(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 14.)
Contrary to popular belief, it was Labour that won the 2008 election.
Yes, I know the official results show we elected a National government and banished Helen Clark. But in terms of practical consequences, what we now have is, in many respects, a pink government wearing National Party blue.
Labour and its allies in government succeeding in shifting the political centre to the left. They redefined the political game by making an unprecedented number of people dependent on government largesse in one form or another, whether it was Working for Families, interest-free student loans or even the Winston Peters SuperGold card.
National knows it tampers with these electoral bribes at its peril. In politics, it’s much easier to say no in the first place than to try to take something back once people have become accustomed to it.
In effect National finds itself having to play the game on Labour’s terms. During three terms under Labour the public became so conditioned to social democratic-style government that National, even with its handsome election margin, didn’t dare interfere too radically with Labour’s legacy. In fact John Key, as leader of the Opposition, spent much of his time clearing the decks of potentially divisive points of difference with his opponents – reassuring the public, in effect, that things wouldn’t change too much under a new government.
Notwithstanding proposed welfare changes, the introduction of national standards in schools and vague talk about opening up the conservation estate to mining, Mr Key’s party is too timid to attempt the radical change needed to transform a chronically under-performing economy. National has sent out a clear signal that the moment any special interest group squeals at its taxpayer-funded privileges being curtailed, the government will back down – just as it promptly did when superannuitants jumped up and down over threatened cuts to SuperGold Card travel discounts.
It has been left to ACT – now ghetto-ised in the media as a party of the far right – to champion the cause of small government and the free market. The political ground once occupied by National stands largely vacant as the government jostles with Labour for the so-called political centre, which has moved steadily to the left.
Many traditional National supporters are deeply unhappy with this but don’t speak out because a National government is still better than a Labour one, even if it isn’t quite the National government they expected.
In this respect, Labour and its former allies are the winners even if they are no longer in power.
Thus continues a long-standing paradox of New Zealand politics whereby parties of the right behave like parties of the left, and vice-versa.
Think about it. Rob Muldoon, though nominally a National prime minister, was a controlling socialist at heart. State control of the economy – indeed, of virtually every facet of life – was rarely more strongly asserted than under his leadership.
It was in areas of social policy that Muldoon was archly conservative. It was this potent combination that won him the support of blue-collar conservatives, traditionally Labour voters, and helped keep Labour out of power for three terms.
In the 1980s, a reformist Labour government, faced with an economy in a state of collapse, ushered in an era of economic neo-liberalism that was as far removed from traditional socialist principles as it was possible to get. Roger Douglas drove through policy changes that were closer in spirit to those pursued by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the pinup girl of laissez-faire capitalism.
The topsy-turvy politics continued in the 1990s when Jim Bolger’s National government, running counter to type, negotiated the first big Treaty settlements – something Maori voters might have expected from Labour, given its traditional command of Maori loyalty.
Then came the 1999 election, and more chameleon politics. While never missing an opportunity to condemn the “failed reforms” of the 1980s and 1990s, Helen Clark left virtually all of them in place, pragmatically recognising that the socialist economic experiment had been a worldwide failure.
Instead, Labour – much like the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown government in Britain – turned its attention to a new agenda which cleverly harnessed the capitalist economy to the left’s social policy objectives. Under this approach, as the conservative British commentator Gerald Warner has shrewdly observed, left-wing governments allow markets to create wealth so that the state can then appropriate it in taxes and use it to enforce social control.
So now here we are with National again in power – ostensibly the party of individual freedom, private enterprise and small government – and it appears every bit as dedicated to big government, and every bit as eager to appease every hand-wringing claimant for taxpayer help (other than those actually contributing to the economy, such as farmers and small businesses), as Labour was.
Mr Key doesn’t seem to accept that being an effective leader means sometimes having to upset people. He seems to have a pathological desire to be liked. But at some point, unpopular decisions will have to be made or the government’s stated intention of catching up with Australia will remain a fantasy.
Perversely, the policy on which the government has shown its boldest leadership – the misconceived emissions trading scheme – is one that will burden rather than stimulate the economy, and which has been vigorously opposed by business and farmers – sector groups that could normally be expected to support a National government.
As it is in New Zealand, so it is in Britain. The political parallels between the two countries are striking. In both countries, Labour politicians assiduously promoted what has been called the Third Way – supposedly a benign compromise between capitalism and socialism, but in reality a creeping expansion of government control with a corresponding erosion of individual autonomy. And in both countries, the mainstream parties of the centre-right, as it’s now lamely called, seem either powerless or unwilling to roll it back.
David Cameron, the British Conservative Party leader, is an appeaser who hopes to win power in the forthcoming election by not frightening the horses. Politically, he could be Mr Key’s doppelganger.