going to have to do something.”
You are, but the signatories to that joint letter were well aware that he had been thinking along the same lines for at least the past five years. They were preaching to the already converted.
“And so the three of us sat down as part of our future of work forum and have spent the best part of 2021 working on the design of the Social Unemployment Insurance Scheme,” he said.
The broad outline appears ready to be made public, with a consultation document ready to go shortly.
There will be issues. Though BusinessNZ is broadly in agreement, it will need some “wins” if it is to persuade its members to pay another ACC-type levy on employees’ wages. They may seek some statutory restrictions on redundancy payments as a quid-pro-quo.
It will be controversial, though, especially if business conditions go off the boil as the year unfolds.
But Robertson sees the proposal as something that is entirely consistent with what being a Labour Government is all about. In other words, it is another answer to Michael Cullen’s question.
“It is a direct lesson from Covid of a genuine partnership between the government setting a scheme up; it’ll be a levy based scheme, so it’ll be employers and employees paying it, but we’ll be running it,” he said.
“That, to me, is a good example of people’s kind of understanding of what is the role of government.”
Nevertheless, in today’s increasingly polarised political environment asking support for a scheme like this is certain to provoke intense political opposition from some quarters.
The three waters proposals are a classic example of how a political issue can suddenly get out of control.
These had been discussed by the Government, Local Government New Zealand and a wide variety of industry stakeholders on and off for at least the past four years, and though there was some opposition, it was reasonable on the part of the Beehive to think they might be broadly acceptable.
Instead, they have provoked a series of political firefights to the extent that the government has had to set up a review committee including some of the proposals’ critics.
But since the reforms were launched, what has been notable has been that the Prime Minister has focussed her media time and, it would seem, her political capital on reassuring and cajoling her team of five million about Covid rather than dealing with the big issues like three waters or the health reforms.
There has been very little “political sell” of what are complex and highly disruptive proposals.
That may be a reason why Labour suffered a consistent fall last year in polls to the point where it is now credible to argue that National could if the trend continues, form the next government.
“We’re still doing the work, but the political debate has not had enough room,” he said.
“One of the things I’ve talked about for a long time is a phenomenon called political oxygen, which is a finite commodity.
“There is only so much of it to go around.
“And I would accept that it’s been hard to get a debate out on a lot of other issues.
“I think in 2022, we will see more of that.
“And with things like social unemployment insurance, we recognise that we need to remember that when people have got the headspace to be able to get into it.”
POLITIK spoke to Robertson before Christmas, before Omicron arrived in New Zealand. By the end of this week, the Prime Minister will have held three press conferences, all of them dealing heavily with Covid or the Tongan eruption.
That is the problem that he and the other Ministers who are steering substantial reforms through; they are vulnerable to what the former British Prime Minister Sir Harold MacMillan once described as the most troubling problem of his Prime Ministership.
“Events, my dear boy, events,” was his reply.
But his Prime Ministership ended with his resignation and then the defeat of the government he had led.
That is the big question about the government this year. Will it be defeated by events, or will it find enough space to build the model of social democracy which Michael Cullen called for.
The political fate of Grant Robertson’s Social Unemployment Insurance scheme will be the ultimate answer to that question.