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Bullshit Reigns

Luxon follows Key and Ardern in being elected without policy or purpose.

Bullshit Reigns

Oct 31, 2023 Politics

Farewell, then, the sometimes inspiring, but mostly incompetent, lazy, cowardly and eventually failed and despised Ardern–Hipkins government, and welcome… what?

For the third time in a row, New Zealand is about to elect a new government that has no idea what it wants to do. Look forward to 2024, like 2009 and 2018, being a year of working groups, 2025 to be a ‘year of delivery’, and 2026 another year-long election struggle.

Through this year’s seemingly endless yet utterly empty campaign, National strategists indicated that, unless National and Act have an overwhelming majority, Christopher Luxon plans to bring New Zealand First into his government. They argue this would give Luxon options to his left and right, as John Key had through nine years and Jacinda Ardern in her first term.

Luxon, like Key and Ardern before him, would therefore have the perfect excuse to hold office merely for the hell of it, without the messy business of exercising power to pursue an agenda.

Worried NZ First might not make it back, National also encouraged the usual murmurings from the woker ends of the Auckland and Wellington business and lobbying communities of giving the Green Party a choice of a National–Green or National–Act coalition.

Whatever formal governing arrangements National establishes, Luxon has signalled he may operate less through his democratically elected and constitutionally appointed Cabinet and more through his network of business connections, including the former head of McKinsey & Company’s China desk, Andrew Grant, who shares Luxon’s conservative Christian beliefs; and former Fonterra chief operating officer Fraser Whineray, currently taking a break in Europe and New Zealand.

Others Luxon is said to want on board are Auckland airport and port bosses Carrie Hurihanganui and Roger Gray; former TAB and MediaWorks chief executives Mike Tod and Cam Wallace, who worked for Luxon at Air New Zealand; Bruce Parton and Stephen Jones of House of Travel and Flair Airlines, Canada’s equivalent of JetStar; Brian Roche, a Mr Fixit for Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, Key and Ardern; and of course National’s campaign and corporate-welfare maestro Steven Joyce.

Key and Bill English will float in the background. Managing the conflicts of interest will keep the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the auditor-general busy.

The reason Luxon’s government will need working groups and advisory councils is that — like Key’s crew from 2006 to 2008 and Labour under successive leaders from 2008 to 2017 — National has again done no policy research, analysis, thinking or development about where it would like to take New Zealand and how.

Earlier oppositions, including those led by Clark, Bolger, David Lange, Robert Muldoon and Norman Kirk, spent at least some time engaging with the latest ideas for economic, social, educational, health-management or environmental change, whether from left, right, in between or beyond the spectrum.

Luxon’s, Ardern’s and Key’s oppositions never bothered.

Since Key succeeded Don Brash as National Party leader in 2006, the two main parties’ sole priorities have been focus groups, polling, social media memes and ultra-short-term media tactics. Sloganeering about building a brighter future, doing an undefined “this” and getting back on track has been deemed sufficient.

The daily media has allowed and enabled it. Seven Sharp and The Project so love having JK, Jacinda or Luxo on for a laugh that no presenter ever dares challenge them. Incoming governments haven’t felt pressured to publish something so mundane as a manifesto, or even to bother with a hidden agenda. Worse, it’s worked every time. It’s assumed that median voters will reject those advocating material change, whether that’s Brash from the right or wealth-tax advocate David Parker from the left, in favour of those promising the status quo plus an extra $20 a week. 

The political class still tries to manufacture the illusion of policy work.

Luxon claims to have issued dozens of new policies. Some are admittedly implementable even if trivial, like his proposed school smartphone ban. But most are mere slogans like “rebuild the economy”, with no substantive programme about how to do that.

When more detailed policy has been announced, it has tended to be last-minute montages of lobbyists’ wish lists, including from SkyCity Casino, Winton property developers, the University of Waikato or owners of early-childhood centres.

After National’s tax con-job was shown not to add up and to risk reprisals from countries with which New Zealand has solemnly signed free-trade and double-taxation treaties, National judged — correctly, as it turned out — that it was better to double-down, lie, smear and bluster than admit it hadn’t done any serious financial or foreign-policy analysis.

Completely unprepared for what lies before it, the Luxon government risks early failure. Unlike Key’s and Ardern’s outfits, Luxon’s crew will take office facing a fiscal and economic crisis not seen since 1984 or 1990.

For the first time since they were passed in the early 90s, Ruth Richardson’s pre-election disclosure rules have failed to motivate a government to be fiscally prudent. But her most important legacy has passed the greater test of requiring, also for the first time, an outgoing government to unveil a complete shambles.

Labour’s legally mandated pre-election disclosures reveal inflation and interest rates will stay higher next year than previously expected. 

The disclosures forced Labour to admit that even it plans a decade of austerity, with police, schools, universities and housing assistance to be cut over the next three years, not just in inflation-adjusted but in actual dollar terms.

The Treasury’s independent modelling showed that if government spending increases by just a billion dollars a year more than Labour’s planned austerity programme — say by National reversing Labour’s cuts to police and schools — then New Zealand will never return to fiscal surplus.

National’s unfunded tax cuts, planned to arrive in mid-2024 – forecast to be a time of high inflation, high interest rates and fiscal crisis — are at least as grossly irresponsible as Labour’s reckless borrowing and spending in 2022 and 2023, when it no longer had the excuse of Covid.

In the end, though, the blame lies with the collective us — by which I don’t include me.

The collective ‘we’ fell for the snake-oil charm and cash handouts promised by Key, Ardern and Luxon. For 15 years, ‘we’ have kept clicking on news reports treating politics as a popularity contest or horse race, rather than motivating the daily media to offer more substance.

Luxon and whoever replaces Chris Hipkins as Labour leader can safely assume that nothing will change in 2026. Just as much as in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, bullshit reigns triumphant in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

This story was published in Metro N°440.
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