New Zealand’s Neoliberal Drift

In New Zealand, neoliberal reforms have widened inequality and undermined the country’s self-image as an egalitarian paradise.

A homeless person in Auckland, New Zealand. Peter MacDonald / Flickr

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A few years ago, when the 2008 global financial crisis was just one or two years old, a coworker and I were talking about the increasingly common sight of homeless people in Auckland, New Zealand. While homelessness in Auckland was nothing new, we agreed that we were seeing more and more men and women curled up in doorways, draped in layers of old clothes and blankets, and holding up tattered signs asking passers-by for money on Queen Street, the city’s main commercial hub.

It was sad, I remarked, that while the problem seemed to be getting worse, the government seemed to be doing very little to help these people escape poverty. She too expressed sympathy for the poor and stressed the importance of giving them a leg up, but confessed she found it difficult to feel bad for homeless people. After all, New Zealand had a generous welfare state that made sure no one was left behind.

“I mean, if you can’t make it in New Zealand,” she said, “then there must be something really wrong with you.”

Her attitude is not particularly unusual — millions of New Zealanders share it. The image of New Zealand as a kind-hearted social democracy, a Scandinavia of the South Pacific, is deeply engrained in its culture.

In fact, this view extends far beyond the country’s borders. A Kiwi in the United States is likely to field three common queries: questions about the country’s natural beauty, about The Flight of the Conchords, and about how much more progressive New Zealand is than America. (There’s an occasional fourth that has something to do with Lord of the Rings.)

To be clear, New Zealand has earned this reputation. Its quality of life is consistently ranked among the highest in the world. In metric after metric — whether examining corruption or life expectancy — it rates well above average. Perhaps most significantly, New Zealanders themselves report extreme satisfaction with their lives.

All of these accolades cover up another truth, however: New Zealand hasn’t been a social-democratic paradise for a long time now. Often considered a “social laboratory,” New Zealand eagerly adopted radical neoliberal reforms in the 1980s like few countries before or since. Nevertheless, its kindly image persists, in and out of the country.

A Social-Democratic Laboratory

All countries have narratives. In the United States, it’s the “American Dream,” the idea that hard work makes millionaires. In New Zealand, it’s the idea that a benevolent, liberal state will look after its people.

This self-image can be traced back to the period between 1890 and 1920, when the country became known as the “social laboratory of the world.” By then, New Zealand already had a long egalitarian streak: it established government life insurance in 1869 to help those who couldn’t afford private plans, assisted new immigrants, and embarked on an expensive public works scheme to lay roads and railway lines. But in 1879, a severe depression dented New Zealanders’ widespread belief in the free market and individualism.

The Liberal governments of Richard Seddon and then Joseph Ward, which first took power in 1893, passed a flurry of social welfare reforms, including distributing free textbooks, improving workplace conditions, establishing food and drug standards, and breaking up large estates to provide land for settlers. The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894 instituted a guaranteed minimum wage and a system of compulsory arbitration for settling industrial disputes. The 1898 Old Age Pensions Act created one of the world’s earliest public pension schemes, even if it was small, means-tested, and only applied to “persons of good character.” (Much of this came at the expense of the indigenous Maori, who were dispossessed of more and more of their land to make way for English settlers and railroad lines).

Foreign visitors returned with tales of an egalitarian paradise and “a country without strikes.” American Progressives drew on New Zealand’s example to push for similar changes back home.

New Zealand’s reputation for progressive enlightenment continued into the twentieth century, even as consistent labor agitation undermined its popular image. The benefits of its burgeoning welfare state expanded over the years, particularly during World War I, when it began covering widows, the blind, influenza victims, and consumption-stricken miners.

Then, like the rest of the world, the Great Depression devastated New Zealand’s economy. The downturn hobbled the country’s labor movement. Widespread economic suffering — exacerbated by the country’s lack of unemployment relief — swept the Labour Party to power in 1935. Its leader, Michael Joseph Savage, promised New Zealanders a “reasonable standard of living in the days when they are unable to look after themselves.”

