• The Politics of Opposition

    For most of the time I was a British MP, my party was out of government – these were the Thatcher years, when it was hard for anyone else to get a look-in. As a front-bencher and shadow minister, I became familiar with the strategies required in a parliamentary democracy of being in opposition to a well-supported government.

    My colleagues and I settled quickly into the daily pattern of probing the day’s political developments for opportunities to embarrass the government, or at the very least to put it on the back foot. This meant a constant – and virtually daily – series of press conferences and media releases designed to keep the pressure on, with the twin objective of showing the government in a bad light and demonstrating that the opposition were on the ball and had policies that were superior to those of the government.

    The media rapidly came to expect and rely on this daily diet of political guerrilla warfare, and commentators sympathetic to our cause did their best to amplify and flesh out the points we tried to make; sometimes, our friends in the media did the job for us, by launching their own hit and run attacks on the government.

    But, after a while, we began to realise that were were getting nowhere with such tactics – and that the public seemed quickly to grow tired of our predictably critical responses to anything proposed by the government.

    The voters were inclined to let our efforts pass them by, dismissing them as just par for the course – “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” seemed to be the common response to our attacks. The harder we tried to land a blow on the government, the more they seemed to say that it was just more of the same.

    The bad news for today’s Opposition in New Zealand is that they seem to have reached a rather similar stalemate. Voters have become familiar with what they now see as the inevitable and expected riposte from an opposition spokesperson to any news item about a new government initiative.

    Even in instances where the government has proposed to remedy a long-standing default or deficiency, or to do something that is clearly long overdue in the general interest, an opposition spokesperson will pop up to say that it is “too little” or “too late” or “will cost too much” or “we would have done it better”.

    The lesson for politicians in opposition is that they must not be seen to be opposing just for the sake of it. They can all too easily be seen as bad-mouthing an idea or proposal, not because of its merits or otherwise but because of where it has come from.

    The lesson I and my colleagues learnt in Britain was that responding to the government in a more thoughtful and less partisan way was more likely to commend itself to the public – building the opposition’s image as responsible politicians and having the added advantage that, when effective critical points did need to be made, they were given more credence than they would have had if they were seen as just another stock standard and automatic response from an opposition determined to oppose, come what may.

    This conclusion may be a hard one to accept for Simon Bridges and his team, focused as they are on trying to get maximum exposure for a leader and a front-bench that has yet to make its number with the New Zealand public.

    But, it is in everyone’s interest that our parliamentary democracy, with all of its many strengths and virtues, should not be demeaned by a constant exhibition of the downsides of party politics at its worst. We all have an interest in good government – and that can sometimes mean that politicians should forbear from playing the party game if they – and we – can see that the government of the day is making a creditable effort to grapple with a long-standing problem or an important issue.

    Giving credit where it is due can be the best policy. Sometimes, less is more, and that is as true of opposition as it is of other good things.

    Bryan Gould
    9 September 2019