New Zealand “lefts” and unions promote pro-business mayoral candidates in Auckland

New Zealand’s “left” identities have recently swung into action to promote one or other right-wing, pro-business candidate for mayor of Auckland, the country’s largest city. With local elections due in October, the contest is under way to replace incumbent mayor Phil Goff, a former Labour Party leader, who is retiring.

Auckland is New Zealand’s major urban centre with a large working class. The region covers over 1.66 million people, about 33 percent of the country’s population. As a result, Auckland’s affairs occupy a major role in the country’s social, political and economic life. It is also ethnically diverse: 28 percent identify as Asian, 15 percent are of Pacific background and 13 percent Maori.

The region has been at the centre of NZ’s COVID outbreaks and, with the Omicron variant surging, its schools and hospitals are completely overwhelmed. On Tuesday there were 7,844 active cases in Auckland and 10,561 in the south in Counties Manukau. Over 600 people are in hospital in the region. The nationwide toll this week reached the grim milestone of 200 deaths.

The Ardern Labour government, which is responsible for the escalating disaster, will not want it impinging on the mayoral campaign. The party has endorsed as its candidate, Manukau ward councillor Efeso Collins, who has nine years’ experience as a local Labour politician.

Initially Collins was reportedly not favoured by the party hierarchy; his past statements opposing abortion and gay marriage were considered problematic. His stocks rose through the critical role he played promoting the government’s COVID vaccination program in South Auckland, in the face of opposition by some Pacific Island church leaders.

Pseudo-left figures reacted to Collins’ endorsement with delight. In the style of a religious revival meeting, Daily Blog editor Martyn Bradbury wrote on March 1: “REJOICE! OH HOLY DAY! OH BLESSED DAY!” Collins is depicted as an anti-establishment outsider who will “put the poor first,” akin to “Bernie Sander’s [sic] populism.”

Unite union leader Mike Treen posted that Collins would have his vote. Unions Auckland, representing the city’s unions affiliated with the NZ Council of Trade Unions, bestowed its endorsement, in a statement shared without comment by the pseudo-left group Socialist Aotearoa. The Green Party is also backing Collins.

A Collins mayoralty is being promoted as “historic” by Labour and the media on the basis of racial identity politics. He is of Samoan and Tokelauan descent, and if successful will be the first Pacific Islander leader of the city. After the 2020 national election, much was made of the number of Maori and Pacific Island MPs in Labour’s “diverse” caucus. This has not prevented it from engineering the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in New Zealand’s history.

Collins is being brought forward amid deepening social and economic tensions. In response to the pandemic, Goff imposed an “emergency budget” in 2020, and by mid-2021 the council had slashed 643 jobs. Collins supported the austerity measures, telling the Pacific Media Network on June 2, 2020, “Unfortunately, there’s going to be cuts to our services, possibly cuts to jobs, and a whole range of things.”

Collins last year supported the council’s so-called “Recovery Budget,” which over the next decade will lift the average rates bill from $2,810 to $4,018 and water from $1,069 to $2,261—a 62 percent increase for a typical Auckland household. The budget only passed through the council by a single vote.

Several councillors, excluding Collins, raised concerns over the dire outlook for community assets like libraries, halls, community centres, arts venues and playgrounds where there could be no money to upgrade or replace them. In 2017, Auckland City Libraries axed 194 jobs in a restructure affecting all 55 libraries, part of the council’s agenda to reduce social spending.

Working class people in Auckland face a worsening crisis. Charities have reported soaring demand for food parcels, as working families are unable to cope with sharply rising costs, especially food prices and rents. Auckland’s housing is among the least affordable in the world, due to rampant speculation in the property market. None of the mayoral candidates, or the Labour government for that matter, has any intention of addressing the crisis.

A stream of glowing media profiles is promoting Collins as a “man of the people.” In one puff piece, Collins told the New Zealand Herald that the moment he decided to run was when, getting off a bus, the Samoan driver put his hand on Collins’ head, saying: “Go for it, son. You talk for our people.”