The country’s first Labour government gave unemployed workers an immediate Christmas bonus, launched a state housing program, established compulsory union membership, and started a Keynesian scheme of guaranteed prices for exports. The centerpiece of its stimulus package was the 1938 Social Security Act, which established universal superannuation for those sixty-five or older, universal free health care (at least in theory), and welfare payments for the poor and unemployed. Savage died trying to enact this bill, putting off cancer surgery to help get it passed and win that year’s election. (Once again, Maori were left out — the law’s language gave officials wiggle room to discriminate and pay them reduced benefits).

Perhaps most importantly, however, the government’s commitment to full employment would endure for decades to come. Successive Labour governments paired this policy with a gradually increasing family allowance, culminating in 1946, when a universal benefit for all families with children passed.

By 1949, the International Labor Organization (ILO) claimed the Social Security Act had “deeply influenced the course of legislation in other countries.” English prime-minister-to-be Clement Atlee praised New Zealand as “a laboratory of social experiment.” In 1944, Labour prime minister Walter Nash wrote that the country offered a “practical example” of what “may well become typical of most democracies tomorrow.”

While Labour’s time in power ended in 1949, its policies of government intervention New Zealand endured. The country remained a highly controlled economy with an extensive welfare state and widespread state ownership in various sectors through the 1970s. Government-guaranteed full employment enjoyed bipartisan support. Even Robert Muldoon, who served as the right-wing National Party’s prime minister from 1975 to 1984, once joked that he knew all seventy unemployed New Zealanders by name.

Weird Science

This all changed in the mid-1980s. As in the Depression years, a crisis sparked a political sea change. New Zealand lost a major trading partner with the United Kingdom’s turn to Europe in 1973, while a series of oil shocks through the 1970s plunged the country into recession. In 1965, New Zealand ranked as the sixth wealthiest country per capita; fifteen years later, it fell to nineteenth.

Again like in the 1930s, the Labour Party implemented a major political transformation, making New Zealand once again a “laboratory of social experiment.” But this time, Labour responded to the crisis by deregulating, selling off public assets, and slashing state investment.

The reforms came to be known, somewhat derisively, as “Rogernomics,” after the finance minister Roger Douglas, who would go on to found ACT, a radical free-market party that has recently embraced US Republican-style law-and-order policies. Prime Minister David Lange acted as an affable and charming salesman for the reforms but had little interest in either economics or policy more generally. For the most part, he allowed his team to experiment with the economy however they liked.

Through the 1980s and 1990s — first under Labour, then under National Party rule — New Zealand ushered in neoliberal reform on an unprecedented scale. Controls on wages, prices, rents, interest rates, and more were scrapped. Finance markets were deregulated, and restrictions on foreign investment were removed or relaxed. Based on the belief that welfare helped create unemployment by encouraging dependency, the system was overhauled in ways that the government’s own official encyclopedia describes as “particularly swift and severe.”

In 1986, Labour slashed the tax rate for high-income earners and introduced a goods-and-services tax. This change effectively hiked taxes on low- and middle-income earners, given that they spend a larger proportion of their earnings on consumption. (Douglas even tried to institute a flat tax, which turned out to be a step too far for Labour.) Legislation in 1991 eliminated hard-fought reforms like compulsory union membership, compulsory employer-employee bargaining, and unions’ special place in this process.

Most state-owned assets were fully or partially sold off, including three banks, the Tower insurance company, shipping companies, the national airline and the country’s main airport, and various energy companies, among many others. In some cases, the results were disastrous, as when National sold off the country’s highly profitable national rail network to a consortium of financial companies, who soon ran it into the ground, forcing a government buyback. It wasn’t the only privatized asset the government later had to rescue.

