The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.42           November 23, 1998 
New Zealand: Firefighters Push Back Cuts In New Setback For Government  
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - "There was optimism among the troops that there's been some justice served," said Greg Fletcher, the Professional Firefighters Union delegate at the Pitt Street Fire Station in Auckland.

He was responding to the decision of the Employment Court, announced on October 15, to slap an injunction on the government-run Fire Services Commission. The injunction prevents the commission from carrying through a decision, announced on May 7, to sack 1,600 firefighters and make them apply for 300 fewer jobs. The decision was one of several rebuffs received by the National Party government of Prime Minister Jennifer Shipley during October.

Firefighters responded to the threatened sackings with a campaign of public protests. These included rallies, a nationwide petition, and a three-day trip by West Auckland firefighters to parliament. A number of other unionists joined these actions, including some who had been involved in their own fights. By the time the dispute was turned over to the Employment Court in August the sackings were six weeks overdue.

Following the Employment Court decision, the Fire Service's chief executive, Jean Martin, declared job cuts would still be sought, and that "the numbers depend on how many people may wish to opt for voluntary severance." Fletcher told the Militant, "We'll wait and see what they do next."

Shipley's government has been dealt other setbacks since taking over in August, as it moved to implement a number of attacks on working people with what Shipley claimed would be "discipline, momentum, and determination."

The National Party has a minority of seats in the parliament, and is ruling with support of the right-wing ACT party and a new party, Mauri Pacific. This was formed by defectors from the New Zealand First party of rightist politician Winston Peters. A coalition between the National Party and New Zealand First broke up in August.

Large protests opposing government plans to end the statutory powers of the producer boards greeted Shipley when she visited farming areas in September. Eight hundred marched in Nelson on September 25, and more than 300 farmers and others demonstrated in the Hawkes Bay September 5.

Opinion polls also register overwhelming opposition in the countryside to deregulation of the boards. These play a key part in the production and export of New Zealand's pastoral products, which together with fish represent more than 60 percent of the total value of the country's exports. A layer of capitalists in town and country are demanding that the boards' jurisdictions be opened up to more competition.

Among those protesting are working farmers with smaller holdings, who predict that the proposals will mean still tighter margins for farmers, and greater joblessness in rural areas.

The government, which had been confidently projecting rapid deregulation, was clearly taken aback by the wave of protest and "has been back pedaling ever since," as one commentator observed. The National Party is also concerned about undermining the electoral base it has traditionally enjoyed among farmers. Shipley now states that the government opposes the "hare-brained idea of deregulate and be damned."

Protests have also broken out at further steep increases in fees for tertiary education. At Auckland University, hundreds of students disrupted an October 19 meeting of the university council as it decided to charge differential fees for different courses, a move that will result in an increase in tuition fees by an average of NZ$600 per course.

The vice-chancellor of Auckland University said that the decision was forced by a reduction in government funding from 75 percent to 72.4 percent of course costs. As of June, 250,000 students around the country owed a total of NZ$2.7 billion. Their loans now carry a rate of interest higher than home mortgages. A still greater furor was provoked by the government decision to cut pensions for retired people.

While it has suffered embarrassing checks on some fronts, the Shipley government is not reversing its attempts to subject further pieces of the social wage to "targeting" (means testing) or outright privatization.

The country's government-built infrastructure is not safe from this process. Private interests are carving up the generation and marketing of electricity, and proposals are being examined to introduce "roading reforms" involving new taxes on road users.

At the same time, Shipley has promoted the purchase of a controversial third new frigate for the navy, to bolster Wellington's ability to enlist in imperialist wars under the leadership of Washington and London.

These attacks take place in the midst of a downturn in the New Zealand capitalist economy, which has been in recession since the start of the year. Government ministers are predicting a deficit in the national budget, after five years of surpluses they were fond of boasting about.

The New Zealand Treasury predicts that official unemployment will rise from 7.7 percent to 8.5 percent over the next year. A "work-for-the dole" program was introduced last month. To date, 85 people have had their benefit reduced for failing to turn up for work interviews or not accepting "community" work.

The economic crisis particularly affects members of the oppressed nationalities, especially the Maori population and Pacific Islanders. Census figures for Pacific Islanders in New Zealand, collected in a recent report and summarized in a New Zealand Herald article, show "Rates of unemployment ... were more than double the rate of the population at large.... Median incomes for the six [main] ethnic groups [Tokelauans, Cook Islanders, Tongans, Niueans, Samoans, and Fijians] were all below the national rate."

The wearing effects of the crisis, and the attempts by working people to find avenues to express their discontent, are adding to political instability in the country. Recent local body elections were notable for the high casualty rate among incumbents.

Public opinion polls indicate that the Labour Party would be comfortably elected if national elections were held. Labour leader Helen Clark has pledged to form a coalition government with the Alliance, a grouping of parties that includes many former Labour Party members. Clark is proposing an incentive scheme for New Zealand business competing against overseas firms, and has floated the idea of restoring some social services through a modest increase in taxation on higher incomes.

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