Budget bad news for Labour

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

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

is

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.

GOR­DON CAMP­BELL

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