I struggle to believe the National party that read and led the public mood so well for most of the previous six years has so spectacularly lost its way. Recent months, and the past few weeks in particular, have been the government’s hardest, and only part of that is due to ministerial incompetence and bad optics. Part of it is because they have chosen policies that contradict the very narratives Key and his government have so carefully crafted.
This can’t be accidental. I think the fact that they barely won a majority despite the worst performance in a generation by the Labour party has convinced Key that this term is probably his last, and he intends to make best possible use of it. This is good strategy for them. It’s a strategy I’ve been writing about since Key was in opposition, and one that the Labour party ignored, to their detriment, until late in the last term. John Key is no mere smile-and-waver, but a man of action who, when the time is right, will act ruthlessly and decisively. He has spent his five years as leader earning the trust of the electorate, gaining a mandate, and now he intends to put that mandate to work. This country will not be the same in three years.
There are many possible examples here: privatisation of state assets is the most obvious, but is well-covered by others more informed than I am. I’ll cover three more recent topics: two are bad politics, but I can see the point to them; the last is simply a terrible idea that, if not abandoned quickly, will have profound implications for the future of New Zealand’s political discourse.
Paid parental leave
The decision to call an immediate veto on Sue Moroney’s private member’s bill extending paid parental leave was badly handled. If it were to be done, it ought to have been done immediately the bill was drawn, in an offhand way so as to frame the veto as inevitable; as it was, sufficient space was left for the idea to take root in the collective imagination of the electorate, and now the use of the veto looks anti-democratic; signalling it before it has even been debated looks doubly so, and leaves about a year for sentiment to continue to grow.
Of course, the government has the procedural right to take this action, if perhaps not the moral right to prevent Parliament from passing something that a majority of its members supports. But it chips away at the Key government’s carefully-framed appeal to being pro-middle-class, pro-family, pro-women. Unlike welfare reform, this is not an issue that only impacts people who would never vote for the National party anyway. Paid parental leave predominantly benefits middle-class (rather than working-class) families, and especially middle-class women — those who, for five years, the government has been reassuring that we are on your side. Key is personally very popular among women, and this has been central to National’s success. It looks like the government are prepared to sacrifice this on the altar of fiscal responsibility. The comparison to Barack Obama’s strategy to win a second term on the basis of strong opposition to GOP misogyny could hardly be more stark.
This is in spite of the argument on the merits: a low-cost policy that yields considerable long-term benefits of the sort the government has been anxious to create (or invent, if need be). And the arguments being levied against the scheme are particularly weird: “Is it about labour force participation, or about women spending more time with children?” Well, yes. “It’s discriminatory against non-working mothers!” Well, yes, but I don’t see any of the people making that argument supporting a Universal Motherhood Entitlement, and in fact, I distinctly remember some rhetoric about “breeding for a business” whenever such ideas are raised.
A possible reason for this bad veto call is that it foreshadows a future softening of National’s position on the topic; as Key did with the Section 59 bill, when it looks close to passing the government will signal support, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation.
Or, maybe it’s just that they don’t care any more — so they’re unpopular, so what?
The latter argument also explains the decision, announced today, to limit the availability of student allowances and require higher repayments of student loans, although not completely. This is bound to be popular with those who have forgotten (or who never experienced) how hard it was to undertake tertiary study and build a career without Daddy’s cash and connections, and those of the generations who had it all laid on for them by the taxpayers of their day. But it will be less popular among the growing ranks of young voters, and it will be less popular among the parents of those young voters, who are having to provide financial support to their kids through their 20s and in some cases into their 30s, because said kids are finding the economic dream is more rosy than the reality.
This policy is also anti-middle-class, anti-family, and anti-women: because the middle class includes most of those who can afford to (and have the social and cultural capital to) undertake tertiary study; because it places an additional burden on their parents, and because women are already disadvantaged in terms of earning power, and therefore have less ability to avoid or pay back loans. It also erodes National’s aspirational, high-productivity, catch-up-with-Australia narrative, by raising the barrier to becoming qualified to do the high-productivity jobs that such a goal requires. More crucially, it erodes National’s “money in your pocket” narrative by imposing upon borrowers a higher effective marginal tax rate — over and above the existing 10% higher effective marginal tax rate — making it harder to survive on the wages that come with those jobs.
