There’s no doubt that National’s latest announcement that it’s adopting Labour’s interest-free student loans is a policy U-turn. In fact it’s just one more chapter in a whole series of U-turns. National’s been ‘swallowing dead rats’ for the last few years on: KiwiSaver, Working for Families, industrial relations, Treaty claims, retention of the Maori Seats (in the short-term), anti-nuclear policy, non-market rents, the Cullen Superannuation Fund, four weeks annual leave, among others. Meanwhile, Labour and its partisan bloggers don’t know how to deal with National’s shift to the centre. [Read more below]
Should Labour partisans complain about National’s leftward shift? Should they pretend it’s not happening? Deny that it’s real? Or quibble over the detail? All of these approaches are in operation amongst the liberal-left at the moment, and this signals that Labour is ideologically disorientated.
The New Zealand left in general have only had one (deeply flawed and incorrect) strategy of dealing with National: to paint the party as far-right and extremist. When Don Brash was leader this was relatively easy (despite the fact that virtually the whole of Brash's time in leadership actually involved one policy back-down after another). And now the liberal-left and the Labour Party have trouble understanding and comprehending National under Key and English. The liberal-left want to keep to the age-old script of painting their more right-wing opponents as bogey men of the far-right. But such an approach just doesn’t resonate with reality and a public that accepts that an incoming National Government in 2008 would be genuinely different to the incoming National Government of 1990.
So we have Labour’s Jordan Carter doing his best to argue that although National has outflanked Labour by actually having a more generous policy, really it’s still a pro-rich policy (see: Nats student loan policy unfair). The idea that the policy will benefit the rich more than the poor might technically be correct, but it’s a bit of a minor point in the greater scheme of things: the student loan scheme in its entirety benefits the rich over the poor. And by concluding that National is taking ‘a fundamentally immoral approach’ sounds rather shrill, so Carter’s spin will surely only appeal to Labour Party hacks.
Kiwiblogblog runs a similar line, and says ‘What a waste of money’ in their post entitled Loan Shark. But again, this complaint that National’s policy is too generous isn’t going to work, and it shows up the Labour’s political disorientation towards National’s moderating strategy. But of course they’re right to say that the move ‘further exposes their complete lack of principle’. And in another post on the matter, Kiwiblogblog say: ‘At this rate, it appears that strongest argument for voting for National is that they’ll do the same as Labour’ – which is a fair comment.
No Right Turn (which is quickly transforming into an attack-blog for the Labour Party) also says National accepts the inevitable - but can they be trusted? The blog post says, ‘if they're so quick to flip-flop when they lose an election, you also have to wonder whether they'll be just as quick in flip-flopping if they win’. This is essentially true, but it also suggests a misunderstanding by No Right Turn about the New Policy Consensus that drives contemporary New Zealand party politics. National’s left critics can’t help but think that all this moderation and pragmatism is just window dressing and that Key’s lack of principles will mean that in power he will suddenly unveil radical neo-liberal reforms. While anything is possible, this is a misreading of Key and National. The party isn’t just being particularly devious in their flip-flops, nor is the personal pragmatism of Key the over-riding reason for their new approach. Quite simply, National is continuing their political realignment to the reality that NZ now has a new political centre in which ‘extremes’ of left and right are beyond the pale. Hence no party can be electorally-successful anymore through advocating either [A] the rollback of the neo-liberal reforms (ie the virtually-defunct Alliance party) or [B] the extension of them (ie the 1% polling Act party). There’s been a whole process whereby the electorate and the main political parties have been re-orientating to a very narrow new mid-point on the left-right political spectrum.
And let’s not forget that it was Labour in the 1990s that started to establish this new centre. Once in government, Labour continued with the neoliberal framework but proceeded to knock off some of the rough edges – National is now simply catching up by endorsing the removal of the rough edges from the neoliberal status quo. Most importantly the basic neoliberal framework has been embedded and will remain under either party.
So while Labour reportedly says that National’s U-turn on student loans ‘smacks of desperation’, it’s actually Labour that is displaying desperation in its response. Key and English appear to be genuinely confident in their moderation and compromise – they do so while their party is in a buoyant state of optimism and success. In contrast Labour appears to be ideologically disorientated. Minister of Tertiary Education, Pete Hodgson has even made the laughable mistake of trying to spin National’s announcement as being part of a secret agenda to re-introduce interest on student loans. He says ‘I'm sceptical about whether we've heard all the policy’.
NZUSA have also denounced the new policy, which come across as being petty – and shows just how shamelessly pro-Labour the organization has now become now that the Alliance has no influence over the organisation. (And in contrast to NZUSA, the Auckland University Students Association has smartly welcomed the new policy).
Meanwhile, those on the right of the blogosphere are either spitting tacks or having to defend National’s pragmatism. Cactus Kate says (in her characteristic style), ‘if I was Mrs Key I would definitely have you sleeping on the couch for a week for exhibiting election year droopy softcockitis’. Likewise, the pro-capitalist libertarian Not PC complains that National are ‘going to outflank Labour on the left’. The blog abuses National as now being ‘Key's Labour-Lite’, and they’ve designed an appropriate new update to National’s billboards that explain the new positioning. They also correctly declare that 2008 is ‘the year of the “me-too” election’. See:
Nothing to see ... no principles, no new ideas ...
Over at Kiwiblog, David Farrar is having to justify the new flip-flop. Readying himself for more U-turns and adoptions of Labour policy, Farrar argues that ‘there is a world of difference between introducing a policy, and not repealing something already in place’. This is fairly unconvincing for most policies. Genuinely non-pragmatic governments can normally change most policies that they believe in. Furthermore, Farrar argues that the adoption of another party’s policy does not mean the endorsement of it! And he uses a very good example of a National policy adopted by Labour:
This does not mean they are endorsing the original policy. If you employ that logic, then you have to claim Labour endorses the 1991 benefit cuts because they have never reversed them. The reality in politics is relatively few policies get reversed with a change of government. Expecting National to reverse the interest free loans policy would be like expecting Labour in 1999 to reverse the 1997 tax cuts.
Actually, a very strong argument could me made that Labour has effectively adopted National’s benefit cuts. Why else haven’t they reversed the cuts that Labour reckoned it was so strongly opposed to?
To end this post, there’s a couple of good quotes from Colin Espiner’s blog post entitled Pass the sauce, please - Key swallows a dead rat:
National has to accept certain realities. While it may appear ideologically bankrupt to blow with the wind, there’s no point in pushing the proverbial uphill. The public like interest-free student loans. The policy is firmly embedded and costed into the Crown accounts. Changing it for the sake of ideological opposition would not be worth the grief.
In his ongoing quest to clear the decks and remove the stench of the Brash years from National, it does appear at times as if Key is simply removing reasons not to vote National, rather than giving people reasons to vote for it.