Question and Answers with Joe Carolan who as a Socialist stood in the February 2017 Mt Albert by election. He discusses politics and Socialism.
Q. You stood in the 2014 election for the Mana movement and are now standing on a socialist platform. So why do you think the time is right now for a socialist agenda?
What made me think about standing as a socialist was seeing the rise of the left in other major western countries over the past year. The Labour Party in Britain had an election that resulted in John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn coming to the leadership there, who are explicitly socialist, very pro-union, pro-worker – which is not what we’ve had from the British Labour party for a number of decades. It’s very exciting. I was over there last June where the zero hours contract victory here in NZ really put New Zealand on the map on the left, in a way in which I don’t think even a lot of the New Zealand left understand! And they wanted to know how we got this victory, not only industrially, but also politically later on in parliament. So I got to talk to some of the new socialist left at the leadership level in the British Labour Party. And then in America, our Unite Union [the low paid workers union for which Joe is an organiser] has had a closer relationship with the S EIU [Service Employees International Union], which is the major union in America trying to organise low paid workers. Many of them Black and Hispanic, and a lot of those workers were involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and in the Bernie [Sanders] campaign. So both in Britain and America you have had the rise of the new left, and I think in NZ there is space on the left of the Labour and Greens block. I was a very proud founder member of the Mana movement. I think it did a lot to build alliances at the grassroots with working-class people and tangata whenua, but people who felt they could support that vehicle also felt it should be Maori led and it wasn’t really in the general electorate seats. The Mana movement has no plan to stand candidates in this year’s General Election in general seats. That means those of us who are to the left of Labour and the Greens are without a vehicle to put those platforms and policies that Mana would.
Q. What is the goal of your campaign?
A movement of people outside Parliament. We have no illusions in Parliament, you get people elected to Parliament like the Alliance party did, like the Greens have, like Mana did, but there is no guarantee that will change things. My experience as a trade unionist organising workers to go on strike and lead themselves has seen real victories for workers under a Tory government. That’s without putting people in Parliament; you can organise and win yourself. I think that’s what we need to see at community level in lots of other places around NZ. A lot of the parliamentary parties are hollowed out entities, they are not the movements they used to be – National, Labour and even the Greens. There’s a lot of progressive people in this electorate who would traditionally have voted Green. But they’ve seen the Greens move to the center, become a lot more pro-business. For a lot of socialists their default party was Green. I voted Green for a long time. But it’s time to try something different.
Q. So you’re a place for people who are disillusioned with mainstream politics to go?
Yes and to actually start that discussion about a new party of the left, learning the lessons of past experiments. The Alliance Party was very good, it was very left wing, it had a lot of the policies that we have in common. But its central belief in where change would come was at a parliamentary level. We are explicitly clear that it’s a movement of the people, and of workers in the workplaces that will change things. It’s not like ‘Joe’s gonna solve your problems’. We can change things ourselves.
Q. There has been a lot of coverage in the media about, and international surveys showing, rising inequality in NZ. How does that manifest in this electorate and, on a wider scale, what would you do to address it nationally?
In this suburb inequality is topographic. There are nice villas up on the hill and a lot of state housing lower down. A couple of hundred yards from here is where John Key met Aroha, the little girl suffering from poverty. It’s the estate where the Nats came to show how poverty had increased under Labour. This area has always been Labour, its heartland Labour, and the rise in house prices is leading to a form of social cleansing in this area. A major problem is working people have been pushed out by high rents. I rent this place here; we don’t own a house on our wage. It’s a concern for low paid workers, and not just for the low paid workers like the one I organise in KFC and so on; it’s a concern for nurses and teachers, they can’t afford to live in Auckland. So that’s one major way inequality manifests, the combination of low wages and high rents forcing people out of wonderful communities where they’re lived. Where you have unequal societies, even your middle class suffers from more crime, more burglaries, and more insecurity. I think there’s a growing number of middle class people in this area who worry about poverty, about where we’re going. They would support things like making the minimum wage a living wage, and some form of rent control so we don’t end up in segregated gated communities. It’s massive. I know some of my workers who are living in cars, who’ve lived in garages, who’ve been homeless. This isn’t people with drink or drug problems. This is workers who can’t find places, who’ve had to move four to five times in two years because rents have been increased. Other families have had to move their kids out of schools because of housing issues.