It could be worse. They’re not reintroducing student loan interest. But it is only the first budget of the term, and the same reasoning — this is good because it allows borrowers to pay off their loans sooner, and it will provide cost savings for the government — is true in spades when you charge interest. People can already pay their loans back more quickly if they choose — it is easy to do. People don’t, because wages are low and the cost of living is high, so the government wants to force them to do so. So much for choices.
Although I disagree with them, there is some political justification behind both these previous positions. But nothing explains the government’s decision to take a harder stance against asylum seekers. In the Australian context (and in the USA and the UK, although I know less about these), immigration and the treatment of asylum seekers is a political bonfire. This is most obvious in terms of human life and potential. Able, resourceful and motivated people are imprisoned for months or years, barely treated as humans, and allowed to become disenchanted and alienated while hostile bureaucrats decide their fate, and cynical politicians on all sides use them as ideological tokens in a dire game — before being released into society to fulfill the grim expectations that have been laid upon them. But it is also a bonfire for political capital — the more you chuck on, the brighter it burns — and for reasoned discourse. Politicians, commentators, lobbyists and hacks of all descriptions dance around this fire like deranged cultists which, in a sense, they are.
The immigration debate in Australia, though it barely deserves that name, is toxic, internecine, and intractable; it has been propagandised to the point where it is practically useless as a policy-formation tool, or as a means of gauging or guiding public sentiment. It sets light to everything it touches; people take leave of their senses and run around shrieking whatever slogans fit their lizard-brain prejudices. The word “sense” is used so often it ceases to have any meaning: all is caricature, and in keeping with this, other ordinary words also lose their value: assurances that asylum seekers will be treated “fairly” or that systems will be “efficient” would not be recognised as such by an impartial observer. Somehow, it becomes possible to simultaneously believe that the policies are targeted against “people-smugglers”, while being fully aware that the punitive costs imposed by such regimes are suffered by the smugglers’ victims. Otherwise-reasonable people resort to idiotic bourgeois framing such as “jumping the queue” — as if it’s OK to escape from political or religious persecution, if only you do so in a polite and orderly fashion. Mind the gap!
What makes it all the more stupid is that a brown tide of refugees in rusty boats is not even an issue for us: we are simply too isolated, and surrounded by waters too hostile, to be a viable destination. Unfortunately this fact will not be sufficient to prevent people from getting worked up about it, and demanding that Something Be Done. Someone on twitter recently said that anyone who could get a boatload of people here from the third world deserved a beer and our congratulations, and I couldn’t agree more. We need people with the degree of daring, toughness and pioneer spirit to make such a journey, and qualities such as these were once most highly prized.
This policy also undercuts National’s mythology about itself, most assiduously cultivated over the past year in preparation for the sale of the Crafar farms and other assets — of New Zealand as a land of opportunity, welcoming to outsiders and open for business. National have been swift to condemn any deviation from this line as xenophobic, and yet this is somehow different. It is worse than a solution in search of a problem — it is a cure that is far more harmful than its ailment.
What’s more, while I can see the underlying political reasoning behind the two other policies I’ve discussed here, I can’t see the reasoning for this one. Most likely it is an attempt to cultivate some love in redneck-talkback land; to shore up slipping sentiment among the culturally-conservative base that National used to own. But even in this it is misguided: this is not a debate that does any major party any good. It is an opportunity for extremists to grandstand, to pander to society’s most regressive elements. It crowds out meaningful discussion of other matters, it makes reason and compromise impossible, and what’s worst: it never dies. We saw a glimpse of this with the Ahmed Zaoui case; by fearmongering about boatloads of Chinese en route from Darwin on the basis of just one isolated case National runs the risk of admitting this sort of idiocy to the national conversation permanently.
And that might be this government’s legacy. The former two topics, while they will change New Zealand’s politics in meaningful ways, are essentially part of the normal partisan ebb and flow. Asset sales is much bigger; other topics, like primary and secondary education reform and the proposal to cap government expenditure will also have longer-term and more profound impacts. The National government has a mandate, and they are using it while they can, in the knowledge that you can’t take it with you when you go. That is understandable, if perhaps regrettable.
But to use such a mandate to permanently poison New Zealand’s discourse, willingly driving it towards a permanent state of cultural war is a different sort of politics altogether — deeper, more ancient, harder to control, and much more dangerous. I hope I’m wrong.