Bruce Bisset: Perhaps Rob had some fair points

By Bruce Bisset

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Seems to me the older I get and the more I watch New Zealand's manufacturing industry being slowly disembowelled, the more I'm starting to think that maybe, amongst all the wrongs, Sir Robert Muldoon had a couple of things right.

Alarming as such a statement may be for fellow lefties and greenies who like myself spent time on the streets protesting the worst of Rob's Mob's Orwellian social policies, I hope I can persuade I've not (yet) lost my marbles.

Pause to consider how things might be if Muldoon's firm financial interventionism and his "Fortress NZ" approach to assets and business were enduring policies that were given credence today.

For starters, we would not have lost two-thirds of our public assets for no apparent real gain - even leaving aside the multi-billion "invisibles" deficit we run up each year from profits disappearing overseas - nor would we now be faced with plans to sell the last few decent bits of the family silver.

Then there are the once-vibrant industries that, swamped under slave-labour-subsidised cheap junk imports, effectively no longer exist: furniture, clothing, footwear, basic tools, vehicle and machinery manufacture and assembly.

Indeed, add in the industry still extant but that has relocated offshore, and it's fair to say a huge majority of "traditional" manufacturing has vacated Godzone's premises.

What manufacturing that is left or has, somehow, managed to grow up in the interim, is currently being ground down by an artificially-high exchange rate and corresponding influx of more subsidised competition, and no one - at least, no one in Government - seems to give a damn.

Muldoon would not have stood for it. Nor the whole "free" trade commodity globalisation agenda of the neoliberals.

"Neoliberal?" he might have smirked, scornfully. "Sounds like some sort of cocktail."

No, Rob would have the dollar down below US70c; he'd have the banks (very much including the Reserve Bank) lending to all at under 3 per cent; he'd recognise the underlying subsidised components in so-called "fair" trade and legislate against them; and he'd be building up our public assets, not flogging them off for a few bob quickly spent.

And bugger what the rest of the world thought about it.

Sure, Rob's approach was old-style capitalism designed first and foremost to benefit his moneyed mates, but the point is those mates were Kiwis. Today's Nats - and John Key is the prime example - somehow imagine their "mates" live in New York or Shanghai, for that's where the benefits of their policies go.

Leaving a prised-open trainwreck of a country beneath them, instead of a robust, self-sufficient, industrious nation - albeit inward-looking and quasi-isolationist.

So tell me, which is the better approach?

Strangely, I'm not alone in thinking the latter; the Greens (and Labour to some extent) have been talking-up a very similar set of policy initiatives lately, though I suspect they might shy away (officially) from any comparison to Sir Rob's fortress ideals.

Though maybe not. Russel Norman amongst others has been Facebooking about the alleged "Icelandic economic miracle", which is essentially the story of a nation distancing itself from international financial markets in order to relieve itself of overwhelming debt.

Personally I'm jaundiced about the mechanics of their "recovery", given investors elsewhere got left holding the debts the Icelandic Government and its banks ran up, but it does illustrate that a country can survive - and apparently prosper - outside the "norm" of the globalised economy.

Not that we'd (yet) have to be so radical; quantitative easing, as practiced by the US Japan or Europe, could achieve a lower exchange rate to sustain what manufacturing sector we have left - and still be within the gamut of "accepted" financial tools.

Similarly we could avoid free trade agreements so as not to be hooked into supporting sweatshop labour and heavily subsidised industry (especially Chinese).

And then, who knows, maybe there'd be opportunity for more industry here, and the jobs that go with it.

That these new-breed Nats aren't willing to consider old-style measures to save what industry remains, and appear blasé about developing an underclass lacking any chance of employment, does demand an answer as to whose interests they think they are upholding.

Certainly if the plan is to recreate New Zealand as a slave economy on a par with, say, Malaysia, then they're on track.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

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