(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz)
So far, so predictable. This government is doing pretty much exactly what people expect Labour-led governments to do.
Whoops. I almost said that it’s doing what people elect Labour governments to do, but of course the Labour Party won only 38 per cent of the vote last September. In fact this government’s legitimacy may be permanently tainted by the suspicion that it was formed essentially as a result of Winston Peters’ desire for utu against the National Party.
But let’s put that inconvenient misgiving aside. How’s the Labour-led coalition actually doing, nine months into the job?
The opinion polls suggest the public think it’s doing okay, but no more. Radio New Zealand’s most recent “poll of polls” put Labour on 42 per cent while National’s level of support, at 44 per cent, had barely shifted since the election.
The Greens dropped slightly from their election-night result of 6 per cent. But the big dip was recorded by New Zealand First – down from 7.2 percent at the election to 3.9 per cent. In other words, the man who now occupies the most powerful post in the land, albeit only temporarily, wouldn’t even scrape back into Parliament if an election were held tomorrow.
That makes a travesty of democracy, but let’s put that inconvenient fact aside too.
Those caveats aside, the Labour-led government is performing true to form. It inherited a house that was structurally sound but looking a little tired and neglected. So it’s knocking out a couple of walls, moving the furniture around, buying some new home appliances and giving everything a coat of fresh paint.
We expect National Party governments to be essentially laissez-faire – to leave things much as they are unless there’s an urgent and compelling need for change. You might say that’s the essence of conservatism.
At their worst, National governments grow lazy and complacent. Farmers might well be wondering, for example, whether Nathan Guy as Minister of Primary Industries was asleep at the wheel over Mycoplasma bovis and the less-than-rigorous policing of the National Animal Identification and Tracing scheme (Nait) which assisted the disease’s spread.
But we expect Labour governments to be radical and to break a few things. We customarily elect them when we think National has become too tired and smug for comfort.
It was a radical Labour government that rebuilt the economy in 1984 – something many National politicians knew had to be done and would love to have taken credit for, but didn’t have the nerve to attempt.
Labour governments shift the political centre-ground and remould the political landscape. Some of their initiatives don’t work and are discarded, but many remain firmly locked in place long after Labour has been dumped from office.
Labour’s potentially fatal flaw, of course, is that it comes into power fizzing with impatience and ambition but quickly develops speed wobbles. Policy stresses, personal agendas and the pressure of relentless media scrutiny begin to take their toll. Bits start flying off, and soon the electorate finds itself longing for the dullness and stability of a National government.
It doesn’t always have to happen like this. Helen Clark’s government was cautious, gradualist and tightly disciplined, which probably explains why it stayed in power for nine years. It initiated as much reform as it thought it could get away with while keeping one eye on the opinion polls. When it suited Clark politically, as with the Foreshore and Seabed Act, she slammed the brakes on. .
But with this government, Labour seems to have reverted to type. It has plunged into a dizzying programme of reviews and task forces – 122 according to one count. Not even the presence of New Zealand First, which attracted voter support in the expectation that Peters and his MPs would act as a restraint on the Labour-Green agenda, is holding it back.
Labour has created expectations among its supporters that it may not be able to fulfil. At times it looks perilously close to being out of control and you wonder if the wheels are going to fall off.
The government’s greatest asset, of course, is Jacinda Ardern, and now her baby too. Ardern is Labour’s talisman. As Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins wrote last week, she’s the only thing standing between Labour and potential disaster.
Ardern is obviously politically astute as well as possessing bucketloads of personal appeal and almost preternatural unflappability, but she will also need something of Clark’s steely resolve to stay in control of her potentially fractious coalition.
Does she have it? It’s too early to say, but my long-range guess is that this will be a one-term Labour government.
The inherent strains and contradictions of the coalition arrangements will eventually take their toll. But if Labour is tossed out of office in 2020, or even before, it will have left its mark on the political landscape in a way that National governments rarely do.