Q. The Unitary Plan is talking about building 422,000 houses by 2040. Yet even one of the experts on the plan’s hearings panel has said that won’t solve affordable housing problem, that that in areas like Mt Albert these new builds won’t be under $800,000. That’s hardly affordable. What would you like to see to give people access to home ownership? What is your vision for a more equitable housing situation?
When you look at the Golden Age of the left in New Zealand, the one we look back to in the Labour tradition, Michael Joseph Savage and so on, there was a social pact. In many countries after two world wars and the depression, the working class was sick of poverty and war. In 1943 UK Tory Quintin Hogg said “either we give them major reform or they give us revolution”. So in times which were quite grim, economies like ours and Britain’s were still recovering from spending huge amounts on war, we built tens of thousands of state houses, council houses in Britain and Ireland and here. This suburb was designed in the 50s. And it’s a good suburb to live in. There’s green grass, there’s playing fields, there’s shops, it wasn’t a ghetto. People planned society to a certain extent. We need to plan society. I think what we need is 100,000 state houses. We need that huge vision that the left used to have. Not tamper around with minor reforms. I know Jacinda Ardern is a wonderful person but it’s not about personalities. It’s about Labour party policy when it comes to housing, and it is that $800,000 ‘affordable’ home. One, it’s not affordable on the wages that most workers earn and two it’s not what we need. We need good city living and you can build up. You can have nice apartments to live in, if we have enough green spaces so we reduce the carbon footprint as well. We need a huge vision.
Q. When you mention vision, at the last election there was about 1 million Kiwis who didn’t vote. It seems you don’t hear mainstream politicians talking about big visions, and people feel let down. Will that be your point of difference that you are laying out a much bigger picture for voters, a vision that goes beyond just the electoral term?
First of all, I share that distrust in politicians. When you look at parliamentary questions and see them bickering like schoolchildren, that turns everyone off, and their litany of broken promises. We have no control over these people once they do get elected. They can break every promise they make. And that’s all the major parties. I stand for a different kind of politics, based on people power and social movements themselves: Palestinian solidarity, Rent Control Now, State housing action coalition, unions that have won pay increases and defeated zero hours for workers in this area. So we’ve built the movement already for low-paid workers in this area. That’s a tangible result. In many cases, workers are now 50 or 60 percent better off than before the union was there. That is what will change things, not the politician. Handing your vote to a politician and expecting them to do something for you, is that powerlessness that many people reject by not voting anymore, and boycotting the process. That is higher in fact in the working class than the middle class.
The middle class has a plethora of lovely liberal people they can choose from – the Jacindas, the Nikki Kayes…. but the working class don’t because something has changed in New Zealand. Look at the Labour Party that built these state houses in the 1930’s and 40’s, look at the class composition of that part. It was largely working class. It was made up of Wharfies, Wobblies and Red Feds. People who had fought for working people, and that’s something that is missing, not just in New Zealand but in every Western country. We’ve had a professionalisation of the political class who have stolen many of the things that helped to get them there. Paula Bennett and John Key have both benefited from state housing and free education, and they’ve used that against the people who helped get them there.
I think we need to have an alternative to that political class, that elite, and it needs to be led by working people themselves. The community themselves, standing also in solidarity with other cultures. We’re a highly multicultural area here; my son goes to Owairaka School, a school of 50-60 cultures. The danger is if we don’t build a movement like that then we’re going to see the rise of a racist movement, what we’re seeing in England and the US, a polarisation of politics. The extreme center, which is what we’re calling liberals now, cannot hold because it has no answers for the working class. If we don’t get houses, if we live in garages, if we’re in low paid work and if we’re not blaming the system and coming up with socialist answers to it, then I fear that people will start scapegoating immigrants, scapegoating Muslims, scapegoating LGBT people for the problems and those people will start being attacked.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk about immigration – especially as regards the growth of Auckland and pressure on housing. What have you got to say about that? Do you believe in immigration controls of any sort?