Government disinvestment from public services abandoned the most vulnerable citizens. Nearly all psychiatric hospitals closed down by the 1990s, their responsibilities passing on to nongovernmental organizations. University tuition fees shot up by nearly 1,000 percent in 1990 and have climbed steadily ever since. The price of attending college in New Zealand now ranks as the industrial world’s fourth highest. The abrupt end of farm subsidies and protectionist policies hit farmers hard, plunging them into debt and leading to a spate of suicides. One prominent Kiwi recalled seeing a beggar on the streets of New Zealand for the first time in his mid-fifties, an experience he described as “like being kicked in the stomach.”

All of this happened at a dizzying pace. And it had to because the reforms were hugely unpopular.

“It is uncertainty, not speed, that endangers the success of structural reform programs,” wrote Roger Douglas in 1993. “Speed is an essential ingredient in keeping uncertainty down to the lowest possible level.” Douglas would later reportedly advise foreign leaders to keep their equivalent programs hidden from the public and to implement them as quickly as possible to bypass opposition.

New Zealand once again became a global poster child for policy innovation, as Jane Kelsey outlines in The New Zealand Experiment. The New York Times gushed that a “heavily protected, over-regulated, high inflation economy” had been turned into “one of the most open in the world.” The Financial Times claimed New Zealand offered a “blueprint for a shrinking state.” The Wall Street Journal applauded that “this little Prometheus unchained itself from a rock of high taxes, high tariffs, heavy welfare burdens, and pro-union labor laws,” and celebrated that “anybody can follow New Zealand’s example to prosperity.” None praised New Zealand more than the Economist, however, which ran story after story on what it called a “free market experiment in socialist sheep’s clothing” that was “out-Thatchering Mrs Thatcher.”

New Zealand’s neoliberal employment reforms attracted policymakers’ attention internationally. In 1996, Newt Gingrich — then House Majority Leader — sent a congressional delegation to study the country as a “model” for industrial relations deregulation. Powerful neoliberal institutions like the IMF, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank exported New Zealand’s grand “experiment,” organizing and funding study trips, speaking tours, seminars, and reports that promoted the program.

Partly thanks to this, countries like Mongolia and Thailand copied New Zealand in their own reforms and worked closely with prominent architects of the experiment. In 1998, New Zealand’s minister of international trade boasted that the “success of New Zealand’s economic reforms” was now as internationally well known as its sheep, its rugby team, and its milk brand.

If you look narrowly at metrics like inflation and government debt, the reforms worked. If you look at more fundamental economic measures like employment, income levels, and economic growth — all of which free-market policies are supposed to boost — they were a miserable failure.

The economy shrank by 1 percent between 1985 and 1992, while other countries in the OECD saw 20 percent growth. Poverty skyrocketed, with one in six falling below the poverty line by 1992. Unemployment jumped, too, and even when it later fell, much of the recovery was in part-time work. Income inequality widened sharply, with the bulk of income gains going to the country’s wealthiest citizens.

Binging on Neoliberalism

While these reforms profoundly shifted New Zealand’s politics, citizens’ self-image hasn’t kept pace. There remains a prevailing view that their country is an idyllic paradise apart from the rest of the world’s ills that, if anything, is too generous to its less advantaged citizens.

Surprisingly, many business leaders believe that New Zealand is an over-regulated, antibusiness economy hostile to economic success. Complaints that companies are mired in “red tape” never seem to end. CEOs regularly report that fear of regulations keeps them up at night.

These beliefs stand at odds with reality. Three times since 2005, New Zealand has topped the World Bank’s annual “Ease of Doing Business” report, which measures regulations that, at least according to the World Bank, enhance and constrain business activity. Every other year, it’s come third or, more often, second. It ranked first twice during Helen Clark’s Labour government, which often faced accusations that its legislation was making it impossible for businesses to succeed.

Furthermore, Forbes has listed New Zealand in the top three “best countries for business” each year since 2010. It ranked first in 2012. Two years later, Forbes called it best in the world when it came to “red tape.”

Every year since 2009, the conservative Heritage Foundation has put New Zealand in the top five countries for its “Index of Economic Freedom.” Investment banker and right-wing commentator Peter Schiff said he would like to live in New Zealand because of its lack of governmental interference.

