Leading unionist Richard Wagstaff has high hopes for lasting change after an election that shifted influence from boomers and the market to younger, fairer thinking.

It has taken a few days to fully comprehend the enormity of what happened on election night. That’s because there are few moments in politics that mark a turning point in New Zealand history to compare this result to.

The revolutionary reform of the Fourth Labour Government and it’s National party successor was one I’ve had the misfortune to experience firsthand. The creation of a welfare state that marked New Zealand as a grown nation in its own right was another. That was a little before my time.

I believe the 2020 election will be seen as a watershed moment. Not for record-keeping reasons, such as it being the first majority government under MMP, or Labour victories in electorates that haven’t been red in a generation. Not even for its truly remarkable standing as the first government with a majority of women MPs, the highest proportion of queer MPs, or even the huge shift of the electorate to the left. (Although all of these are facts that are all greatly welcomed by this unionist.)

The watershed is the fundamental demographic change of politics in New Zealand.signalled by the seismic shift in Parliament that the majority denotes, the demographic change in the House and the shift to the left.

Much like the Fourth Labour Government was a changing of the guard that heralded the ascension of the baby boomer generation and a new politics of liberalisation (good and bad) and deregulation, we are now seeing a new cohort of voters making their mark and with it, a new politics.

There will be structural change this term. I don’t think it will be the rip-shit-and-bust type of change inflicted on the country by Douglas and Richardson et al. But, like that change, it will cast a very long light into our future.

We will see it as an increase in the politics of civil society – the inclusion of people in decision-making though their unions, their NGOs, their churches, their communities. And in the inclusion of metrics such as wellbeing and opportunity in our measure of successful governance – rather than relying only on the blunt fiscal yardsticks of the old way.

From a union perspective this will look like people participating in the negotiation of industry standards though Fair Pay Agreements, it will be the guiding of investment in public services and in health and education outcomes that give more people greater wellbeing and with it the ability to take opportunities and engage in their communities. It will be stronger and more diverse industrial democracy providing a real voice for workers that results in fairer results for all of us including increased sick leave, better redundancy protections, and a greater say in how we do our work and how we do it safely.

What we are watching is the pendulum swinging back from the mean politics of the market that has been such an integral part of our way of doing things for so long.

We are now a nation in which the majority of people believe we can do better and need us to do better. We are a nation in which the majority of people know that we achieve this through working together to intervene where things are wrong and to actively encourage things that are right.

We no longer accept the tilting of the economy away from working people, the degradation of the environment, the settings that pump investment into our housing bubble and away from productive capital, or the institutional racism and sexism that drive the wage gap and some of our dreadful justice statistics. These are no longer the common wisdoms of our political analysis.

This change is deeper than a single electoral cycle and I think the Prime Minister and her team know that. When pundits talk about this Government’s need to “hug the centre” or describe the Opposition’s decimation as a marketing failure they are missing what has actually happened. Triangulation to the so-called “centre” is now untenable – that “centre” no longer exists. For the Opposition this change means they will only ever see the government benches again if they fundamentally shift away from the unregulated free market ideology that still informs their politics.

I have enormous optimism about what lies ahead and about the Government’s willingness to work together for great change. Like so many other New Zealanders, I can’t wait for us to get started.

Richard Wagstaff has been NZCTU President since 2015. He' currently a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Governing Body and the ILO Committee for Freedom of Association.

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