Europe is caught in its heaviest protests since 1968. Ostensibly as a result of fuel taxes, they have become so large that in France some are concerned they may lead to a nationalist revolution, and French President Emmanuel Macron is rumoured to have given orders to send in tanks to quell any unrest this coming weekend. However, there’s more to the story than this – and the reality suggests that these protests might come to New Zealand.
France is a heavily taxed nation – government spending is 56.6% of GDP, compared to 37.4% in America and 48% in New Zealand. This has long been accepted by the French people, because of their high levels of social trust and solidarity, but the whole system is dependent on the will of the average Frenchman to pay into it. The Frenchmen paying taxes were happy to do so because they believed that this tax money was going to help people like them, but this is no longer the case.
Fuel taxes are something that particularly affect working-class white French people, to the benefit of the middle class and the underclass who live in the big cities. People who live in big cities can take public transport or taxis, and in any case don’t have to drive far. Working-class people who have to commute to work often have to drive from small villages or towns to a city somewhere else, sometimes twice every day, and so become heavily affected by any rise in the fuel price.
A large proportion of the New Zealand population still lives rurally or semi-rurally. There is a commonly-cited statistic that suggests that New Zealand is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, but what this statistic ignores is that our cities are exceptionally sprawling by world standards. So even people who live in cities have to drive a lot as part of everyday life.
Dan McGlashan showed in Understanding New Zealand that this rural population is much more likely to own cars and to drive to work than to walk or to take public transport. Buses are not an option for the majority of New Zealand’s rural dwellers. There’s more to it than just this, however. These fuel taxes would come as another burden to what is an already heavily discontented working-class rural population, who already feel that the cities are benefitting from the current order at their expense.
If Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party go through with their plans to raise the refugee quota at the same time as raising petrol taxes for the sake of fighting global climate change (or whatever the excuse is), they run the risk of fostering the same kind of discontent that has now erupted in Europe. Although they will deny the connection, the perception will rise among the rural working class that they are being taxed through fuel to pay for the importation of refugees that they didn’t want.
For a working-class white person who already has to see middle-class brown people promoted ahead of him on account of their skin colour, or winning scholarships that he cannot apply for on account of his skin colour, things like fuel taxes are an extra kick in the guts. Despite the attempts of the mainstream media to spin the French protesters as insane anarchists, hooligans and neo-Nazis, the fact is that they belong to the same group of normal, everyday people who have lost out from neoliberalism all over the West.
We already saw some small protests in New Zealand two months ago when the petrol price crept up to $2.40 per litre. As the article linked to in the previous sentence suggests, the Government plans to raise the excise tax on petrol by another 7c over the next two years, primarily to pay for infrastructure projects in Auckland.
This means that the neoliberal Government of Jacinda Ardern is potentially making the same mistakes as the neoliberal Government of Emmanuel Macron.
The Sixth Labour Government certainly seems like it’s willing to raise petrol taxes on the New Zealand rural poor to pay for things like doubling the refugee quota, and for Auckland infrastructure projects that most New Zealanders will see no benefit from. Should this cause the petrol price to get up to $2.40 again – or even higher – then the stage is set for fuel price riots to come to New Zealand as well.
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