(First published in The Dominion Post, October 19.)
IT’S A LONG TIME since the New Zealand trade union movement had a leader as forceful and articulate as Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly.Like her late father Pat, a fiery Irish Marxist from Liverpool, she’s a fighter who gives the impression of never taking a backward step. She would have been brought up to regard compromise as the dirtiest word in the English lexicon.
It may not always be the wisest approach politically, but no one would ever die wondering which side she’s on – which is not something that could be said of all her predecessors.Fintan Patrick Walsh, the power behind the Federation of Labour in the 1950s and 60s, was a bully and a tyrant who didn’t hesitate to crush fellow unionists if they got in his way or dared to defy him.
The wily Sir Tom Skinner was viewed with distrust by many of his union brethren, who suspected him of making secret late-night trips to Parliament to do deals with the Tory enemy over a bottle of whisky.Jim Knox was well-liked and well-meaning but out of his depth. A man of limited education, he had a simplistic view of industrial relations that was inadequate for the turbulent times.
Ken Douglas, a Soviet-aligned communist, inherited a union movement in upheaval following the economic reforms of the 1980s. For his attempts to hold a splintering movement together, he was branded a traitor to the working class – a label that dogs him to this day among some old-school unionists.Ross Wilson was the first CTU president of a new breed: university-educated, quietly spoken and almost bookish. He did a conscientious job, but it was hard to imagine him storming the barricades.
Kelly combines the best attributes of some of her predecessors. Like Wilson she has a law degree, but she doesn’t hesitate to wade into a brawl, as was evident during the 2010 dispute over The Hobbit.But she will almost certainly never see unions regain the strength they enjoyed (and abused) in the 1970s, the era she recently said she would most like to go back to.
* * *
IT MAY be happening largely out of the public gaze, but that doesn’t mean the review of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements isn’t being closely watched.Critics of the constitutional review accuse it of working towards a predetermined outcome that will see the Treaty of Waitangi entrenched as supreme law and judges given powers to strike down any law deemed to be in breach of Treaty “principles”.
The National Party agreed to the review as part of its deal with the Maori Party after the last election. As New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters pointed out, there was no public demand for it; it arose out of opportunistic political horse-trading. Such are the flaws of the MMP system.Critics are also suspicious of the review panel’s composition. Although it’s co-chaired by respected law academic John Burrows, it appears disproportionately weighted toward Maori. Sir Tipene O’Regan is the other co-chair and Dr Ranginui Walker is one of the four other Maori members.
Mr Peters is not alone in expressing misgivings. In fact alarm bells are being rung right across the political spectrum.Former Act MP Muriel Newman is campaigning against the review and left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter wrote a scathing column in this paper pointing out that the supremacy of parliament – a central tenet of our constitutional arrangements – was under threat.
The fact that the review panel has so far operated largely out of the public view has done little to allay the critics’ suspicions, but the panel’s website now lists a range of organisations that it has been having “conversations” with. Openness is surely the best approach if it wants to reassure people there’s nothing to be afraid of.
* * *
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. An alternative view is that we should never be allowed to forget them; that it would, in fact, dishonour their memory if we allowed ourselves to push their hideous deaths out of our collective conscience.I have no doubt Ms Turia is sincerely committed to ending violence toward Maori kids, but you have to wonder whether her commitment is shared by everyone in Maoridom.
Many Maori leaders are quick to demand redress for supposed Pakeha wickedness but are strangely mute when it comes to denouncing appalling behaviour by their own people. If it discomforts them to be confronted constantly with evidence of the outrages perpetrated on Maori children, surely that’s no bad thing.