As we await the puffs of white smoke from the Beehive, Simon Wilson offers the compelling arguments that National is unfit for office – and those that suggest they could still be a better option.
Why National is unfit for office, reason #1: They lied to us
It went like this.
Policy analyst: Guys guys. Labour hasn’t left room for new spending in its budget.
Steven Joyce: How much?
Analyst: Maybe a billion? Two?
Joyce: Call it ten.
Bill English: It couldn’t be ten.
Joyce: True, ten sounds flabby. Call it $11.7 billion.
English: It couldn’t be $11.7 either. They’ll say bullshit.
Joyce: Don’t care.
English: And that’ll be us, credibility gone. We’re the finance experts, we’re supposed to know what we’re talking about.
Joyce: Still don’t care.
English: I care. It’s my record as finance minister.
Joyce: Labour will panic. And the public will believe us.
Joyce: Because we’re the finance experts.
English: I can’t say it.
Joyce: I’ll say it and you back me up.
English: I could just not talk about it.
Joyce: Every time it comes up, which will be all the time, you’ll say you stand by the statement absolutely because it’s true and even if it wasn’t true, there’s obviously something there.
English: Why don’t we just tell them what’s really there?
Joyce: Because a billion or two doesn’t matter. This way, the story will never go away.
English: If voters have any brains, this will ruin me.
Joyce: It will make you. Every economist in the country will call bullshit but that doesn’t matter because it’s not about what’s true. It’s about you being the strong leader.
English: Right. Mr Tough Guy. Should we say $20 billion?
Joyce: Bill. Get a grip.
Maybe it didn’t go like that. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. To be clear, I’m making it up. But never mind what was said, my imagined Steven Joyce was right: that’s exactly how it played out. National lied about Labour’s budget plans, and when they got called on it by pretty much every informed commentator in the country, they doubled down, hung tough and came out stronger. It worked.
By any reasonable explanation, National’s claim of an $11.7 billion hole meant either a) National was deliberately lying, or b) it was an honest mistake which National did its best to cover up by bluffing. But if that’s true, it means Bill English and Steven Joyce understand far less about budgets and finance than they want us to think. It means they’re incompetent. They can’t have it both ways.
I don’t believe they’re incompetent.
The first reason why it would be wrong for National to form the next government is that this episode undermined their moral authority to do so. They lied in order to win. Not incidentally, not in a little way. Not in the way that politicians routinely massage and manage the truth for one reason or another. But colossally, preposterously, outrageously.
After that, what possible reason would we have for trusting them? The lesson they will learn is that telling big lies and toughing it out works, so they will do it again. And again. If it works, why would they stop? And other parties will learn the same lesson.
Our political system needs to be rescued from such cynicism. Not drowned in it.
National is unfit for office, reason #2: They didn’t lead us forward but dragged us back
National spent the election campaign portraying itself as the friend of the farmer. The only friend. The principal target of that campaign was NZ First supporters in the provinces, but it was also designed to paint Jacinda Ardern as an urban liberal out of touch with the reality of the rural economy.
National also took every opportunity to promote its roads-first transport policy, reassured drilling companies it would not shut down fossil fuel exploration, opposed the formation of a Climate Change Commission, defended the impotent Emissions Trading Scheme and repeatedly claimed, against the evidence, that we are on track to meet our Paris Accord climate change targets for 2030.
National knows full well that climate change will require many changes to its policy settings, and because they will be difficult they need political consensus. Yet the party did its utmost in the election campaign to sabotage the potential for that consensus to grow.
It would be naive to expect they suddenly become climate change leaders. But it’s not naive to hope they might be a bit more responsible. We need political leaders with the courage to build a climate change consensus, and for the others not to cynically try to destroy it.
Exactly the same pattern – destroy the consensus even when you know it’s the right thing to do – was on show with another issue this election: tax. Is there any single cause more widely accepted in this country than the need for a fairer tax system? And it’s not just that our tax system is unfair because it allows some people to earn untaxed income. That anomaly skews investment away from productive sectors of the economy into non-productive property and jacks up prices to make decent housing unaffordable for far too many.
And yet it is not a vote winner and it will take a courageous government to fix it. National’s ruthless scaremongering over property tax reform has made it all but impossible for a more equitable system to be created.
National is unfit for office, reason #3: They are slow followers
National did not notice there was a housing crisis in Auckland until last winter, when Three, RNZ and other media made it inescapable. It has done nothing to address the teaching crisis. It has been terribly slow to understand that people will use public transport, and ride bikes, just as soon as there are reasonable services and facilities for those choices to be worth making. It refused for years to set a target for reducing poverty, and only did so deep in the election campaign, in an impromptu response in the middle of a leaders’ debate.
National’s agenda is not the same as Labour’s, and yet most of its ideas about how to move forward come from Labour, the Greens and the Māori Party. National, as right-wing commentators like Matthew Hooton constantly tell us, is a social democratic party whose contribution in the last nine years was little different from that of Labour under Helen Clark in the previous nine years.
Which is not to say they are the same. Labour was a reforming government in its earlier years, but National never was. Under John Key it raised slow following to a political artform. Things got fixed, changed, improved only when there was enough public clamour to demand it. As a consequence, there was almost no forward planning, so we could avoid crises (think housing, transport, teachers, hospital services, etc) and almost no attempt (as outlined in #2 above) to tackle unpopular but pressing issues.
