It’s normally the case that reforming governments implement their most radical policy changes during the first year or so of their parliamentary term, leaving the third year of the electoral cycle to sell those reforms. The Key National Government seems to almost be doing things the other way around, implementing – or at least announcing – the more radical stuff in election year. Welfare reform is one of those areas, rearing its head at the moment with National’s declaration that such reform proposals will be at the centre of its reelection sales pitch – see: Nats’ welfare crackdown centerpiece of campaign. But just how radical and rightwing are such reforms likely to be? Gordon Campbell paints a picture of an extreme anti-welfare government in his article, On John Key’s Assault On The Welfare System. Campbell suggests that Key’s ‘moderate’ fig leaf is dropping away, and in fact John Key is even more rightwing than outgoing Treasury head John Whitehead (who apparently has concerns about our growing inequality gap). Meanwhile, Andrea Vance has a more skeptical view of what’s going on – see: Welfare carrots and sticks – in which she says that this week’s announcement tells us nothing new, and is actually characterized by the Government treading carefully.
Typically, Phil Goff has responded to the looming reforms with the rather weak response that ‘raising the minimum wage would be a better way of getting people into work’ – see: Goff backs wage rise over welfare reform. Goff’s reluctance to take a harder oppositional line is, no doubt, based on his knowledge that there is indeed a strong public desire for some sort of reform, and hence he doesn’t want to be seen as ‘in favour of welfare abuse’. In reality both Labour and National are expert at welfare reform rhetoric, and neither party is likely to actually make radical changes. The epitome of this style of reform was the Clark Labour Government’s 2003 ‘jobs jolt’ welfare reforms, which were big on anti-welfare rhetoric but had little real effect. So while there should be no doubt that National will come up with some rightwing reform proposals later this year, compared to what the Welfare Working Group advocated National’s policies will be much weaker. The actual ‘ratio of rhetoric to radicalism’ will be the interesting part, as will Labour’s response.
National is also sounding fairly radical in terms of public sector reforms – see: Cuts ‘a necessity’, says English. But the extent of the reforms is unlikely to be too controversial amongst the voting public outside of Wellington. Overall, the Government will continue to sell itself as ‘moderate’, which it has done very successfully so far. In fact, according to Chris Trotter’s Press column Voters may stick with familiar this is the important part in understanding the current Government’s very high opinion poll ratings: ‘The strategic choice which has defined Key's first term as prime minister is whether to embrace the radical neo-liberal policies urged upon him by his far Right critics in 2009 and 2010; or, to hold fast to the policies of political and economic moderation which had secured his 2008 election victory. To his credit, Key has steadfastly refused to abandon his moderate stance. Stratospheric poll results have been his reward’. Therefore, unless we see any substantial change of political strategy from Key and National, we can expect that upcoming welfare and public sector reforms will indeed be rightwing and austere, but probably nothing near as radical as much of the political left in New Zealand are currently alarmed and excited about. [Continue reading below for a full list of the highlights of NZ Politics Daily]