Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: 100 years of taking a stand worth saluting

Chilcot result and gay law milestone nods to Labour principles.
The Chilcot inquiry points to not only poor intelligence but hopeless planning and processes. Illustration / Guy Body
The Chilcot inquiry points to not only poor intelligence but hopeless planning and processes. Illustration / Guy Body

In a world in which the latest messaging apps last only seconds, in which the average company lasts about 40 years and falling, the Labour Party has much to celebrate in lasting 100 years.

Its celebrations this week have given it cause to reflect on where it has come from and where it should head.

An immediate challenge is how it handles what Steve Maharey this week termed the division between the "open" or internationalist view of the future versus the "closed" or nationalist view of the future.

On some key indicators, such as opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and sales of houses to offshore foreigners, it appears to be heading down a path of the latter.

That would put it at odds with its outward-looking, reforming past.

Labour's history as a party of reform is indisputable. That may be because it spends so much time in Opposition that once it gets into Government, it moves furiously.

National can claim ownership of some major reforms, such as ACC, setting up the Office of the Ombudsman, the Official Information Act and deregulation of the labour market.

But they are exceptions. Labour has been more naturally the party of reform: the welfare state, the Waitangi Tribunal, economic reform, education reform, and constitutional reform such as the establishment of the Supreme Court.

Labour is often proven to be on the right side of history which means not just having policies that are so embedded that your opponents must accept them - such as Working for Families - but on taking principled stands.

This week's release of the Chilcot report on the Iraq inquiry in Britain was one such reminder.

It confirmed how fortunate New Zealand was that Helen Clark resisted pressure to join George Bush's invasion in 2003.

She argued it ran against the rule of law and did not have the authority of the Security Council.

National wanted to join, as Bill English said at the time, because it thought it should support our traditional allies, the United States, Britain and Australia.

It's a sentiment not too far removed from Tony Blair's pledge to Bush: " ... with you, whatever."

While it was never actually said, National and Act's hawkishness was about "making amends" for the Anzus rift.

Since then, National under John Key has adopted Labour's anti-nuclear policy, meaning not just the policy itself but a commitment to bury any hopes of future changes to it.

And National, having won a seat on the Security Council, has moved closer to Labour's position on intervention in other countries, the principle that it has to be under the cover of law and an acceptance of a more independent foreign policy.

Labour's history as a party of reform is indisputable.

On those counts, the anti-nuclear position, the Iraq invasion, exercising an independent foreign policy, and respect for multilateralism and the rule of law, Labour was in front and National has played catch-up.

National was itching "to go where the US goes" but in 2003, the old allies could muster only one more country - Poland - to join an invasion which has been discredited with each passing year of Iraq's chaos, misery and ruin.

The Chilcot inquiry points to not only poor intelligence but hopeless planning and processes.

There was no ministerial decision, for example, behind Britain's decision to take responsibility for four areas in southeast Iraq, including Basra where New Zealand engineers joined the Brits for reconstruction three months after the invasion.

And so poor was its security it ended up having to hand over detainees in a deal with local militia to avoid attack.

Labour took a principled position on the Iraq invasion.

Issues of war are in Labour's DNA. Besides trade unionism, the unifying issue around which the party was formed in 1916 was opposition to conscription in World War I. Several of its founding MPs, Harry Holland, Peter Fraser and Bob Semple, had been imprisoned for opposing conscription as an unacceptable denial of liberty.

It should be noted that Labour's opposition to the current deployment of trainers in Baghdad is not on the basis of any particular principle.

It was more on the basis that it did not believe it would be effective, although its position has become less clear in light of leader Andrew Little telling the trainers at Camp Taji he was 100 per cent behind them.

Another issue of principle was brought into relief this week to mark the 30th anniversary of homosexual law reform.

The Grand Hall was the venue for a disco-style celebration attended by only a smattering of National MPs but many Labour MPs and ex-MPs.

In 1986, the bill passed narrowly, 49 to 44, to legalise sex between consenting men aged 16 and over - the same as heterosexuals.

Only three National MPs voted for the bill when it finally passed, and sadly not my own father.

He had unsuccessfully introduced a bill to Parliament in 1974 to legalise homosexual acts but with the age of consent at 21.

When Labour's bill was introduced 10 years later, most National MPs either opposed legalisation or, of the more tolerant, would not accept the age of consent being 16, which was intrinsic to the notion of equality.

When Auckland MP Jacinda Ardern cast her vote in 2013 for gay marriage - again led largely by Labour - she dedicated it to her great uncle who had been imprisoned for three years in 1948 for homosexuality.

But even Labour has some way to go in terms of tolerance - it is no secret that despite Grant Robertson's popularity among MPs and party activists as a leadership contender, his sexuality was a defining disqualification for some in the party.

The internal tension between a focus on so-called identity politics versus a focus on so-called traditional values of working people will continue until it gains the Government benches again.

By that time, presumably, Labour will be too busy carrying out its next reforms to be bothered with such introspection.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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