The Sunday Star Times ran an article by Anthony Hubbard in the weekend about the state of the National Government which quoted me a bit – see Under-mining rich seam of popularity? (My comments also featured in an additional sidebar article which is not online, but is viewable on the right). In the blog post below I outline in further detail the analysis that I offered to the Sunday Star Times about National’s first year and half in office and about where it is going now. I argue that the National Government has been a relatively mild centre-right government so far, without any strong ideological momentum or sign of conviction. While it might not exactly be the friend of the working class, its also not the demonic, radical rightwing, reforming government that the left in New Zealand make the mistake of trying to portray it as. [Read more below]
Anthony Hubbard’s Sunday Star Times feature included two sections quoting me:
How come the government has remained so popular? Partly, no doubt, because of Key's relaxed and friendly personality. Voters genuinely like him. And partly, says Otago University political scientist Bryce Edwards, because it has been a moderate, non-polarising administration. "More than anything, it has been a do-nothing government," he says. It has not taken extreme positions on anything, unlike the 1990-led Bolger administration. The disastrous experience of that government, he says, "is etched on the memory of Finance Minister Bill English. This government hasn't lurched to the right". National, of course, "is a right-wing party – but it is obsessed with being a centre-right party". The upcoming Budget, he says, will crack down on landlords, "who aren't a typical enemy of the National Party"…. Edwards agrees that dissent has so far been generally muted. Even with Maori issues, he says, "National hasn't had a wedge issue". Debate over the recent UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been largely an argument conducted within Wellington's political "beltway", he says.
And the ‘sidebar article’ (not online) also quoted me:
WHY PHIL GOFF AND LABOUR ARE DOING SO BADLY: There is little difference between the policies of the two parties, says political scientist Bryce Edwards, although Labour is now busy trying to find new ones. Budget cuts have not so far led to public stories of woe and trouble in health and the social services, as they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Labour’s attempt to demonise John Key as a far-right wolf in sheep’s clothing has failed because Key is a pragmatist and not an ideologue, says Edwards. The recession has not bitten as hard in New Zealand as some predictions forecast, and unemployment is now falling again. Goff is a long-serving politician and identified with the old regime. Key is new and fresh. Goff still hasn’t conquered his robotic style and, although friendly and the kind of guy voters could have a beer with, Key is friendlier still. ‘‘They would prefer to have a beer with Key,’’ says Edwards.
In addition to this, I also put forward some additional points to the Sunday Star Times, which are basically summed up in the following paragraphs.
The National Government: conformist rather than reformist
In its first 18 months the new National administration has been both ideologically centrist and highly popular, being challenged only on difficult issues relating to the economic recession, political finance controversies with MP expenses, and various race relations questions. More recently it has had to grapple with the more challenging backlash over mining. Yet it remains very popular.
The National Party has consistently recorded opinion poll support at least 10 percentage points above the 45 per cent won at the election in the previous year. This has put the party between 20 and 30 points ahead of the opposition Labour Party throughout its first year and half. Surprisingly, these astonishing high ratings have been achieved during New Zealand’s worst economic recession in 60 years.
The explanation for the National Government’s success is its strongly centrist orientation. National won the 2008 election on an extraordinarily moderate and middle-of-the-road election platform, and once in office the party has keenly felt the lack of enthusiasm amongst the electorate for any radical shifts in policy. Hence National has retained nearly all the major social and economic policies of the former Labour Government, mostly only tinkering at the edges rather than making wholesale changes.
The political character of the Government’s first year in office in particular proved to be conformist rather than reformist. Although National is more business-friendly than Labour, it was determined to be seen as a centrist, pragmatic centre-right Government. In particular, the National Party leader and prime minister, John Key, has turned out to be no ideologue. Instead he’s shown a strong instinct for assessing what is politically acceptable, striving to keep National as close to the median voter as his more ideologically driven colleagues will allow. Thus nearly all the Government’s decisions so far have been guided by compromise and pragmatism, and National has studiously avoided doing anything that might polarise the electorate or visibly produce winners and losers. Part of the 2009 political strategy appeared to also be about stockpiling its political capital in this first year of office. The previous two National governments had both entered office during recessions – in 1975 and 1990 – and suffered from introducing austere economic changes too soon.