First, I think we need pro-migrant and pro-refugee voices on the left. There’s a dangerous game that’s going on, with scapegoating by both the Greens and Labour. The Greens are talking about ‘sustainable immigration’ policies. down that road lies eco-fascism. Where we allow wealthy people like Shania Twain to come and build her ranch but we close the gates to starving eco refugees from Vanuatu or other islands that get sunk because migration controls of any kind will be based on the colour of people’s skin and on poverty, which are linked. I am explicitly internationalist, pro migrant – I am a migrant myself. I believe we should have free movement for all, and that includes the Kiwi workers who have gone to Australia who are treated like second class citizens. Australians who come here benefit from the free health system, can go to uni, treated exactly like Kiwis. I believe Kiwis in Aussie should be treated the same. But that also means we should treat people from the islands, from the likes of Samoa and Tonga, who come here like that too. We should have free and open travel for families. Part of that is repayment for the colonial legacy. Workers move to where they need work. Kiwis move to the UK for work and so on. If it’s good for you it should be good for other workers. We’ve actually helped Indian workers in this area stand up to their own exploitation and injustice.
Q. It’s not just an economic divide that is growing. Surveys have found Kiwi kids from poorer communities fare up to six times worse than other kids in some important subjects like maths. That’s opened up debate about an educational divide that’s also happening. How would you address that, to level the educational playing field?
First we need to reverse all of the attacks on social welfare, on benefits which have allowed people to go back in to training. I think Paula Bennett was the one who got rid of the TIA [training incentive allowance], for single mums to go to university. We need to restore free education for all, up to and including university. But actually, education is a lifelong pursuit, you know? Karl Marx talked about fishing in the morning, doing a bit of work here, and then be a student at night time. I think a lot of our schools could be hubs of cultural and learning activity, they don’t need to be limited to a 9pm-4pm existence. Free education is something that neither party are pushing, not even the Greens anymore. If it was good enough for John Key and it was good enough for Andrew Little, then it should be good enough for any of our children. We need to make war with the political class, to reverse these neo liberal attacks and start putting free education on the map. Where will the resources come from? We need to tax the rich. We need to tax multinationals that are making hundreds of millions of dollars. I know because I organise the workers in some of the biggest ones. They need to be taxed at the rates that workers are taxed. Workers need their tax reduced, multinationals and the wealthy need to pay their fair share at least. If you look at the golden age, those times when the state did intervene and build things for workers, the wealthy were paying much higher rates of tax than now – 50 60, 70 percent. I think we need to go back to that.
I’m a union negotiator and I negotiate contracts with some of the most powerful multi nationals in this town (McDonald’s, Skycity). These organisations make hundreds of millions of dollars of profits, but where does this money go? They use our roads, they use our police, they use all the benefits of living in a public society, and yet these profits are just pouring out of New Zealand. We need to take a slice of that. Put people before profit. And voters are never part of the discussion. We’re increasing funding for the New Zealand Military by 10 billion in the next 10 years. How was that decided? Who decided that that was a priority? There’s always money for certain things and never money for other things, we need to change that agenda as well.
What about personal taxation? Should we have higher rates of income tax?
I think workers pay too much tax and we should reduce tax for workers. Like abolish tax on anyone earning less than $25,000, or 30,000 wherever you want to draw the line. GST is a tax that hurts poor people, because it’s a tax on nappies and milk and bread. We should abolish GST and you could abolish tax on lower paid workers, abolish secondary tax for people who are doing two or more jobs. You could be a cleaner and a caregiver and you’ve been taxed a huge amount on your second job; let’s get rid of that. Have universal basic income for all and let people work on top of that. Get rid of the stigma of the Dpb or being on the dole or whatever it is. You could get rid of all of those taxes, with one simple tax we’d call the Robin Hood tax, the Tobin tax, the financial transaction tax FTT. That’s a 1% tax on every financial transaction that is done digitally. At the minute there is no tax at all on the transaction of funds that goes on digitally. There’s billions of dollars going around… For individuals, a 1% tax on everything would be a reduction in tax as we’re already paying 15%. But for the corporations that move around millions or billions around, they’ll start to have their ticket clipped.
