Jacinda Ardern on the campaign trail. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Ardern says she wants radical transformation. Time to start believing she means it

The countless working groups are a kind of stalking horse for a big change, and voters will get to decide come 2020, writes former National Party cabinet minister Wayne Mapp

One of the things that is notable about this government is how so many of the ministers, from the prime minister down, signal their intent with reference to “radical transformation”. The term has been used to cover issues as broad as climate change, education, health, land use, taxation, workplace relations and cultural relationships.

The latest example came from the prime minister in her impromptu speech yesterday to striking primary teachers. Standing outside parliament, she supported the calls for radical change, saying that “radical change takes time”. She left her audience with the strong impression she was with them, saying she agreed with the messages on their billboards. This could be part of her personal empathy with her audience. Or it could mean a that a major shift is about to occur in New Zealand education.

The government is notable for the number of working parties and task forces it has established, many with the explicit purpose of starting a “conversation” as the prime minister so frequently talks about. The explanation for their proliferation offered by the National opposition is that the government had not prepared itself for government, and that this was a way of making up for that. Commentators tend to agree.

However, that is unlikely to be the only reason. There are many in the government, across all three constituent parties, that decry neoliberalism. This is shorthand for all the failures of the current economic paradigm. The frequency with which neoliberalism is castigated by government voices implies that it wants to fundamentally change New Zealand economy and society.

On this basis, the establishment of so many working parties suggests not simply that the government is bereft of policy, but rather these are the stalking horses for the radical transformation that the government so frequently talks about. This is not just an issue for Labour and the Greens. For the latter, radical transformation is their very raison d’etre. But it also applies to New Zealand First. One of the central reasons that Winston Peters gave for entering into the coalition is that the new government promised to be truly transformational.

The government knows that it does not currently have a mandate for radical change. With the exception of the Greens, they did not campaign on that basis. Neither do their individual percentages of the vote give them that level of authority. But collectively they do have enough votes to indicate that the status quo no longer had sufficient electoral appeal to withstand all rebuffs. In addition, each of the parties have strong internal lobbies for transformational change.

The various working parties and task forces will start to report from next year. As with many things in politics this will be a both a challenge and an opportunity. Many of the reports will provide a number of alternatives, others will propose a main course of action, others will provide the basis for further discussion. It is likely among the ranges of options, including the preferred approach, there will be the kernel of radical transformation.  In all cases the government will have to respond.

This is where the test will be. In some cases, the recommendations will form the basis of government action in this term, particularly in the area of workplace relations. However, by the middle of next year, it will only be a year from the election campaign. Not a lot of time for implementation. In many cases, perhaps most, the recommendations will form the basis of policy beyond the 2020 election. In which case the various parties of the government will have to campaign on them. Or not.

The most radical government of my lifetime was the Labour administration of 1984 to 1990. Many of the key transformational policies were barely signaled during the 1984 campaign. Within the first three years, the dollar had been floated, tariffs radically reduced and import quotas eliminated. GST was introduced in 1986, and income taxes reduced from a top rate of 66% to 33%. The first stage of privatisation had occurred. New Zealand had become nuclear free. Serous attention was being given to long standing Māori grievances.

The rapidity of this transformation was deeply unsettling for many. MMP was voted in, at least in part, to ensure that such a radical transformation could not occur again, at least not without clear electoral consent. It was thought that the consensus required by coalition politics would prevent this happening. The first 20 years of MMP government has certainly confirmed this expectation. No New Zealand government since the Lange/Douglas government has ever been so radical. But we now have a new generation in charge, the children of those who led the transformation of the 80s.

This is the dilemma that the parties of the current coalition will face at the next election. Do they conform to the expectations of incremental change that is the norm of MMP, or are they more adventurous? How many of the radically transformative policies recommended by their various task forces will they actually be prepared to campaign on?

Obviously some. There is a clear consensus across the political spectrum emerging for some significant climate change policies. The various political parties will have their own preferred solutions, but none of the significant parties will have no policies whatsoever. Other areas will be more problematic.

The prime minister was able to kick the can of tax policy, especially capital gains, down the road during the last election. That proved to be smart politics, at least for the 2017 election. That option won’t exist in 2020. Labour will almost certainly have to campaign on tax policy. Or explicitly reject the Tax Working Group recommendations.

Governments can campaign on unpopular policies, provided the voters do not see that as the essence of the government. National was able to successfully campaign on partial privatisation in 2011. The reason being the sufficient voters thought the National government was generally competent enough, notwithstanding the privatisations policy. The policy was also perceived as unlikely to hurt any specific group of voters.

The challenge facing the various parties of the government in 2020 is convincing voters that the time is ripe, 35 years since the last major cycle of change, that the country is due for another round of transformational change. In 1987 voters returned Labour with a decisive majority. The voters, or at least a majority of them, like what they had got between 1984 and 1987.

It will certainly be a major upset if an MMP election produced such a decisive result. Ultimately electoral systems do not thwart the intent of voters. If New Zealand is ready for transformational change then the electoral system will deliver it. It all depends on what voters want in 2020.

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