John Key was clearly the dominant force in politics in 2009, and by the end of the year numerous political observers pronounced him to be the ‘politician of the year’. Such judgments certainly corresponded with voters’ views – opinion polls throughout the year recorded Key as being the preferred prime minister by a substantial margin. Key had been the National Party’s biggest advantage in contesting the 2008 election – reflected in the pun-laden title of a post-election academic book, ‘Key to Victory’ – and he remained the ‘key’ to the National Government’s ability to increase its popularity in 2009. But it was Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Bill English who drove much of the government’s workload, especially in response to the economic recession. English has a strong record of fighting against radicalism within his party – especially neoliberal radicalism. He was a new MP when the disastrous Mother of all Budgets threatened to tear National apart. That experience is etched on the memory of English.
Alongside Key and English, Transport Minister Steven Joyce has become particularly powerful within the Cabinet. Joyce in particular has been the quietly rising star. Despite being an almost unknown quantity prior to 2008 when he was first elected to Parliament, he had gone straight into the Cabinet where he quickly become an influential figure, and has been trusted by the Prime Minister as an extreme pragmatist, a safe pairs of hands, and a very able political strategist. Thus the three most influential ministers are highly pragmatic and poll-driven.
The economy – no alternative vision
During its first year, National’s focus on the recession overshadowed all other issues. Typical of National’s middling approach, in economic matters the new Government choose to neither lurch to the left or right, instead retaining the neoliberal economic framework of the last 25 years. No alternative ideological vision was articulated for changing New Zealand’s economic position. Instead of reform, the Government attempted to weather the economic storm without needing to resort to reflationary or austerity measures.
Typical of its mild approach was the job summit held in February 2009, involving business, unions and the Government. Out of this came proposals for a nine-day working fortnight and a national cycleway, but neither of these ideas progressed very far during 2009. Then the Government's first Budget in May was cautious, but warmly received. Most notably it included a deferment of a planned second installment of tax cuts, and a freeze on payments into the superannuation fund that had been established in 2001 to partially pre-fund the future cost of New Zealand pensions. All fairly moderate stuff. The Government also announced a sinking lid on public spending, whereby any increases in expenditure would have to be offset by cuts in other areas. Moderately, this freeze did not apply to demand-driven government expenditure such as health and education, benefits and pensions. The Government said that core programmes would be maintained while ‘poor quality’ spending would be cut across the board. For example, small but politically significant cuts were made in the area of the training incentive allowances for beneficiaries, and community education night classes. These cuts were one of the few examples where National forwent its pragmatism, and lost its strategic nous. Changes to ACC, with a mixture of economic reality and ideology was another example.
Despite the Government’s cautious and moderate ideological nature, it was surprisingly active during its first year. Parliament passed 70 government bills during the year, which it went frequently into urgency to do. Some small changes started to be made in the public sector. For example, big investments were launched in infrastructural programmes to improve roading, the national electricity grid, and to create a ultra-high speed broadband network. None of this suggested an extreme neoliberal, reforming government – yet even in this area the Government eventually agreed to lower levy increases than initially planned.
In the health portfolio, minister Tony Ryall managed to push through plans to restructure the bureaucracy, purportedly producing significant savings of NZ$700 million and 500 job losses. Significantly there was little opposition to the plans. This reflected National’s wider public sector reform plans that concentrated on the goal of shifting resources ‘from the back office to the front line’ – a politically astute shift. Across the public service the Government also put a cap on employment numbers, which in reality actually led to job reductions (after the public service had grown by about 40 per cent under the previous government). Again this was managed in a way that avoided any real public disquiet.
Social issues: the real area of potential dissent
With the government taking a relatively non-controversial and moderate approach to economic issues in its first 18 months, it has been in the arena of social issues that was the main arena for political debate. One of the most contentious social issues of recent years has been the question of the so-called anti-smacking law, for which the non-binding referendum for which 88 per cent voted against the question (i.e. against the so-called anti-smacking law) and 12 per cent voted in favour. Despite the overwhelming result, the Government refused to overturn the unpopular law and instead brought forward a promised review of the law. It was a relatively rare example of the Government going against public opinion. But because the other parliamentary parties were largely in alignment with National, this couldn’t develop into a major area of dissatisfaction with the Government.
Law and order was one of the areas that the Government was most active in during 2009, especially in terms of its legislative agenda. The Minister of Justice, Simon Power, pushed a long list of socially conservative and popular measures through Parliament, including major bills covering criminal investigations, organised crime, sentencing, domestic violence, and a new law that gives courts the power to crush the cars of recidivist vehicle offenders. This has mainly been populist stuff rather than any significant rightwing change to our way of life.
