Budget bad news for Labour
In his heyday, Bill Clinton was a master of what his aides used to call ‘‘triangulation’’, which involves lending support to policies that lie at a tangent from traditional ‘‘ left’’ and ‘‘ right’’ positions.
In practice, it means stealing your opponent’s policies, to confuse their lines of attack.
Clinton carried out major welfare reform, for instance, which then made it impossible to pigeonhole him as a tax- and- spend liberal.
Similarly, Finance Minister Bill English unveiled a ‘‘ familyfriendly’’ Budget last week that now will make it very, very difficult for the Opposition to portray National as a bunch of hard- hearted, cost- cutting conservatives.
As a useful exercise in political marketing, the ‘‘family-friendly’’ measures won’t cost much, either.
Extending free doctors visits from 6-year-olds to children under 13 has been budgeted at $90 million over four years.
At only $22.5m a year, that is peanuts in a Budget context.
Similarly, an extension of paid parental leave to 18 weeks by 2016 will counter the 26 weeks being proposed by Labour.
That’s the beauty of triangulation.
Not only has it made it difficult for Labour to credibly attack policies – free doctors’ visits for kids, paid parental leave – that it basically supports, but it can readily make their own version of such policies appear to be extreme, by comparison.
The Budget proposal to extend parental tax credits is another case in point.
From mid-2015, the parental tax credit will increase from $150 a week to $220 a week, along with an extension of the period (from 10 to 12 weeks) for which it gets paid, after the birth of a child.
Beneficiary families, already denied access to Working For Families, are excluded from the parental tax credits, although they pay tax.
The distinction nothing.
While better than nothing for the recipients, the new parental tax credit policy still rewards or
worth punishes babies according to the work status of the family into which they have been lucky, or unlucky, enough to have been born.
Labour now has to decide whether it can risk the potential fallout from extending parental tax credits (and the Working For Families scheme) to beneficiary families.
As Labour ponders that decision, the three ‘‘ familyfriendly’’ Budget proposals could all but politically neutralise Labour’s early childhood package, announced earlier this year.
Last week’s Budget was very much about positioning the Government in an election year.
Labour’s line of attack on the economy had already been blunted by the economic recovery.
In the Budget aftermath, the Opposition’s criticisms on the social policy front have been similarly muffled by the Government’s display of compassionate conservatism, on the cheap.
All up, the Budget’s familyfriendly measures will cost about $500m, roughly what the Budget says it will spend to ‘‘strengthen’’ the defence forces.
Clearly, triangulation can be a potent weapon.
Labour has certainly struggled to credibly oppose what are, in effect, Labour-lite measures of the sort that a Labour Government would be advocating.
Yet, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair both demonstrated, triangulation does carry the risk of eventually eroding the soul of a political party, by bringing its core values into question. No such danger here. National’s ‘‘ family- friendly’’ Budget plans look more like a tactical calculation than a change of identity.