Collins does not speak for the working class, but a privileged social layer whose political advance is based on the promotion of race and gender. He was the first Polynesian to become Auckland University Students’ Association president in the late 1990s and was then employed as the university’s Pasefika liaison adviser. His student “leadership” programs were based on the conception that “first and foremost—you’re Samoan, you’re Tongan and you’re my brother, you’re my sister.”

Collins has reassured wealthy residents and investors they have nothing to fear, boasting on the Spinoff about his close working relationship with conservative National Party-aligned councillor Desley Simpson. “I represent the poorest ward in the city, and she represents the wealthiest, and we can sit there while other discussions are going on and thrash things out,” he said.

In 2018 Collins voted with other South Auckland councillors against a regional fuel tax of 10 cents per litre on petrol because of the impact it would have on their constituents. He has promised to introduce free public transport, while making clear that this would be funded by cost cutting in other areas. With petrol prices skyrocketing, the policy is also being promoted by the Greens and Collins’ main opponent, businessman Leo Molloy.

Molloy, a restaurateur, has been a leading opponent of public health restrictions on business operations during the pandemic. Last November he provocatively announced his own “Freedom Day,” declaring he would open his bar on December 1, regardless of COVID-19 restrictions.

While in favour of vaccinations, Molloy promotes the lie that the Omicron variant is essentially harmless. He demands that people “live with the virus” and has savaged prominent scientists such as Michael Baker and Siouxsie Wiles for their warnings about COVID. Molloy is a friend of fundamentalist Destiny Church leader Brian Tamaki and supported his anti-lockdown protest last October.

Molloy bases himself on right-wing populism. “We’re going to support small business and return it to the glory days of years gone by,” he declared and bluntly advocates a “bloody good clean-out at Council,” targeting the jobs of middle-layer administration staff, about 20 percent of the total workforce.

In an online video posted this week, Molloy proposed installing a system to “spray cold water” on homeless people, who he called “losers,” to prevent them from “congregating” in the city at night.

Joining Molloy as campaign manager is Matt McCarten, who is variously described as a “socialist activist” or “social justice” advocate. McCarten has been promoted for decades by pseudo-left groups including Socialist Aotearoa, the International Socialist Organisation and Fightback.

McCarten told Waatea News he joined Molloy’s campaign because “people are angry” with professional politicians. McCarten praised Molloy for donating to charities and raising money “for Maori initiatives.” Speaking as a “trade unionist,” he said Molloy was a “good” employer.

McCarten claimed Molloy has a “clear plan” to deal with the housing crisis, by establishing “partnerships” to attract “a lot of investors,” in other words, a pro-business plan to boost investors’ profits. He has made no comment on Molloy’s vocal opposition to public health policies or his connections with far-right figures such as Tamaki.

Beginning in the Labour Party in the 1980s, McCarten has dedicated himself to defending capitalism by establishing a series of political safety valves to divert unrest in the working class. He played a central role in leading a split from Labour in 1989, after Prime Minister Lange launched a major assault on the working class, including privatisations and mass redundancies, and co-founded NewLabour.

There followed a succession of positions with fake “left” formations, including the Alliance which, as a coalition partner in Helen Clark’s Labour government, voted in 2001 to commit NZ troops to Afghanistan. He became director of the Unite union, instrumental in corralling highly-exploited young workers in the fast-food industry, and then played a key role in Maori nationalist politics with the openly pro-capitalist Maori Party, then its off-shoot Mana. In 2014, McCarten returned to the Labour Party as chief-of-staff to then opposition leader, David Cunliffe, until 2016.

McCarten’s shift into his new venture puts him at odds with Collins’ backers. What unites the pseudo-lefts, however, is their rightward trajectory propping up the increasingly discredited political establishment. The Ardern government, who they all support, faces a growing rebellion from the working class in response to the crisis triggered by the pandemic, economic crisis and war. Whatever their tactical differences, what drives them above all is the need to establish new avenues to defend capitalism.