I asked a friend, a local solo mum in your electorate, what she’d like to see. She said more community initiatives – like a community Centre where other mums could meet and support one another. Also she was made redundant when she went back to work after maternity leave and, like many of us as you’ve said, she lives in fear that her rent will go up or that she’ll have to move from her rental unit, which she’s happy in.
The first two things, the fear that she has and the current predicament. I just won redundancy for two groups of workers, the workers at Skycity and the workers at the cinema who were laid off over Christmas when the earthquake hit in Wellington. Things like redundancy should be statutory rights. Unions have won redundancy for workers, where we get organised and then we force them to pay us certain amount of weeks for every year that we’ve worked. But that shows you how few rights workers have, why actually we need unions. We need to organise that ourselves in the community, so Unite is very much a community thing. The first Starbucks strike in the world was down here in St Lukes, one of the first KFC strikes was up in Balmoral. And then the question of landlords putting up the rent, there should be rent control, there should be a board where they have to justify to the community why they’re putting up the rent and that should be over a certain amount of time, 3 months, 6 months – rather than just the naked free market evicting people, socially cleansing people, they should actually be answerable to a community organisation. We should have a list, we should know who the dodgy landlords are, and the dodgy ones should be kicked out of the community, just like we’ve kicked out dodgy employers in the area, like Masala and other restaurants that have been exploiting migrant workers.
There’s 33,000 empty houses in Auckland. There’s land banking going on so we need to tax ‘ghost houses’. There’s a former state house like this, just up the road, that has sold for $1.4 million. This is market madness. This will crash; these houses are not worth what they are being sold for. But many are empty. I think the owners should be forced to pay about $3000 a week to force them to rent them out to 33,000 people to ease some of the housing pressure.
As to how to build a sense of community, I think this electoral campaign is part of that process. It is not about ‘vote for Joe’ or even ‘vote for the socialists’ as an abstract political philosophy. Its – here’s a group of people who live in the area, who care about these issues, who are out fighting for them, whether we get elected or not.
We want to see if there’s a thousand people out here who believe in socialism together. If there is, they’re a more important network together, coming together to fight for these causes, because that’s how you’ll get change. I don’t really want to talk about personalities but I’ve never seen David Shearer come up and down the street. I’ve heard he did some good work in Palestine, I hear he’s going to do some good work in South Sudan. But I’ve never seen him on the picket lines or standing outside someone’s house stopping an eviction. We’ll be launching this campaign January 17th stopping a friend from being evicted from Glenn Innes. Yes, that’s outside the electorate but we don’t stop caring about people just because they’re outside the area. This is how we build community, by people actually reaching out in common struggle together. That’s how strong community was built in many working class areas when we faced adversity, whether it was the blitz, whether it was the depression. Now in these times, with the hard edge of neo-liberalism, I think a lot of people around the world are sick of this and they’re thinking we need a change. And interestingly enough, I think a lot of the leadership of these new movements are women like the one you mentioned. We’re atomised, it takes a whole village to raise children together. Playcentre, which my partner Heather has been a leader of in this area, is kind of a microcosm of that, parents coming together to share parenting skills and look after children together. We’re creating a little village, if you like. The eco-neighbourhood here [local residents have established a community orchard in Owairaka], is part of those beautiful solutions. Climate change is this huge monster on a global level, but if everyone starts local projects to start that discussion and actually plant the trees together, teach children, it teaches us that we can do things together. So we have small networks of people, but we want to make those networks bigger, we don’t want them to be tokenistic, we want to actually change the world.
What we’re actually asking people to do is get involved in movements. If you want to fight for rent control, then join the housing movement. If you’re concerned about low pay, join a union. We’ll come and show you how to organise your workplace, how to fight back, get a big pay increase. These things are possible without politicians but it IS politics. Working class politics.