“Let them eat cake” – words spoken by the misfortunately naive Marie Antoinette, and that are symbolic of the classical attitude of the privileged towards the poor, and, it seems, of the A-Team to the student body at Victoria.
The recent campaign of the A-Team in the VUWSA elections both reflects this statement and illustrates the problem with right-wing politics in general. Advocates of right wing policies generally come from a position of privilege (how many A- team members do not come from affluent backgrounds?) and their thinking reflects this. There is an assumption that the people “should eat cake”, coupled with a naïve, or perhaps arrogant obliviousness that many people – low wage earners and students in particular, that can barely afford bread in the first place. Additionally, it seems to be a standard set piece of the Right to push through unpopular polices through the use of election bribes – in other words giving with one hand and taking with the other – and the A-team’s promise of a $25 refund of the student union levy is a case in point.
If the A-Team win big in the VUWSA elections, though I do not expect them to, they will have done this by promising the people cake (in the form of a one off payment of $25) and they intend to pay for this expensive dessert by stripping away services provided by the VUWSA and eliminating clubs entirely.
The policies of the A-Team, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflect the general thinking of the Right in our national politics. The National Party vigorously argue that New Zealanders deserve a tax-cut i.e. cake, and seem oblivious of the fact that an adequate amount of tax-revenue is necessary to maintain basic public services (health, education, welfare), which are not in the best shape as it is.
Of course, they might reply that they can run these services more cheaply and efficiently; this is a very popular argument of the Right, as are attacks on the inefficiency of the public sector (or the A-teams attacks on VUWSA), however the fact remains that this promise almost always falls short (I am yet to see an example to the contrary), and what we usually end up with is a neglected and visibly broken public sector – a health system barely able to cope, high tertiary fees and large benefit cuts – as we had in the 1990s under nine long years of National in government.
There is an adage that there will always be some “inefficiencies” in the provision of a public service, especially so if it is working well, and although waste should of course be minimised, its presence should not be used as a pretext for under-funding services to the point of collapse, whether at a student union or national level.
The worst off members of society are those that benefit the least from tax-cuts (or levy refunds), and yet they are ultimately the ones who will pay the price in access to essential services such as healthcare and education (or clubs, and student welfare) and in general quality of life.
Interestingly, one of the reasons the A-Team gives for the $25 refund is the dire financial situation of students, if so, then it is a very short sighted and ineffective solution to a larger problem. The issue isn’t the fact that the student levy is too high, it is that many students have to survive on a mere $150 a week (which they must pay back in full).
The solution to this is however is not a one off payout which will gut student services and make things even worse for students, but rather a universal student allowance set at a level where students can afford to pay for rent, bills and food, and focus on their studies without facing hardship: $200 is an minimum amount suggested to me by one student.
This of course seems to be lost on the A-Team, who apparently also want the VUWSA to be apolitical and stop advocating for things such as universal allowances. Here being apolitical means to support a status quo that leaves students at a great disadvantage.
The parallels between the campaigns of the A-Team in 2007 and the National Party in 2005 are striking: Don Brash was also offering the people cake in the forms of tax cuts, as likely the 2008 campaign under John Key’s leadership will be, the difference perhaps is that Key’s cake, like his smile, will be sweeter than Don Brash’s and possibly harder to resist.
In this regard, the results of the VUWSA election may present itself as a sort of political compass in terms of the general election next year; given the general left-wing leanings of most students, if the A-Team does well, or even wins two or more exec positions, this may well mean certain doom for Labour.
To be clear, I am not endorsing the policies of the current Labour government; although some good steps have been made, they have generally shied away from significant social reform and have kept to the centre – which itself has moved right – in order to avoid upsetting the more affluent part of their electorate, while at the same time taking the loyalty of the lower-middle and working classes for granted.
Whatever happened to the Labour polices of free tertiary education, a universal student allowance and a decent welfare system where people are not punished for being jobless? Many neo-liberal reforms of the 90s have remained in place, and what hope can we have that the Labour Party (at least under the current leadership) will have a change of heart and regain its conscience? Probably not a hell of a lot, but I digress. The point is that right-wing political groups, especially ones offering cake, are much worse and should be avoided with the same fervour as a stranger in a car offering a child candy.
Despite the hollowness of this strategy, Right-wing politicians in New Zealand and elsewhere continue to promise the people “cake”, when the truth is that for many, as was the case during the French Revolutionary period, “eating cake” signifies at best eating crumbs, and at most, nothing at all. In the France of 1793, this attitude cost the Aristocracy (and Marie Antoinette) their heads; in contemporary New Zealand most would probably agree that a thorough election defeat would suffice.