(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, December 13.)
It’s always interesting to watch a new government bedding in, and never more so than when the Labour Party gets its hands on the levers of power after squirming with impatience on the opposition benches for several terms.
National regards itself as the natural party of government, which is perhaps understandable when it’s been in power for 47 of the past 68 years. National is also, generally speaking, the party of the status quo. It does what it needs to do to win elections and no more.
Labour, on the other hand, is a party of change. Whereas National in opposition bides its time, confident its chance will come again soon, Labour chafes with frustration at all the things that need fixing. By the time it finally gets a crack at the job, it’s jumping out of its skin.
History shows a clear pattern: long periods of stable but mostly unadventurous National government, punctuated by short, sometimes exhilarating bursts of ground-breaking reform under Labour.
People of a certain age will recall the speed with which Norman Kirk’s new government changed the political settings in 1972 – recognising communist China, withdrawing from the unpopular Vietnam War and adopting a forthright stance on apartheid and French nuclear testing.
Labour under David Lange in 1984 showed similar boldness, tackling the challenge of economic restructuring while simultaneously honouring Kirk’s legacy by taking an independent line in foreign affairs. But it was utterly chaotic and fatally divided ideologically.
Under Helen Clark, Labour took a more cautious and disciplined approach, probably realising that it needed to stay close to the political centre if it was to defy the hex that had seen previous Labour governments tossed out after one or two terms. And it worked: Clark became the most successful Labour leader since Peter Fraser in the 1940s.
Now we find ourselves once again watching a new Labour government – or at least a Labour-led one – grappling with the unfamiliar demands of power. And as in the 1980s, it’s a bit like watching a high-wire act performed without safety harnesses.
One crucial disadvantage for the new government is that it’s wearing L plates. Jacinda Ardern ran a remarkably assured election campaign but she is new to the demands of power and has a cabinet that is extremely light on ministerial experience.
Labour came to power with a highly ambitious – some would say reckless – 100-Day Plan that it seemed determined to fulfil even as neophyte ministers were still moving into their new offices, appointing key staff and getting to know the relevant officials.
I wonder whether it would have been wiser to take exactly the reverse approach: that is, do nothing for the first 100 days so while it caught its breath, took proper stock of things and got over the intoxication of finding itself back in power.
As it is, Labour pitched headlong into an unnecessary and avoidable spat with Australia over the Manus Island asylum seekers (who saw that coming?), and then fast-tracked a crowd-pleasing but suspiciously light-on-detail no-fees bonanza for first-year tertiary students that has been costed at $380 million for the first year alone.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins impatiently brushed aside Treasury concerns that the financial implications hadn’t been properly considered. Government officials didn’t get to determine political priorities, he haughtily pronounced.
Hmmm. Is this is a case of an over-eager reformist government putting its heart before its head in its haste to get things done? It wouldn’t be the first time.
On other policies, Labour is having to learn that there’s a world of difference between making promises on the campaign trail and having to deliver results in government. Supporters of Labour and the Greens will be disappointed by the spectacle of the government equivocating and even back-pedalling on a range of key issues, from the TPPA to Pike River, but they daren’t complain too vociferously because it would be letting the side down.
Similarly, fans of Winston Peters have been remarkably quiet about the convenient disappearance of New Zealand First’s pledge to abolish the Maori seats. But feelings of betrayal can only be suppressed for so long.
Speaking of Peters, there are bound to be bumps in the road ahead as policy tensions arise between the “progressive” Labour Party and its socially conservative coalition partner, New Zealand First.
We got a brief glimpse of this ideological divide when New Zealand First’s Shane Jones recently espoused a “work for the dole” policy that Ardern promptly tried to douse because it conflicted with Labour dogma.
To all those pressures, add a large and formidable National Party opposition, still seething because it believes it was shafted in post-election coalition negotiations that were controlled and manipulated by Peters.
We may never get to the bottom of what really happened in those talks, because Ardern doesn’t want to make the details public. This makes a mockery of Labour’s supposed commitment to openness and leaves her coalition government ineradicably tainted by the shonky circumstances in which it was formed.