National is unfit for office, reason #4: They could betray Māori
National’s accommodation with the Māori Party did wonders for its view of te ao Māori, and in treaty minister Chris Finlayson, as well as Bill English himself, it has leaders who have gone out of their way to stand for justice and fairness for Māori. They haven’t fixed every problem, but their views are unquestionably different from those of former National Party leader (and now Hobson’s Pledge spokesperson) Don Brash.
But will that last? The Māori Party is gone. Both National and New Zealand First have conflicted views of the Māori seats. NZ First is unequivocally opposed to the Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act, which was National’s 2011 replacement to Labour’s disastrous Foreshore and Seabed Act, and to the recognition of treaty rights than has flowed from it. Will a National-led government beholden to NZ First continue to hold the line for democratic representation, fair and just treaty settlements, economic opportunity, property rights and other legal rights for Māori?
It’s suddenly a whole lot harder to imagine than it was even a year ago.
On the other hand …
National is a better choice, reason #1: The other lot are unstable
If Labour and NZ First announce a new government this week, with only tag-along support from the Greens – which is the way most commentators seem to think such a coalition will work – it’s going to end badly. The reason? Day one of a new coalition is the day they are most in love with each other. Over time the relationships will be strained, but they should be sweet at the start. It’s their wedding day, after all.
So if Winston tells Labour: nah, we’re the bride and groom and the Greens have to go sit over there with the embarrassing rellies, someone’s going to get drunk and very upset.
If Winston does insist on humilating the Greens, that will tell us NZ First is not properly committed to a constructive three-way coalition. More damaging, it will signal that Labour is either unwilling or unable to play the senior partner role and ensure that both its junior friends are treated with respect.
The centre-left could learn from John Key in this: he did not need to govern with all three of the Māori Party, Act and United Future, but he chose to do so because it made for more constructive, stable and better government.
National is a better choice, reason #2: Labour blundered
Labour ran a super-impressive election campaign in so many ways. But they also made some astonishingly bad blunders. And, in the end, they could not do the one thing they needed to do most, which was put National to the sword.
The blunders were initiated by Jacinda Ardern herself. One was her “captain’s call” to revive the option of a capital gains tax in a first term. In case you missed it, Ardern seemed to think a captain’s call is something a leader does to demonstrate how strong and decisive they are. But that’s not what it is. A captain’s call is a decision made by the boss to do something when everyone else has advised them not to do it.
The other notable blunder was on water tax, where Labour somehow allowed a policy on taxing bottled water to escalate into a supposed full-scale attack on farmers.
Jacinda Ardern did not announce much genuinely new policy once she became leader, but the policies that really were hers ended up being the most controversial.
There’s a bigger issue. With National running a high-risk campaign of lies and scaremongering (see above), how come Labour could not win the public debate? We all hate that sort of thing from our politicians, don’t we?
Why couldn’t Labour sell its tax message? It proposed to give less relief to the wealthiest and more tax help to the middle and the poorest. That should be a reasonably easy message to get across, but somehow they got stuck denying they were going to increase taxes.
Why couldn’t Labour land any killer blows? Why didn’t it manage to shame National out of the house for its incompetence and/or duplicity over the $11 billion lie – and make its supporters feel ashamed for their association with it?
Why couldn’t it paint National as an uncaring government for prioritising universal tax cuts over much-needed social spending? How did it fail to capitalise on the widespread concern about mental health, and make health a big mark of government failure? Why did it fail to define National as irrelevant for its slow follower approach, on any number of issues?
Election campaigns are about demonstrating fitness for office. Labour did extremely well to lift its vote by around 10%, and for that Jacinda Ardern should be profoundly congratulated. But a lot of the party’s new support came at the expense of the Greens and some of it from NZ First. Not enough came from National.
Labour did make itself fit for office, but not as fit as it might like. Whereas National, bloodied but unbowed, still has 56 MPs (only four fewer than it used to have) and its success with a ruthless election campaign leaves it extremely fit for opposition.
Although Labour now has a caucus stacked with talent it may take time to harden to the task of running an effective government, especially against an enraged and single-minded National opposition.
National is a better choice, reason #3: Labour are slow followers too
If National is a slow follower, what is Labour? If you lined up the policies of the Greens and NZ First, would Labour bring much that wasn’t already there? In one sense, that means Labour represents a synthesis of the policies of the Greens and NZ First, and that’s a good role for a lead party in a coalition to take.
But you could also ask, where does Labour get its ideas from? What will it do, as the leader of the coalition, that wouldn’t be done by the other two anyway? In what way will it lead? The new problem of Labour, forming a government, is the old problem revisited: what does it stand for, exactly?
National is a better choice, reason #4: They won’t scapegoat immigrants
Who’s looking forward to seeing what kind of immigration policy Labour and NZ First have cooked up between them?
Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe they’ll clamp down on dodgy overseas student schemes, restrict foreign ownership of property in line with other countries – and pretty much leave it at that. Let’s hope so.
But both have used immigration as an easy way to generate popular support, disowning the racism they stir up along the way, and it’s hard to see them not doing it again.
So now what?
It’s not just Winston Peters and his party deciding this week. The other three parties also have to decide, do they want in? At what cost, and for what opportunity, and with what determination? Whatever they all decide, there aren’t any obvious winners. To win could be to lose, on both sides.
Whoever does form the government, there’s a big step up they have to make. We deserve better than we’ve been getting.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.