| Pol­i­tics

Plat­forms mat­ter, but the wannabes stand­ing on them are more di­vert­ing.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - JANE CLIFTON

Jane Clifton

Pol­icy, not per­son­al­ity, thun­dered Gareth Mor­gan – and promptly guar­an­teed the lat­ter would drown out the former by adding ad hominem abuse.

If we didn’t like his call­ing Labour’s lead­er­ship change “lip­stick on a pig”, per­haps we would pre­fer “cos­metic” or “facelift” or “pol­ish­ing a turd”?

It was a cal­cu­lated spot of trolling de­signed to get his Op­por­tu­ni­ties Party back in the head­lines. Re­sult: dis­cus­sions on TOP pol­icy, 0; dis­cus­sions on Mor­gan’s per­son­al­ity, still count­ing. The opin­ion­ated phi­lan­thropist does pol­i­tics the way sergeant-ma­jors do drill. His hec­tor­ing only gave his own pet hate more tank fuel: that per­son­al­ity in­ter­ests the elec­torate more read­ily than pol­icy.

His out­bursts be­tray an un­der­stand­able envy of the at­ten­tion Jacinda Ardern has com­manded since tak­ing over Labour. Peo­ple have been happy to lis­ten to her be­cause, like Sir John Key, she seems an en­gag­ing, sunny, car­ing and good-hu­moured per­son with whom they can imag­ine en­joy­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. If they wanted to get bawled at and told how stupid they’ve been, they’d rather go to a Gor­don Ram­say ex­pe­ri­ence than a TOP meet­ing, be­cause at least they’d get a feed. If TOP, now breast­ing 4% in the polls, gets into Par­lia­ment, Mor­gan can thank some as­sid­u­ous cam­paign­ing by his en­gag­ingly zany off­sider, econ­o­mist Ge­off Sim­mons, who talks as though he wants to do things for peo­ple, whereas Mor­gan seems itch­ing to do things to them.


The eter­nal elec­tion co­nun­drum is that pol­icy is the whole point of the ex­er­cise, but it can bore and baf­fle. Head-to-head de­bates can make a watch­able con­test of pol­icy is­sues but of­ten gen­er­ate more heat than light.

Mor­gan is right that Ardern’s is mostly the same old Labour Party with the same set of poli­cies that have lost it three elec­tions. What he un­der­es­ti­mates is how vi­tal the per­son­al­ity of the leader is to get­ting peo­ple to lis­ten to those same old poli­cies, or any poli­cies at all. He also over­looks the elec­torate’s ap­petite for change, which has lacked a mar­shalling force un­til now.

Be­tween selfie queues, Ardern now faces noth­ing but pol­icy grilling, es­pe­cially since the of­fi­cial tax-spend start­ing gun went off on Wed­nes­day with the statu­tory pre-elec­tion fis­cal up­date. The econ­omy was re­vealed to be soft­en­ing a lit­tle, leav­ing less room for any party to make new spend­ing prom­ises. That puts Labour on the spot for por­tend­ing tax hikes (though not on in­come) and Na­tional for pre­sid­ing over slow­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity growth and static wages.

Labour’s Achilles heel is its “leave it to an ex­pert panel later” re­sponse to de­tailed tax ques­tions. Vot­ers won’t know be­fore the elec­tion how their in­comes and busi­ness af­fairs will be af­fected, only that a Labour-led gov­ern­ment will “make the sys­tem fairer”. Fairer to whom, at whose cost?

How­ever rea­son­able Ardern sounds when she says “wait and see what the ex­perts say”, it’s a hard vac­uum to de­fend af­ter nine years’ pol­icy

Mor­gan un­der­es­ti­mates how vi­tal the per­son­al­ity of the leader is.

wonkery. Ardern can hardly say out loud she’s not sat­is­fied with the de­lay-but­ton fis­cals she in­her­ited from An­drew Lit­tle, but that’s what she’s stuck with. It’s much quicker to change lead­ers than fis­cal poli­cies.

