You are only as good as your opposition.

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.

18 thoughts on “You are only as good as your opposition.

  1. Welcome back, Pablo, and it’s wonderful what a bit of distance can do for a perspective.

    I’ve been trying to articulate a post on this theme for a while — the idea that, without strong opposition, there’s no need to be a strong government — as an outgrowth of my discussions with Chris Trotter (since I believe the same applies to factions within a movement). You’ve done much better at it, and with reference to contemporary political events, to boot. Thank you.

    I think, as a consequence of this dynamic, that one of the best things a Labour can do for their fortunes is to build political literacy and engagement among the public — stimulate demand, if you like. National could do this, too, but Key’s managerial style of politics requires that the real oil be concentrated at the top, and closely guarded by the executive. Labour has a chance to illustrate a point of difference here. This is doubly true when many of the policy merits favour their general platform. The tactical attacks, focus on policy minutiae and coyness about establishing a wider political narrative are the enemy of building this demand.


  2. Lew: you are supposed to be on deadline, which is reflected in the overly generous tone of your response.

  3. You know the country’s in a poor state when one of its most perceptive public commentators doesn’t even live here!


    So: The lack of political discourse in NZ is really quite embarrassing. So is the general ineptitude of the opposition, not only on many policy issues but on the political/PR side of things – which is what politicians are meant to be good at.

    Does one of these inadequacies cause the other?


    Labour would have an easy electoral majority over a party like National if we had better reporting and a more interested public, I think. So it flows naturally to me that Labour should be informing and generally helping out the public if they want success (is this condescending?). Greens try but don’t have the resources for public reach; Labour do.

    Do these Labour MPs just not have the interest or the heart or what? Or am I simplifying things too much?

  4. …the absence of coverage of policy discussions in the NZ media…

    Oh, come now – this very evening 3 News dwelt at length on unsupported allegations that Tiger Woods twice impregnated a porn actress. How much more in-depth analysis of important policy issues of the day could be wished for?

  5. Labour’s difficulty is that Key is just so darned nice, and people like him. But I detect a slow and gradual shifting of sentiment against the government. Probably not enough to see Key seriously in trouble at the next election. But over the next 18 months I would expect him to have a tougher time of things.

    Key’s eventual downfall, assuming it comes, will probably come as a result of a succession of trivial stories – like the fact he owns some worthless uranium shares. As much as we would like Labour to provide an alternative vision for the country, the more effective approach politically (given the state of our media) appears to be to chip away over little things – issues of credibility rather than substance – and hope the media picks up on them. Key and co did this successfully to Helen Clark’s government, and it’s a tactic well suited to the likes of Trevor Mallard.

  6. loved yr wrk re China al fresco rnz national
    Shane Jones
    don’t mean to get freaky but
    wouldn’t he look great out there on then international stage?
    seems to mean well too..
    captcha ffs – longwell indication

  7. I wish people would stop saying: “ooh Labour should develope some policies NOW NOW NOW”

    But the democratic nature of the Labour Party’s policy process that Labour actually CAN’T push out policies until it’s been debated and selected by the Labour Party Conference and we won’t actually have a coherent policy platform until election year.

  8. Francois: you claims about the “democratic nature” of Labour’s policy process notwithstanding (as if!), you have nicely reaffirmed my point. In fact, your excuse for inaction reads like the political equivalent of fiddling while the political capital burns…

  9. Welcome back Pablo, say hi to the gang at the beach for me…. I miss my weekends of semi controlled chaos that was patrol 4.

    Goff, did announce some policy this week (at an ACC protest on Tuesday), Basically boiled down to
    “If they privatize ACC, As soon as we get back in it will be nationalized again”.

    Not much but I guess it’s a start I guess?

  10. But the democratic nature of the Labour Party’s policy process that Labour actually CAN’T push out policies until it’s been debated and selected by the Labour Party Conference and we won’t actually have a coherent policy platform until election year.

    Yes, this. If people want mass democratic parties, you aren’t going to get policy at the drop of a hat. (Pick two: quick good democratic; see also quick good cheap.)

    This got me about s92; people said: oh, Clare Curran ought come out with a shiny copyright policy. But then, there’s a manifesto commitment you have to reconcile with that.

    But. The Labour Party’s democratic policy processes could function as an attack on National in many ways, by getting out and discussing issues. So it’s not as simple as: policy’s a long way away. (And anyway, we have a damn manifesto already, passed by the last congress. The Party could use it a lot lot more.)

  11. DaveW: Thanks. Been out to the beach three times since my return, and it is a strong reminder of what I lost when I left NZ.

    As for Labour and its internal politics. Beyond the issue of the “democratic centralism” that rules its policy-making and candidate selection process, I will agree with keir that having good, open policy debates within the party is a way of putting the government on notice that there is an alternative in the making. The more National stumbles, fumbles and pursues the stealth osmosis policy implementation agenda, the better a robust internal debate serves to sharpen the points of attack and difference with them.

    On another point. Is it just me or has Helen Clark been absotutely statesperson-like in this victory lap of a return to NZ? Her performance in interviews accross a range of subjects has been commanding, which I attribute to her now having achieved a sense of self-accomplishment free from the pressures of partisan sniping. That gives her the ability to address subjects in a dispassioned, non-partisan, “above the fray” fashion. I say this even though I have not been a fan of hers owing to her actions in the Zaoui case and its sequels (including her very public attacks on me).

  12. Is it just me or has Helen Clark been absotutely statesperson-like…free from the pressures of partisan sniping.

    one would have liked to have thought so but that wasn’t the case. she took every opportunity to attack the National govt. A UN official of such high standing should be expected to leave behind such partisan hackery.

    It’s disappointing but perhaps insightful into the rather unpleasant internal Labour culture that has developed.

  13. Neil, she critiqued a few items of policy on an “it’s my personal view” sort of basis, commented calmly and sensibly on bigger topics like the flag, and complimented Key for making a strong play at leadership.

    That, to me, looks like just what a former PM ought to do on return. If Mike Moore had done so, I expect folk would think better of him than is the case.


  14. she critiqued a few items of policy on an “it’s my personal view” sort of basis…

    She may be behaving better than Moore (but worse than Bolger) but I don’t think criticising the NZ gvt on a partisan basis is compatible with her position at the UN. She’s not a private citizen.

  15. Is it just me or has Helen Clark been absotutely statesperson-like…free from the pressures of partisan sniping.

    No, I don’t think so. She was unable to refrain from commenting on domestic political issues. I expect better from a visiting UN official – she should be above all of that. And excusing her comments by referring to how she remains \passionate\ about NZ doesn’t impress me.

  16. The government’s tactic, of playing off more extreme proposals to continue its pose as a moderate government, is what is closing the ears of the public to the “opposition”. It’s a tacitc which will work until

    1. the government’s actions build a legacy and the accumulated evidence is that they amount to more than the work of a moderate government
    2. the third year and focus moves onto manifesto’s for the election campaign.

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