The opposition was strong in Parliament today. I’m stuck for time, so what follows is somewhat stream-of-consciousness.
Front and centre was the government’s failure to perform on unemployment and wage growth, the subject of criticism from both flanks. Bill English had led off with “the budget will be about the many, not the few”, and then “but seriously …”, to a stinging rebuke from David Cunliffe, who listed the government’s failings as he saw them. This adoption by the government of Labour’s own tagline looks like an attempt to muddy the counter-campaign and poach their emphasis, trying to set up National as the party representing “the many”, rather than the policy merits of the government’s program, but if so it’s a fairly ham-fisted one. While “the many” looks on its way to becoming this election cycle’s “hard-working Kiwis”, the government’s attempt here to muscle in indicates that National has accepted Labour’s rhetorical framing, although they disagree with it. If you adopt your opponent’s narrative, you need to be able to make it your own — either that, or you need to dismantle and discredit it. English did neither.
Cunliffe was strong, also raising the variance between English’s aspirational and controversial “Plain English” ad and the policy track he has delivered. Sir Roger Douglas also took aim, and was forced by the Speaker to rephrase the question (to Paula Bennett): “Which is more important? Young people getting jobs, or pandering to the Left?”.
Bennett also took a bit of a pasting on the matter of the identity of one Peter Saunders. The Standard has picked this up so I’ll not elaborate more. Wayne Mapp, standing in for the Minister of Agriculture also stumbled on a line of questioning from Sue Kedgley regarding AgResearch’s GM cattle trials. Not exactly a shock since, not being the minister himself, that information wasn’t top of his mind, but it contributed to the general atmosphere.
Then it was all on in General Debate, with Goff, King and Cunliffe leading off on the same topic matter (jobs/wages) with a couple of fiery speeches, and re-emphasising the “smile and wave/photo-op/government by poll” meme and the retrenchment of the government’s mining plans. Judith Collins concentrated on David Cunliffe’s lack of orthodox economic credibility, and purported concern for Goff having to shoulder the dual burden of leading a party in which Cunliffe was both the finance spokesperson and a leadership contender. Nice concern troll, but what’s more interesting is how much she was looking forward to seeing Cunliffe’s expenses records — and the threats hurled across the House while she thought she was not miked — “You wait, just you wait! …” Some irony in this given that it was just yesterday Collins raised the most threadbare defence of her (or someone else’s) extensive use of the ministerial self-drive car: â€œAll the travel is within the rules – that’s all Iâ€™m prepared to say on it.â€
So, while superficially an ordinary sort of Wednesday (albeit one where the Member’s Day was not clobbered by urgency), I think this has provided a few glimpses of the 18 months to come: a robust focus on core materialist issues from the Labour party, ahead of the budget, and a clear desire to debate the policy merits; combined with continued attacks on the credibility and perceived competence of English and Bennett in particular; the government attempting to subvert the opposition’s framing rather than exclusively arguing the merits; Collins v Cunliffe shaping up as a key battle. Nothing flash, but it’s starting to look like something resembling a threat. Most importantly, something to require the government to rethink its own gameplan. Until now they’ve had the ability to act almost with impunity, their errors going unpunished. If today’s performance is any indication, no longer.