• Good – But Could Be Better

    Labour was, not surprisingly, in good heart at its annual conference last week in Dunedin, as Jacinda Ardern celebrated her first anniversary as Prime Minister.

    The past year has not been without its difficulties for the new government, but the coalition has encountered fewer problems than might have been expected. Winston Peters has performed well in his sphere of expertise – foreign affairs – and has proved to be, as some of us expected, a steadying influence, bringing the voice of experience to the consideration of complex issues.

    The Greens have offered exactly what might be expected of a helpful partner – a distinctive and constructive approach to the green issues that matter most to them, and steady support for the government’s wider agenda.

    Labour has handled its role as the senior partner of the coalition with good sense and diplomacy and a strong and identifiable sense of purpose. Most of the crises which the Prime Minister has had to handle have been relatively minor and have flowed from the deficiencies of individual ministers. The missteps of Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri, and even of Iain Lees-Galloway, have reflected inexperience rather than incompetence, and pale into insignificance by comparison with the internal travails that have racked the National party.

    The new government’s main difficulty in its first year has been in grappling with what seems to be a long-standing strategy developed by their opponents and one that always poses real problems to an incoming Labour government. It can be simply described.

    When National is in government, it makes a virtue for ideological reasons of cutting public expenditure, preening itself on producing “surpluses” and warning that a change of government would threaten that achievement. When the voters finally decide that the cost – in the form of weakened public services – is too high and a less ideological government is elected, the second stage of the strategy is put in place.

    The new government finds that it has to pick up the bill to meet the backlog of all the essential spending not made, and to make good on its promises to re-build our health services and education and defence capability and environmental protection and economic infrastructure and all those other parts of public provision which have been run down.

    The struggle to reverse the failures of its predecessor and to do so overnight disappoints the new government’s supporters – and their public demonstrations of dissatisfaction (teachers’ strikes and the like) and the consequent inconvenience to the public make it more likely that those responsible for the problems in the first place will be returned to power and the cycle can begin again.

    How well is Jacinda Ardern’s government doing in breaking that cycle? It is too early to say, but Labour have not made it easy for themselves. Their self-denying ordinance to the effect that they will manage the public finances within a monetary and fiscal framework defined by their predecessors has limited their options.

    If the framework of policy remains unchanged, there is an obvious limit as to how much can be achieved by individual decisions taken within (and limited by) that framework.

    Labour’s supporters will be happy in the main with what has been achieved so far, in terms of individual commitments such as the increase in the numbers of teacher aids for pupils with special needs, but there will be some disappointment that there is not more new thinking as to how the shackles of right-wing orthodoxy can be cast aside.

    The great achievements of past Labour governments – such as the building of thousands of state houses by Michael Joseph Savage in the midst of the Great Depression – required a willingness to challenge orthodoxy. Such courage brought great benefits to those who gained jobs and homes they would not otherwise have had, but also cemented Labour’s standing and support, and at the same time strengthened our economy and our social cohesion.

    The acid test for Labour will come in 2020. The task is to persuade voters by then that a different approach pays off, that breaking new ground makes us all better off, and that the real risk lies in returning to the failed policies of the past – so that the cycle starts all over again.

    Bryan Gould
    5 November 2018