Resistance to “the nanny state,” a paternalistic government unreasonably worming its way into every little of detail of individuals’ lives, has also become widespread. This belief most commonly finds its expression in complaints about the welfare program, which many think discourages hard work and desperately needs to be cut back. This narrative took center stage from 1999 to 2008, when Clark’s Labour government went some way toward slowing, though not ultimately reversing, the march of neoliberalism.

New Zealanders would be shocked to find that since 2001 and throughout all of the Labour years, social spending as a percentage of GDP has been on or below the OECD average. New Zealand has consistently appeared in the lower half of OECD social spending, closer to the United States than to countries like Finland, Denmark, Sweden, and even France and Germany, which rank far above it.

Nonetheless, popular myths about New Zealand’s safety net persist. Tales abound of unscrupulous beneficiaries gaming the system and ripping off taxpayers, or of apparently sociopathic parents churning out children just to receive more paltry benefits. Much of this is based on anecdotal evidence and high-profile yet rare incidents that receive heavy publicity. As per usual, it is also heavily racialized — the “dole bludger” that exists in popular imagination is usually Polynesian — even though 44 percent of working-age welfare recipients are Pakeha, or white.

The dramatic changes to the welfare system made by John Key’s National Government, which took power in 2008, are founded on these myths. As of 2012, single parents who wanted to keep their benefits had to start looking for work as soon as their child turned five (previously, they could wait until the child was eighteen); parents who had children while on welfare had to start job-hunting after one year. These changes enjoyed wide approval, even among voters who identified as left-leaning. Two years later the government promised to cut welfare rolls by a further 25 percent.

Meanwhile, charities like the Salvation Army reported a massive strain on their resources as overwhelming demand for food and other assistance outstripped their ability to provide it. Poverty, a normalized, structural feature of the New Zealand economy since the 1980s, has reached shameful levels: a third of the country’s children now live in poverty, and an increasing number of families live out of their cars as rents in cities go up.

Meanwhile, attitudes have hardened. A 2013 bill that would have provided free breakfasts and lunches at schools in low-income neighborhoods failed after the opposition called it “an abdication of responsibility of parenting.” One influential right-wing blogger and pollster mocked the bill as a plan to “replace parents”:

[I]f a family is so incompetent that [it] can’t arrange breakfast or lunch for their kids, then surely we can’t trust them to do dinner also . . . So I think we also need huge state owned dining places where kids can get their dinners for free.

After businessman and one-time Trump prototype Bob Jones said beggars were “fat Maoris” and “a bloody disgrace,” an online poll found that 72 percent of the nearly forty thousand respondents thought begging should be outlawed.

Such views also spurred a recent crackdown on welfare fraud, which saw as many as one thousand people a year being prosecuted for costing the country around $30 million annually. By contrast, less than a tenth of that number are prosecuted for tax evasion, despite the fact that this problem cheats taxpayers of $1 billion annually.

Public services have been further hollowed out over the past nine years. In its quest for budget surpluses, no matter how small and meaningless, the Key government slashed health funding, relentlessly defunded the Department of Conservation, and cut support for education at all levels. It has ramped up privatization over public objections, ignoring the fact that selling profitable state-owned assets for a one-time payment makes little economic sense.

Workers’ rights have also been steadily undermined — a stunning fact for a country once viewed as an international model for its labor laws.

Shortly after coming to office, the National Party introduced a three-month probationary period for all new employees, during which they could be fired for any reason without appeal. A 2010 Department of Labor survey and a 2016 Treasury report found this extra flexibility had done nothing to help employment, but had simply cut “dismissal costs for firms” while creating uncertainty for workers, a fifth of whom had been fired under the provision.

In 2010, the government passed legislation that excluded film workers from the definition of employees. Warner Brothers had threatened to move the production of The Hobbit to Ireland if the change wasn’t made, and the measure had been both publicly urged and privately promoted to top policymakers by the film’s director, national treasure Peter Jackson.