Na­tional’s weak flank is the du­bi­ous qual­ity of our econ­omy’s growth.

Take out the “bro­ken win­dows” ef­fect – the ac­tiv­ity gen­er­ated by Can­ter­bury’s re­build – and the con­struc­tion- and con­sump­tion-wrought growth from boom­ing im­mi­gra­tion and pop­u­la­tion, and there’s not much growth based on pro­duc­tiv­ity. Many peo­ple can’t see the coun­try’s growth

re­flected in their own

cir­cum­stances. Min­is­ters love recit­ing our favourable OECD rank­ings, but vot­ers by now un­der­stand th­ese brag­ging rights are un­der­writ­ten by de­pressed wage growth and the pre­car­i­ous “gig econ­omy”.

They’re also com­ing to un­der­stand that Na­tional’s litany of “new” projects and bud­get boosts are things that should have been started years ago and are over­due be­cause its Gov­ern­ment al­lowed rapid pop­u­la­tion growth with­out plan­ning for it. Still, vot­ers of a mind to fault Na­tional there may de­cide it’s nev­er­the­less the more com­pe­tent party to make the best of things from here. Bill English was the Fi­nance Min­is­ter who got us through the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Ardern has only got her party through a poll cri­sis.


Cu­ri­ously, though, Na­tional’s re­sponse to the new, “game-on” mood has been to re­vert to its (non­win­ning) North­land by-elec­tion blue­print: make an­nounce­ment af­ter an­nounce­ment, never with fewer than six and prefer­ably nine ze­ros in the first sen­tence, and hope vot­ers don’t no­tice they’ve all been an­nounced be­fore at least twice, and the fine print says “in five years”. The idea seems to be to con­vey busi­ness as usual with the added mo­men­tum of a faster-flap­ping chequebook. Fi­nance Min­is­ter Steven Joyce con­tin­ues to be­stride the coun­try – like the Colos­sus of Roads, as a Twit­ter wit ob­served – pre-spend­ing his sur­plus.

Even­tu­ally, this looped an­nounce­ment reel just be­comes white noise. Few peo­ple study the de­tails of each X-bil­lion-dol­lar project rolled out over each Y-year pe­riod – and those who do know “roll-out” means “later”. Much later. Maybe never. Some of those by-elec­tion bridge ex­ten­sions have pro­gressed lit­tle fur­ther than the white­board two years on.

As for this week’s Roads of Na­tional Sig­nif­i­cance, part II (aka the two RoN­nies): none of the 10 posited high­ways are new plans and most are still at the en­gi­neers’ head-scratch­ing stage. As an elec­tion bribe, roads are the worst kind of jam to­mor­row: mostly some­one else get­ting jam some­time in the next 10 years – and only af­ter bowl­ing houses and habi­tats, with a po­ten­tial net loss of votes.

Ex­tra cash for men­tal and den­tal health and doc­tors’ vis­its is more im­me­di­ately wel­come but raises the ques­tion: why wait nine years when the need for this has been ob­vi­ous all along and/or Na­tional till now in­sisted there was ad­e­quate pro­vi­sion?

Then came “10 new trade deals with 47 coun­tries … bet­ter ac­cess to 2.5 bil­lion con­sumers!” Again, old news – and given geopo­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, mostly still pie in the sky, with a tar­iff on the pas­try, fill­ing and air space for our im­per­ti­nence.

But all of the above are sub­ject to who gets the ul­ti­mate Bee­hive selfie with whom. If New Zealand First holds the bal­ance of power, with its gen­uinely new plans to re­na­tion­alise elec­tric­ity and take GST off food … how would one acronymise the Mother of All Fis­cal Up­dates?

Steven Joyce be­strides the coun­try like the Colos­sus of Roads, as a Twit­ter wit ob­served.

TOP blokes: Ge­off Sim­mons, far left, and Gareth Mor­gan.

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