Saturday's nationwide protests against asset sales received good support from the trade union movement and the political parties of the left. In Auckland teachers marched together under PPTA banners , students around the big red square. In Christchurch fast food workers carried Unite flags and railway workers brought their RMTU banner. But where were the churches? Not one Christian or other religious organisation has backed the Aotearoa is Not for Sale campaign.
Churches and left-wing Christians have played an essential role in social justice campaigns in New Zealand history.
Kate Sheppard, the leader of the campaign for votes for women in the 1890s, was an ardent Christian socialist. Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Prime Minister, described the first universally free public hospital system in the world as 'applied Christianity'.
One of the iconic images of the anti-apartheid Springbok Tour protests is the giant cross carried by a St Johns Theological College student onto the pitch invasion during the Hamilton match.
During the dark period between 1984-1999 Rogernomics bit deeply. First Labour and then National undertook the world's largest privatisation programme, crushed unions, slashed benefits and attacked public health and education. Church people responded through protest and dissent.
In 1992-3 the Council of Churches of Aotearoa established the Building Our Own Future People's Assemblies project. In the lead up to the 1993 election people's assemblies were held. These were as Cybele Locke notes in her recently released book Workers in the Margins, 'forums for people to express their anger with the policies of past governments, to share stories and to set a people' agenda'.
1998 Hikoi of Hope
In May 1998, when National Party Prime Minister Jenny Shipley moved to cut the already meagre benefits of disabled and sick New Zealanders the Anglican General Synod met to discuss what to do.
The Synod, the Anglican Churches highest decision making body, resolved to lead a Hikoi of Hope against the Government's attacks on the poor and working class. Other Churches were quick to join in.
Starting in Stewart Island, Cape Reinga, Westport and the East Cape protesters marched through September 1998 to arrive at Parliament on 1 October. The protests involved 40,000 New Zelanders around a left-wing programme for change ‘Enough is enough! There has to be a better way’ – ‘the creation of real jobs; a public health system which people can trust; benefit and wage levels which move people out of poverty; affordable housing and high-quality, publicly-funded education’.
The protests were the biggest in the country since the 1991 union protests against the Employment Contracts Act. As one Anglican remembers of the Hikoi's effect, ‘As a protest it changed nothing re the approach of the then National Government, but it contributed to the wave of electoral support for a change of government which led to the Labour-led coalition government of Helen Clark.'
Right-wing blogger David Farrar and a National Party staffer in 1998 remembers the arrival of the Hikoi at Parliament as 'one of those landmark days which cripples a Government'. The mobilisation in the streets of the traditionally conservative Churches against 'Rogernomics' helped create the political will for Labour and Alliance once elected in 1999 to increase taxes on the rich and rebuild public health, education and housing, bring in Working for Families and help young, job seekers with the Modern Apprentices scheme.
If churches had maintained their social justice campaigning once Labour had been elected, then Helen Clark's Labour Government may have been forced further to the left. One of the hikoi's goals was that, ‘Creating real jobs must become, as it once was, a central national economic priority.’ One of the key reforms of Rogernomics was the Reserve Bank Act of 1989. Jane Kelsey writes that the law change redefined the bank’s role from ‘the maintenance of and promotion of the economic and social welfare of New Zealand’, and achieving full employment, to a new focus, ‘the objective of controlling inflation, free from government direction’. The Reserve Bank Act underpins the entire Rogernomics system in New Zealand.
When Marx Jones joked about flour bombing the 2011 Rugby World Cup to a journalist the Auckland Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the Catholic social justice agency Caritas withdrew their support for the 'March for Social Justice'.
Since then the Churches have had plenty of opportunities to rejoin the struggle for social justice on the streets. We did see Anglican Bishop Muru Walters join the wharfies on the Ports of Auckland picket earlier this year and Reverend Uesifili Unasa led the Advance Pasifika march last month.
Not since the time of the Hikoi of Hope has there been a greater need for churches and other religious organisations to mobilise for social justice. The five themes of the Hikoi are again in the news. Austerity in education and health. State housing tenants being evicted. The unemployed having benefits cuts. Poverty spreading across the motu.
The letter from the Bishops to the politicians in Parliament on 1 October 1998 read, 'We believe the Church is called by God to demonstrate concern for the disadvantaged and we do not intend to neglect that calling.' There is a conflict in Aotearoa over asset sales, the TPPA, attacks on workers, the despoiling of the environment, between the tiny capitalist class and the great majority, us the working class. Just as they did in 1893, 1981, 1998, Churches need to once again unite, mobilise and help fight injustice.
Read more about the Hikoi of Hope here and watch a short video here.