Anti-union sentiment became so bad that a group of global unions issued a joint statement in 2012 calling for “an immediate end to concerted attacks on workers in New Zealand” and “an end to the union-busting measures.” More recently, the government narrowly succeeded in revoking workers’ long-held right to rest and meal breaks.

While the benefits once afforded to workers and the poor are slowly being eroded, it’s never been a better time to be wealthy. Inequality may not be as extreme as in other countries, but as journalist Max Rashbrooke notes, the wealth gap has widened more quickly than anywhere else in the developed world.

Certainly, the National Party’s tax policies have helped: in 2010, the Key government embarked on a series of reforms that gave the biggest cuts to high earners and further raised the goods-and-services tax — a stealthily regressive tax regime that undermined any gains for lower-paid workers.

While New Zealand has been hesitant to welcome Syrian refugees, its doors are open wide if the price is right. It offers the global rich two separate residency visas, one of which — the Investor Plus, introduced in 2009 — has only two conditions: émigrés must invest $10 million over three years and spend at least eighty-eight days in the country in the final two years.

Since then, there has been an uptick in ultra-wealthy individuals gaining residency. As Peter Thiel recently showed, citizenship appears to be easily available to those with a high enough net worth.

Indeed, a recent New Yorker article revealed that New Zealand has become a popular refuge for billionaires preparing for the breakdown of society. But this has been known for years, at least since Robert Johnson told the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015 that hedge-fund managers were buying farms as “boltholes” to escape increasing unrest over inequality. New Zealand’s absurdly loose rules around foreign property ownership make this strategy possible: buyers don’t need visas and pay no stamp duty. Until recently, it was one of the few developed countries to have no capital gains tax. (Even now, it only applies to houses sold within two years of their purchase.)

New Zealand’s laws benefit the rich in other ways. For years, it operated as a tax haven, allowing foreigners to stash income in anonymous trusts and pay no tax on it. John Key expressly requested this rule, which a top law firm said would put New Zealand on even footing with the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, and Ireland — all world-famous tax havens. While some have denied this label, the Panama Papers heavily implicated New Zealand and showed that these trusts more than quintupled from two to eleven thousand over a decade.

Ironically, the politicians behind this continued neoliberal rollback all directly benefited from the programs they are now dismantling. The social development minister who cracked down on single parents on welfare was once a single parent on welfare. Former prime minister John Key, whose government sold off thousands of state houses, grew up in a state house. Virtually everyone involved in the reforms that have burdened generations of young people with student debt enjoyed the right of free education.

But a significant part of the population has long since internalized the idea that this is simply the way it has to be. Just prior to Donald Trump’s victory, the New Zealand Listener (the country’s equivalent to Time magazine) criticized Trump and Bernie Sanders for “their unimplementable and often mendacious policy prescriptions.” Some of Sanders’s signature policies included a public health-care system and free college — both of which once existed in New Zealand (and one of which, public health care, still does, albeit in a modified form).

The First Step

Despite adulation from people like Peter Schiff, New Zealand is hardly the libertarian promised land. It continues to have a robust government involved in many aspects of its citizens’ lives.

But neither is New Zealand the progressive paradise that foreign travelers once breathlessly described — or that many of its citizens still believe it is. Perhaps it never was, given that ideas about self-reliance and individualism have always been central to its culture and self-conceptions.

Still, decades of neoliberal reforms have not only hardened social attitudes and eroded some of the country’s greatest legislative accomplishments, but also rolled back many of the elements central to its self-image. A country once proud of its egalitarianism now has higher income inequality than much of the developed world. A country once known for its prosperity now suffers with shameful levels of poverty. A country that markets itself as “clean and green” now must face the reality of its environmental degradation.

For the vast majority of the population, much of this remains invisible, which explains why Kiwis continue to view their country through social-democratic-tinted glasses. Perhaps if they looked more honestly, they could start to solve these problems.

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