Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: March 8

Members of the Maritime Union striking outside the Ports of Auckland over conditions and pay disputes. Photo / APN
Members of the Maritime Union striking outside the Ports of Auckland over conditions and pay disputes. Photo / APN

'Which side are you on?' asks the old union ballad, and that's the question commentators and activists on the left have been asking Len Brown and David Shearer throughout the ports dispute. Many have not been impressed with the response - or lack of it - and are saying this will have direct political repercussions for the Mayor and the Labour Party. There's a suggestion that both men might have their political careers cut short as a result.

Len Brown has finally broken his silence on the issue, and is suddenly making numerous media appearances - for example, watch TV3's John Campbell ask Len Brown where he stands and listen to RNZ's interview, Auckland mayor defends his role in port dispute. While making sympathetic noises, both Brown and Councilor Richard Northey (listen to RNZ's Councillor supportive of union position) are pretty clear that they will not be siding with the workforce. The voices of leftwing councilors such as Mike Lee and Cathy Casey have also been conspicuously muted. One presumes there was intense behind-the-scenes attempts to lobby Brown and other councilors, but as it seems to have come to nothing it will be interesting to see if they are now more vocal in their support for the port workers.

The left's assessment of Brown's performance has been scathing - see for example, Danyl Mclauchlan's two posts, 'We're going on a journey . . .' and Destroying the village to make it more efficient, The Standards' Dear Len letter, and No Right Turn's Sacked. But the most illuminating responses have come from Auckland Labour Party activist and blogger, Robert Winter, who as a rank-and-file member provides an important insight into what Labour activists are thinking. His post, Awful, Mr Brown leaves no doubt about who the Mayor has sided with. His latest blog post, is even more interesting - see: The Political repercussions for Labour of doing nothing on the Ports, saying there is 'deep concern, even anger at Mr Shearer's ambivalence on this issue and concern that Labour is being presented as toothless'.

Dene Mackenzie of the ODT also looks at Shearer's role in the dispute, and he contrasts the Greens' consistent backing of the union with Shearer's hesitant approach: 'Mr Shearer has to front up to voters or lose another round to the Greens and others. He needs to also abandon Mr Brown, if that is what it takes, to keep the faith with Auckland voters' - see: Port dispute web of loyalties takes wide catch. Up until now, Brown has taken most of the political heat, rather than Shearer, but with the Auckland Mayor effectively being written off as an ally of the workers, Shearer will now come under pressure to be the workers' political champion. His vacillating on the dispute is analysed by Chris Trotter on TVNZ's Breakfast - watch here.

Political solutions may be the union's only hope according to legal experts. Employment lawyer Peter Cullen says 'the company is entitled to contract out work and, legally, there is not much the workers can do.' Cullen says their best option now is to seek political support from the Government and Auckland Council, although even Len Brown concedes that his council's demand for bigger dividends has directly contributed to the lay offs - see RNZ's Council dividend considered a factor in port layoffs.

Auckland University law professor Bill Hodge says the Maritime Union now has very few options left - watch his TVNZ interview: Union have 'no cards to play' - expert. Chris Trotter thinks the opposite - see his blog post, Steady, Comrades, Steady. He argues that the POAL has sacked the workers out of desperation, not strength, and that the company will struggle to make the port work again if the Maritime Union workers are able to hold out. Trotter predicts that the workers will now not rest until Gibson and the board of directors are sacked. He also has a very strong view on Len Browns political future: 'nothing will save Auckland's mayor'. Now, it seems, there will be plenty of activism around the dispute, including a rally in Auckland on Saturday (http://bit.ly/wULuGt), and a Facebook page created by journalist Peter Malcouronne: 'Sack Tony Gibson, the Three Quarters of a Million Dollar Man'.

The biggest pressure on the Ports of Auckland will be the mounting costs, which ultimately the ratepayers of Auckland will wear. Not only will the redundancy payouts be substantial (see: Port company faces $11.5m payout), but the loss of revenue to date, plus the impact of future disruption, will total many millions of dollars that will take years to recover even if the port achieves the increased dividend target set by the council.

It will all be worth it in the end, according to today's Dominion Post editorial, which puts the case against the port workers and sympathises with Labour leader David Shearer who they say has been put in a 'difficult position' - see: Times change in workplace relations. Cathy Odgers also hails the ports management - see: Dedicated to POAL Chairman Richard Pearson . She, interestingly, lashes out at the Labour Party for not backing the union, likening it to herself advocating for higher taxes and more welfare - i.e. a betrayal of core principles.

Combined with looming state sector cuts (see: Andrea Vance's 2400 more state sector jobs could go) it looks as if the next few months will signal a 'winter of discontent' for many workers - see Michael Fox and Andrea Vance's Mass workers' rights protest may erupt.

Hone Harawira is attempting to prevent the sale of assets by scaring off foreign investors - see: Alastair Reith's Harawira declares war on 'corporate takeover' of NZ . Political journalist Gordon Campbell was at a meeting with Harawira where he disagreed with this tactic of economic sabotage, suggesting that it would ultimately hurt taxpayers. This apparently resulted in him being 'subjected to a barrage of swear words by Mr Harawira'. See also Danya Levy's Hone Harawira to foreign investors - steer clear.

The Government may be locked in a vicious circle as, despite further massive cuts to the state sector, dreams of slashing the deficit are receding daily according to Vernon Small's column, Key may be only one in on the joke. Small notes that 'during the election campaign, Mr Key and Finance Minister Bill English talked of their plans to halve the $18b deficit to about $9b this year and halve it again next year. On the current trend they will not even be close'.

Today is International Working Women's Day and there's plenty of commentary around this (see: Women still have a long way to go and Women under-represented as leaders in New Zealand - so what to do?, although most is concerned with the lack of women in elite business and leadership positions rather than the daily struggles most working women face, for example with childcare which according to at least one account is still woefully inadequate - see Michelle Duff's Unborn babies on childcare wait lists.

Other interesting items today include TVNZ's Racial inequality 'entrenched' in NZ - commission, Shane Cowlishaw's Tau-tally devoted: MP's quick 'I do', and the Herald's editorial Bill goes too far in curbing right to silence.

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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