Similarly, in March last year, the Prime Minister announced that the Government was going to restore the honourific titles of Knights and Dames to the New Zealand Royal Honours system which bestows orders, decorations and medals on its most honoured citizens. This was a sop to National’s socially conservative base, but hardly anything radical or controversial for middle New Zealand.
The environment has continued to be a salient political issue – particularly climate change. The new National Government sought to modify Labour’s emissions trading scheme which was passed during the dying days of its term in office in 2008, making it easier on business and producing smaller energy and petrol price increases, but retaining the basic policy mechanism favoured by parties like Labour and the Greens, allowing little room for opposition campaigning. The most significant political element was the fact that National eventually relied on the votes of the Maori Party to pass the legislation in November, with controversial tradeoffs given to the Maori Party tribal support base. The government also succeeded in ‘streamlining’ the Resource Management Act without any real dissent or allegations of extremism.
Numerous issues of ethnicity have permeated politics since the election, most of which have been handled cleverly by the National Government. The expected repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004 has not yet caused any huge problems, and although problems still lie ahead, the Government has astute lowered everyone’s expectations on the issue. The Maori Party will eventually be able to point to win over the issue. Another significant win for the Maori Party was the National Government’s decision to allow a Maori flag to be hoisted alongside the national flag on government property on the public holiday of Waitangi Day – another well-shaped strategic compromise by Key. Likewise, when the Government had to deal with a fraught issue of whether to change the spelling of Wanganui, in typical form National managed to come up with a compromise solution whereby both spellings would be acceptable.
Political finance scandals – highly controversial but not damaging
Issues of political finance have become particularly controversial in recent years, and the last 18 months have been no different. The political earthquake of the British MP expenses scandal sent shockwaves all the way to New Zealand, and in response to the British scandal questions were asked as to whether New Zealand’s own equally-secret political financing and MP remuneration arrangements might also be concealing outrageous and extravagant spending.
Numerous mini-scandals soon resulted from the increased focus on MP perks. The most serious involved the Minister of Finance, Bill English, who was found to be in receipt of a housing allowance that he was not entitled to. Politicians’ travel expenditure became a particular focus of concern. The leader of the Act Party, Rodney Hide was exposed as having taken his girlfriend on junkets to Britain, Hawaii, the US and Canada. And then Hone Harawira mixed a political finance controversy with race relations, after he was exposed as having departed from a parliamentary trip to Brussels in order to sightsee in Paris with his wife.
This is an area where real damage starts to erode confidence in a government. Yet because such scandals have occurred across the parliamentary spectrum, National hasn’t suffered (yet).
Trouble in government coalition and support parties has become a theme through New Zealand's MMP history (which has been used since 1996). Yet despite occasional ructions, throughout the last year and a half the support parties have been relatively compliant with National, only occasionally flexing their muscles, and normally over relatively symbolic issues rather than deal-breaking matters. National has managed its relationships well. Unlike when Labour was in government, National has hugged its support parties – instead of competing aggressive with them – but also allowed them considerable independence to enhance their own political identities.
2009 was the first year in a decade that the Labour Party was out of office, and it is still struggling with reinventing itself after its defeat. Although the party is in transition to the next generation – with an very able intake of recent career MPs – the leadership is still in the hands of a much older generation. So despite wanting to regenerate and appear fresh and distinctive from the party that has just left government, it is now lead by Phil Goff, who had been in Parliament for well over two decades, most of which he had been a senior member of the caucus. And even with this experience and prior profile, Goff has struggled to get noticed.
Part of Labour’s popularity problem is the moderate nature of the Government. Labour had pinned its hopes on painting the Key administration as a new right ‘wolf in sheep's clothing’. Another problem is that many voters still associate Labour with some of its more unpopular stances from its time in government – especially those that were classed as liberal ‘nanny-state’ measures. Under Goff the party has made some small attempts to chuck off this nanny-state image and return to a more class-oriented approach. In particular, Goff managed to make one impression with a ‘nationhood’ speech in which he strongly criticized National’s improving relationship with the Maori Party, and that party’s deal to gain concessions for its iwi support base in exchange for helping pass National’s Emission Trading Scheme. This, together with positioning Labour to oppose the Government’s planned repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, divided Goff’s own caucus more than the government, which appears to remain highly united.