The following commentary was written for the New Zealand Centre for Political Research (www.nzcpr.com).
National Radio reported a few days ago that Energy Minister David Parker was taken aback by the public backlash against the Government’s decision to phase out incandescent light bulbs. Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel is known to be concerned about a similar reaction against her proposal to ban liquor sales in suburban dairies. Last month, we witnessed the unusual spectacle of city streets being blocked by truckies protesting at an increase in road user charges – and the even more remarkable spectacle of the public and the media cheering them on, despite the inconvenience caused.
In other words, Labour seems to have reached that point in the life of every government when just about everything it does seems to get up people’s noses. I suspect that support for the truckies had very little to do with support for the truckies; it was more a symbolic uprising in response to a whole range of cumulative, disparate irritants connected only by the perception that a bullying, busybody government was intruding too far into people’s lives. The fuse was already primed – all the truckies did was supply the match.
Veteran political commentators such as Richard Long have drawn parallels with Labour’s attempt to ban cats from dairies in 1975 on hygiene grounds, which created such an outcry that it entered New Zealand political folklore. No one could seriously argue that it was the cats-in-dairies issue that tipped the enfeebled Rowling government out of office, but it became emblematic of the way a grumpy and irritable electorate can react against a seemingly piffling intrusion on its rights. And that was after just one term in office; Helen Clark’s government has had three.
Personally, I think the tipping point may have been reached much earlier than any of the events related above. The first unmistakeable sign that Labour was in serious trouble came in the middle of last year when school principals rebelled against proposals to ban unhealthy foods from school tuck shops. For them, it was one imposition too many – one more onerous administrative burden to distract them from their core job of teaching kids. They were also sceptical about how effective it would be – and rightly so, judging by the number of pupils now leaving school grounds at lunchtimes to binge on fatty foods from the nearest dairy or takeaway outlet. I remember thinking that when even the education profession turned against a teacher-friendly government, one whose ranks are stacked with former teachers, the alarm bells would surely start ringing. But perhaps the hubris of power had impaired Labour’s hearing, because not long after that the Clark government compounded things by buying into a very damaging fight with the electorate over the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act. To stretch the aural metaphor, it was at about this point that the political commentariat began trotting out the cliché that the public had so tired of Labour’s imperious pronouncements that it had taken the phone off the hook.
So where does that leave us now? Let’s assume that the polls are correct, and that Labour is going to take a bath in the general election. And let’s assume further that it won’t be able to cobble together enough support from the minor parties to outnumber National (an assumption supported by some poll results that suggest voters are deserting the smaller parties, with the possible exception of the Maori Party).
Shouldn’t all this give heart to those who are ideologically at odds with Labour’s Big Government approach and redistributionist, the-rich-are-pricks philosophy? Well, not to me, because I have little confidence that National will be radically different. Elections are supposed to be about choices, but I can’t think of any general election in my voting lifetime when the choices seemed less clearcut. The only sense in which the choices are clearly defined is that Labour has forgotten how to engage reverse gear while National, which has progressively ditched many of the policies that clearly delineated its differences with Labour, seems unable to get out of it.
It’s a truism that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. It has probably never been truer than now, when we are witnessing a Labour government seemingly bent on electoral hara-kiri by antagonising the public at every turn, and a National opposition bound for victory largely by default and determined to do as little as possible to upset that prospect. The defining quality of National’s campaign, as far as it can be determined at this point, is that it is obsessively risk-averse – an exquisite irony when you consider that party leader John Key originally made his reputation, and his millions, as an audacious foreign exchange trader with ice-cool nerve.
Pragmatically speaking, of course, there is no earthly reason why National should risk frightening the voters when it can coast into office by playing safe. But politics should be about more than pragmatism. Some people (me, for example) are still sufficiently naïve and idealistic to look to political leaders for vision and inspiration, for a sense of what sort of country New Zealand could be if it were led in a bold new direction. John Key’s National Party, unfortunately, offers no such vision. Former leader Don Brash got close, but allowed himself to be repackaged by his minders as a non-threatening “mainstream” politician – and appears to have regretted it ever since.
Of course there’s an alternative explanation for National’s apparent timidity. This is the “secret agenda” theory, so eagerly promoted by Labour, which holds that the benign smile on John Key’s face is a trap; that National has a set of extremist tricks up its sleeve but won’t declare its hand. Personally I don’t buy this, but if it’s true then National deserves to be rejected for the simple reason that politicians in a western democracy are supposed to be open and honest about their intentions. It was precisely because the public became cynical about undisclosed agendas – Labour’s in the 1980s, National’s in the 1990s – that we allowed ourselves to be suckered into the great electoral con job known as MMP.
Here’s the problem, then: Key seems a genuinely decent and affable sort of bloke – but should we elect our leaders on the basis of their apparent decency and affability? I look for something deeper. At the very least I look for some clear indication of what a party stands for, philosophically. I know what Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party stand for, and even if I don’t agree with them I can at least respect them for having some sort of coherent ideological framework. But when I look at National all I see is a party that seems prepared to make whatever trade-offs and compromises are necessary to win office. That may be realpolitik, but I don’t believe it’s enough to inspire confidence and respect from voters.
It strikes me as very telling that John Key’s most visceral response to anything since he became party leader came in March this year when ACT leader Rodney Hide proposed that Sir Roger Douglas should sit in a National-ACT Cabinet. In a rare flash of something approaching passion, Key made a statement that could have been scripted by a Labour Party spin-doctor: “I’m not going to go and run a government that slashes benefits and privatises off all the assets that the state continues to own; I’m not going to run a radical agenda.” That the National leader should be so eager to distance himself from a party that champions small government and private enterprise – once the ideological touchstones of National itself – was a graphic illustration of how far National has drifted in its bid to capture the centre ground.
I said before that the choices facing voters in this election have never been less clearcut, but I should qualify that. The choices may not be as clearcut as some of us might like between Labour and National, but MMP, for all its flaws, does give voters other options. One of the sub-plots of the election will be whether ACT supporters throw their weight behind National to help ensure Labour’s defeat, or stay true to Rodney Hide’s party in the hope that a few more ACT MPs in Parliament will put some steel into National’s spine.