A political sideshow during the media’s continuing examination of Covid-19 and lockdown issues has brought a Labour backbencher into the headlines.
The Taxpayers’ Union credits her with being one of the smartest MPs in the Labour Party but is demanding an apology from her for comments she made about struggling small business owners.
Left-wing blogger Martyn Bradbury admires her too – but has admonished her on this occasion.
So has Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
Oops. How did Deborah Russell – the MP in question – go astray?
Newshub reports she is facing backlash over remarks described by commentators as “offensive”.
Yawn. Nobody can say anything nowadays without quickly learning that someone has found the remarks offensive,
So what – exactly – did she say?
Newshub goes on to quote her:
“We are seeing a number of small businesses are really struggling after only a few weeks in a pretty bad situation, which must speak to the strength of those small businesses going into this lockdown,” Dr Russell said.
“It worries me that perhaps people went into small business without really understanding how you might build up a business or capitalise in the first place so that you have the ongoing strength to survive a setback.”
Hmm. That’s a bit like saying the unemployed have only themselves to blame for being feckless.
Newshub then says:
Robertson shot her down, saying “I’m not sure I totally agree with that prognosis.”
Dr Russell’s remarks have been described as “utterly tone-deaf” by left-leaning political commentator Chris Trotter, “gobsmacking” by right-leaning commentator Trish Sherson, and “offensive” by host of The AM Show Duncan Garner.
Newshub had an interview booked with Russell but she cried off , saying she had been advised to do no interviews, and instead sent a statement.
“I’m really concerned about small businesses. People work hard to get them up and running, and they are an incredibly important part of our communities,” she said.
“My questions to ministers in the select committee yesterday were about understanding what is being done to help small businesses survive, and what we can do to help them to become more resilient in the difficult times ahead.”
Taxpayers’ Union spokesperson Islay Aitchison took issue with the MP, saying:
“Deborah Russell is one of the smartest MPs in the Labour Party caucus but, with respect to her, this is a big misstep. No business is on solid foundations when the Government says, ‘you must cease operations for a month but you still have to pay your staff.’”
“Dr Russell’s background is in the academic world, and it shows here. She should avoid casting these types of aspersions on those who have risked their capital, mortgaged their house, or taken a punt on a business kneecapped through no fault of their own. Deborah Russell should apologise to those people.”
The Taxpayers’ Union press statement included a video of Russell sharing her opinions which can be found here.
“ … I actually like Deborah Russell, but sweet Jesus can someone please write her questions from now on, because this was as tone deaf as Simon Bridges ill fated Facebook posting.”
Bradbury said if any right wing “jerk” were to say this about individuals, it would be decried as economic Darwinism
“ … many many many small to medium businesses struggle – blaming them for their weakness to ideologically point score is jaw dropping in its offensiveness!
“Imagine the exact same wording for beneficiaries not able to survive this unprecedented pandemic and then blaming them for being too weak to survive it? We would crucify any right winger saying that!”
To appreciate how badly Russell goofed, Bradbury suggests, we should look at Grant Robertson’s face and the tone of his smack down
“ … because he knew exactly how that sounded to all those small businesses and sole traders now about to go under.”
The exasperated Bradbury observed:
“Honestly her reply alone is worth 1.5% extra to the ACT vote.
“People want to have their shared sacrifice respected, not denigrated by point scoring over a low wage economy and weak businesses who should have seen it coming.
“Can someone please write her questions in future so we don’t hand the ammunition straight to the Right?”
Robertson’s reaction was recorded by The Spinoff –
Finance minister Grant Robertson has given a public rebuke to Labour backbencher Deborah Russell, who had previously noted that many small businesses hadn’t prepared reserves to cope with a setback like the Covid-19 lockdown.
At the Epidemic Response Committee yesterday, Russell said it “worries me that people went into small business without really understanding how to build up a business to survive an ongoing setback.”
Robertson said it wasn’t a reasonable take from Russell, and said “you’ll realise that I disagreed with her when she raised that yesterday.”
“It is hard to keep going, and it is hard to sustain yourself at the best of times,” added Robertson, saying the government had made efforts to help them through.
Newshub drew attention to further frailties in Labour’s regard for small business by focussing on Small Business Minister Stuart Nash.
Opposition leader Simon Bridges, who chairs the Epidemic Response Committee, asked Nash if he went to Cabinet with any analysis on the effect on businesses in terms of an additional week of lockdown and then another two weeks at alert level 3.
Nash did not provide any modelling, but said Cabinet “believes an extra week of lockdown may actually end up saving a whole lot of small businesses because we can be even surer that we have COVID-19 under control”.
Nash said it’s not about prioritising the health approach or the economy because “both go hand in hand” and “if we get the health response right, our economy is going to come out of this quicker which has got to be good for our small businesses”.
Bridges again asked Nash if he went to Cabinet with any specific details about the effect the extended lockdown could have on small businesses, but the minister did not respond to the question directly.
Instead, Nash but pointed to the more than $9 billion the Government has spent on subsidising the wages of about 1.6 million New Zealanders during the lockdown.
Small businesses can also take up the Business Finance Guarantee Scheme which facilitates large loans with the Government guaranteeing 80 percent of the risk and banks 20 percent.
“The work that I have done around small business processes and the measures put in place to help small businesses get through this I think has made a real difference,” Nash said.
“I have worked incredibly close with the Minister of Finance and all ministers to ensure that our viable businesses will get through this.”
National MP Todd McClay questioned the alert level 3 rules. He asked Nash why a dairy can be open while a florist next door must stay closed.
“People walking into that dairy often don’t have access to a supermarket,” Nash replied. “We believe what we’ve done in terms of going hard and going early will allow our economy to come back a lot quicker.”
Bridges shot back: “You didn’t do the analysis of the effect on business so you had nothing to balance these things against. It’s just effectively rhetoric you’re giving us.”
Nash replied: “We are well aware of the impact this is having on the economy. Believe me we understand the cost of this.”
He said about 4000-5000 workers are able to operate during alert level 4 and by alert level 3 up to half a million people will be returning to working again.
“Globally, we are acknowledged as being one of the leaders in terms of getting this under control,” Nash said.
But back to Deborah Russell.
She stood as Labour’s candidate for the Auckland electorate of New Lynn for the 2017 election and won the seat to succeed former Labour Party leader David Cunliffe. She was ranked 30 on Labour’s party list, up three places from 2014.
On 27 June 2019, she became Chair of the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee, replacing her previous role as Chair of the Environment Select Committee.
She has been described as a political theorist and a former lecturer in taxation who has written articles on taxation for the Dominion Post, the New Zealand Herald, and The Spinoff, as well as appearing on TV and radio to explain taxation issues, and comment on contemporary social and political issues.
We can only conjecture on which political theories underpinned her provocative remarks about small businesses but perhaps it’s worth noting she was a senior lecturer specialising in taxation at Massey University.