Justice Minister Annette King has provided the most accurate and concise analysis of John Key’s newly announced law and order policy for National by labeling it as ‘Labour’s policies with a blue ribbon’. The opening election campaign speeches by Key and Helen Clark have indeed shown just how bland and similar the two main parties are. Furthermore, they’ve reiterated what was argued on this blog in August last year – Law & order: the new political battleground - that law and order issues are shaping up to be one of the main areas of political debate in New Zealand due to the decline of economic differences in the parliamentary parties. [Read more below]
Annette King has responded to Key’s state of the nation speech by saying that most of what he’s proposing ‘is already happening’ under Labour. Listen to, for example, her interview on Newstalk ZB. She says that things like tougher sentences, compulsory orders for youth to have drug and alcohol treatment, compulsory mentoring of young people, are already in place under Labour.
The Government has even put out a press release entitled Key wraps Labour Party policy in blue ribbon. In this ‘is short on alternative policies to the ones being pursued by the Labour-led Government. "In fact, National is packaging Labour's policies with a blue ribbon," [Annette King] said.’ ‘Ms King says the Government already has in place many of National's so-called policy initiatives.’ Also on Radio New Zealand this morning was Phil Goff saying that ‘most of the ideas in Mr Key's speech were already being done’.
Despite Labour’s ‘me-too’ approach to Key’s speech, it’s clear that National has outflanked the Government in terms of the public debate. As with last year’s underclass debate, it will be National that is remembered as leading it, even if the party is relatively bereft of any real new initiatives other strong rhetoric.
Today, Act’s Rodney Hide has also corrected stated that National is ‘offering not a lot more than Labour’ and that both National and Labour are merely ‘tweaking each other’s policies’ – listen to Radio NZ National’s item on how parties from across the political spectrum are saying that Key’s policies are nothing new.
One of the better comments on the Key vs Clark speeches came from the Chief Executive of Barnardos NZ, Murray Edridge, who complained that ‘Neither acknowledged or commented on either our internationally high rates of child poverty and child abuse — both of which are far more serious problems than that of youth crime’. He elaborated:
While I welcome the focus of the leaders on young people I was disappointed in the content and the priorities reflected in those speeches. It is time for all of the evidence about the importance of a child’s early years to finally be incorporated into the policies of all political parties. We need all parties to shift investment to where we will get the best return – ensuring children are well nurtured in those vital early years
In contrast to this, it seems that business interests have welcomed both party positions equally. Many other commentators have also noted that the common characteristic of both parties’ youth strategies is that ‘there seems little reluctance to get involved pro-actively, only reactively’.
In terms of Key’s speech, it’s also worth noting that, the ‘Fresh Start’ idea is yet another idea from both the past and imported from overseas. Most recently they’ve been tried and abandoned in the UK. Of course while the camp idea has been both condemned by liberals and celebrated by social conservatives as being authoritarian ‘boot camps’ of the old school, in fact Key represents a more modern liberal elite approach – and so it’s telling that he actually wanted the state to spend up large on camps that would be akin to mountaineer Graeme Dingle's Foundation for Youth Development camps. Trying to paint Key as an old school social conservative isn’t going to work. As one commentator put it, Key’s speech represented KeyNat not BrashNat. Similarly, in terms of the Key’s ostensibly radical plans to put 16 and 17 year-olds into free education is less of a big deal when you realize he’s actually only talking about the 8400 people currently in this age group who are neither in school, education, or work.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of raging against Key’s speech on the blogosphere. Much of the left are calling his speech ‘thuggish’ or ‘negative’ and labeling Clark’s speech as ‘positive’ or ‘visionary’. However it’s interesting in this regard to read the post by IrishBill on The Standard. Entitled ‘Dull’, IrishBill says he was ‘underwhelmed’ by Helen Clark’s speech. The Standard is normally so extremely positive about this Labour Government that you could only conclude that the site was being produced straight out of the Beehive, but suddenly they’ve taken a more reflective and balanced approach. IrishBill writes that, ‘Let’s face it, this was her chance to take the front foot and show the government had a policy agenda fit for a new term. Instead her speech is a confusion of values-framing “vision” statements and bureaucratic jargon'. Perhaps The Standard is learning from some of more interesting and successful (yet partisan) blogs such as Kiwiblog, where dissent against the party line is almost encouraged and respected.
In terms of the mainstream media, most of it seems to have handed Key the victory prize in this opening round of the election campaign. The Dominion Post’s Martin Kay, opens his commentary on Key and Clark by asking ‘Is that it?’. He reports that ‘Clark’s response to National leader John Key’s state of the nation speech was hardly the torpedo she had been expected to loose off in the opening engagement of the election’. He is also reiterates the similarities of the two: ‘the fact remains that both canvassed the same issue and offered broadly similar solutions. Key is promising free access to education and training for under 18s who drop out of school, while Clark is promising apprenticeship schemes in high schools and measures to keep kids in education and training.’ He concludes by awarding National the prize: ‘In the opening salvo, then, it is John Key 1, Helen Clark, 0’.
John Armstrong of the Herald says Key presses all the right buttons. He correctly says that Key’s speech was pragmatically excellent:
The speech not only attacks Labour. It takes the fight right into Labour territory in the same fashion Key did with last year's reference to the "underclass". It seeks to prise away blue-collar conservatives whose attachment to Labour is weakening in supposed Labour strongholds like crime-ridden South Auckland. But its pitch for votes in the centre-ground does not compromise traditional National Party principles. If anything, it underscores them. Of course, talking tough on law and order has always been an easy means for a conservative politician to find a wider audience.
He also correctly points out how much policy stealing, borrowing and convergence is going on:
National's new Youth Guarantee policy offering free courses in polytechnics and other training institutions so that 16 and 17-year-olds go into training if they leave school has been borrowed - name included - from Australia. Key has stolen a march on Labour which has talked, but only talked of similarly ensuring young people leaving school without qualifications get further education or training. By remarkable coincidence, Helen Clark had chosen to make Labour's plans for further youth training and education the centrepiece of her election-year scene-setting speech this morning.
Overall, National appear to be setting the agenda. But’s it’s an agenda stolen from Labour, who’s stolen it from just about everywhere else. So those expecting to see more about a new direction or bold policies should be sorely disappointed.
For an interesting alternative way of understanding the two speeches, try David Slack’s so-called DuckSpeak engine view of the content of the speeches. As he says, ‘the most-used words are "young" and "youth". You can see it represented in pretty picture form here. The bigger the word, the more frequent its use. Here's one for John Key's speech and here's one for Helen Clark's’.