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Any new government looks set to be no more serious than the old.


Feb 7, 2023 Politics

We should never let it happen again — although it seems we are about to.

After nine years in opposition, Labour returned to power courtesy of Winston Peters. With the exception of its “Let’s Do This” and “KiwiBuild” slogans, it offered nothing substantial. New Zealand First’s Provincial Growth Fund and Billion Trees initiatives, since failed, were the biggest tickets in the coalition agreement.

Still, we delighted in our young new Prime Minister and even warmed to the curmudgeon who had put her there. We celebrated Jacinda Ardern becoming the first head of government to give birth in office since Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. Peters was a perfectly professional acting Prime Minister, leaving some wondering what might have been had he taken a different turn in the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, Labour struggled in the polls through 2018, except for a bump after baby Neve’s arrival and Ardern’s earlier and triumphant five-day visit to Waitangi. She promised iwi leaders transformation- al change and asked them to hold her to account each year, particularly around child poverty, jobs and the high Māori incarceration rate. “One day,” the then pregnant Prime Minister declared, “I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here — and only you can tell me when I have done that.”

The rest of 2018 saw dozens of working groups holding their meetings, doing their consultations and writing their reports. In January 2019, with KiwiBuild already failing and any wider reform programme still obscure, Ardern declared a “year of delivery”. Six weeks later, she was at her finest, leading the nation after the white-supremacist terrorist attack on masjidain.

The year of delivery never eventuated. A month after the terrorist attack, Ardern rejected Sir Michael Cullen’s Tax Working Group report. Apparently at the behest of Peters, she went further, ruling out a capital gains tax for as long as she is Prime Minister, despite insisting she personally supports it. How committed could she be to genuinely tackling inequality and inequities in the tax system, if she could so casually humiliate Cullen even at the height of her post-March 15 popularity?

Ardern insisted that “addressing the long-term challenges New Zealanders face such as mental health, climate change, child poverty, responding to the March 15 terrorist attack and keeping New Zealanders safe” remained her priorities, but events have proven those words hollow.

Professor (now Dame) Cindy Kiro’s Welfare Expert Advisory Group report, released in May 2019, fared no better than Cullen’s effort on tax. Three years later, the Child Poverty Action Group reported that none of the group’s 42 key recommendations had been fully implemented, with only 22 minimally or partially implemented and 20 completely ignored.

Despite $1.9 billion for mental health being the centrepiece of the 2019 Budget, the number of acute mental health beds in New Zealand remains the same as under Bill English. Some are even set to be closed, despite 40% of 18- to 34-year-old New Zealanders considering suicide or self-harm in the last year.

On climate change, Greenpeace boss Russel Norman accuses the Ardern government of “greenwashing”. Statistics New Zealand says there has been no significant change in wealth distribution since 2015. Wealthier households continue to enjoy greater increases in their wealth than the poor. Loose fiscal and monetary policy through Covid increased homeowners’ wealth by an estimated $1 trillion while high inflation has acted as a tax on low-income earners. Crime has become a political issue.

Labour blames most of this on Covid. It ignores that Covid didn’t just save Ardern from being thrown out after a single term in 2020, as polls early that year suggested she was at risk of. It also delivered her the greatest electoral triumph since National’s Sid Holland in 1951.

With National in complete disarray and the Greens providing a further buffer on top of her absolute majority, Ardern had an opportunity to do whatever she felt was needed to deliver on her promises, yet she has either chosen not to or doesn’t know how. Her ministers have proven to have no ability to lead departments and drive policy progress, with or without Peters’ handbrake. They’re deeply unserious. Everything is just PR.

Labour’s utter failure has delivered National activists some long-awaited epicaricacy, but the roles will soon be reversed. Our political system — that means us — now rewards braindead sloganeering by both left and right, and punishes attempts at candidness.

We, or at least the median voters who decide elections, backed John Key for his ability to smile and wave, selling his policy-less promise of “a brighter future”. When he handed over to the more substantial but less charismatic English, the system chose Ardern with her unmatched ability to emote and even more vacuous promise of ‘this’.

The causes are manifold. MMP has so empowered the median voter that Labour and National focus almost exclusively on what she or he wants to hear, which is mainly vague assurances things will get better. The decline of rounds-based journalism in favour of generalists has removed the institutional memory necessary for the daily media to hold politicians seriously to account. New Zealand politicians, including the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, are nevertheless expected to ‘front up’, often several times a day, despite having nothing new to discuss. An elaborate game sees reporters seeking technical gotchas and then bizarrely admiring politicians like Key, Ardern and now Christopher Luxon who are most skilled at saying nothing and avoiding so-called ‘mistakes’.

Responding rationally, National strategists speak openly of a “zero-target” strategy for 2023, risking nothing before the election. Worst of all, it will probably work. Labour’s best bet is cash bribes targeted at the middle class that it knows will fuel inflation and won’t do as much good as focusing on the poor. Both sides will accuse the other of errors in their budgets, whether or not there are any.

Most probably, a new government will emerge, but with no agenda, hidden or public. The Beehive will continue focusing almost exclusively on PR. The ritual of set- ting up working groups and then ignoring them will repeat. Still, we’ll give them a second term. And, then, six years on, I’ll be writing this same column again.

This story was published in Metro N° 437.
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