You are only as good as your opposition.
Posted on 15:47, February 16th, 2010 by Pablo
During the years that Labour was in government, I was appalled by the lack of serious discussion on security and defense issues (or any other issue, for that matter). Instead of asking hard questions of the government about defense policy, strategic focus, the military budget, reasons for the TSA, Zaoui’s unfair inprisonement, the competency and purview of the NZSIS, oversight of police intelligence etc., National barked about petty scandals and personal pecadillos. Its strategy was to snipe from the sidelines, make no statements of policy or specific commitments to substantitive changes, and to wait until labour self-destructed and/or voters got tired of its incumbency and opted for change for changes sake. The strategy worked.
The irony is that now in opposition, Labour has not been successful at doing the same. That affords National the political space to continue to test the winds on issues like taxation, defense, educational standards, climate change and mining of national parks without firmly commiting to a course of action. It appears to be a strategy of policy by stealth osmosis: simply announce a proposal, let the pundits and informed public debate the merits, go with the flow and shift the specifics depending on how public opinion polling shows the response to be, or offer rhetorical placations while leaching through the opposition. In some cases (GST perhaps?) that may means abandoning the proposal entirely but in most cases it means saying one thing, speaking of compromise, but doing another without meaningful concession.
The irony is that by being so wishy-washy, National prevents Labour from making political capital out of its opposition. Although it seems to have tried to copy National’s playbook for the opposition–snipe, nag, whine but not commit to a policy or course of action that would directly confront National’s proposals in antithetical terms–which may be due to a belief that the first year in government belongs to the government, with the proper role of opposition being to offer no real alternatives until closer to election day, the strategy has failed Labour.
In an interview Selwyn Manning (of Scoop fame) noted that Key and his advisors could afford to do do policy reversals and utter vague, retractable promises because there was “no cabinet-in-waiting” on Labour’s side of the aisle. The insight is spot-on: with no quality opposition pressing hard, specific, technical questions in a number of policy areas on it, and with the front and back-benches surrounding Phil Goff populated by lightweights or mealy-mouthed opportunists, National has the luxury of being indolent. It is the default option, the easy way out, basking in the afterglow of the “anything but Clark” attitude of many in the electorate. Given the abysmal state of political reporting in general, and majority disinterest in, if not distaste for politics, this gives National a triple dose of insulation from sharp questions and better alternatives.
However, that may have begun to change. Evidence suggests that at least some voters who shifted their preferences to National out of a sense of fatigue with Labour, or who thought that National would be more moderate and pragmatic than dogmatic in its approach to policy-making, are beginning to reconsider their support for the Key government (including those who may still like Mr. Key personally). That in turn offers an incentive to Labour to stop playing the attack poodle role in opposition and to develop some policy bite along with its bark. For that to happen, though, Labour needs a shake up in its ranks, not so much in its Leadership (after all, is there really an attractive alternative other than Mr. Goff?), but in the seats that have potential ministerial rank should they return to power. Best to do that sooner rather than closer to election time, in order to stake out an alternative policy platform that erodes National’s policy justifications while firming up the expertese and debating skills of the pretenders to cabinet jobs in a future Labour government.
NB: I write this after a week in NZ after a year-long absence. My thoughts are preliminary and driven by my alarm at the absence of serious policy discussions, or perhaps better said, the absence of coverage of policy discussions in the NZ media (the kerfuffle over Key’s stake in a uranium mining outfit being an example of political coverage that hammers the margins rather than the meat of its policy implications). That is either a sign of mass comfort or apathy (or both), none of which makes for an informed public and accountable government. After all, a government may only be as good as the quality of its opposition, but government and opposition are only as good as what the informed public demand. At this juncture, I see little public demand and limited quality depth in NZ political society.