Politics

National faces a crucial decision: what kind of opposition will it be?

Will Bill English’s new caucus adopt a scorched earth, US-style approach, or a more traditional style of opposition, asks former National Party minister Wayne Mapp

Over the next few months National has a choice that will shape both the perception of itself, and of the new government. It has to decide what kind of opposition it will be.

This choice will depend on two factors. First, the forces and tensions that exist within National itself, both in the caucus and the wider party. Second, how the government characterises itself, and obviously how effective it is. The issue of government effectiveness will take some time to become evident.

National is in the unusual position for an opposition of being the largest party in parliament. It will have many more opportunities than most oppositions to challenge the government, ranging from the numbers on select committees, to the number of parliamentary questions, and the sheer experience of many of its members. A driving issue will be the sense by many of its activists that National had earned the right to govern, and this will be deeply held, whether it is reasonable or not. In short many believe they were robbed by New Zealand First, and especially by Winston Peters.

This attitude was well manifested by Michelle Boag, who in a Radio Live interview referred to Winston Peters as an inveterate liar. While that might indicate that she actually preferred National to be in opposition, it also seemed to reflect real anger at the outcome. If National chooses that course it will be a scorched earth approach, with none of the civilities that are more usual in New Zealand politics. Instead New Zealand politics would begin to resemble that of the United States where hyper partisanship dominates.

Bill English, in his concession speech, last week forecast a more traditional approach. That is not to say the opposition will not do its job – they will. And they may be very effective in doing so to the point that the government will soon be on notice that it may not win in 2020.

Of course much depends on how the government sees its mandate. Talk of failed capitalism is bound to inflame the opposition, and indeed a wide section of the public. It seems to signify that New Zealand is about to enter a period of socialist revolution.

However, the government does not have a mandate for such a revolution. The prime minister was quick to drop such talk. On The Nation, Ms Ardern spoke about the “blatant failure” of capitalism. By Sunday on Q&A the talk was of “market failure”. Neither did the prime minister buy into the “failure of the neo-liberal experiment”. She had realised that continuing talk of capitalism failing would undermine her authority with business, and also with voters who did not vote for her, but who are willing to give her a fair go.

Irrespective of such talk, government policy can have a profound effect on the economic prospects of a nation. By early next year it will start to become apparent whether or not the government is making a reasonable fist of things.

Bill English at the Newshub leaders debate. Photo: Michael Bradley/Newshub

National is likely to take things quite carefully in the initial stages, even if cyberspace is full of anger. It is likely to wait and see to determine the best strategy to opposition.

If the economy starts to falter, as was foreseen by Winston Peters, then National will do its utmost to ensure the public have a case of buyer’s remorse. A slowdown in growth, an increase in unemployment and an increase in interest rates are the things that destroy governments. It takes an international event the size of the GFC before the public is prepared to accept that New Zealand has been buffeted by international forces beyond its control. The normal ebb and flow of the international economy is not enough.

The fact that Bill English has chosen to stay on indicates that he sees the government as vulnerable on economic management. There are some early signs of this risk. The increase in the minimum wage $20 will make it one the highest in the western world, and a level that could easily effect employment. Of greater significance will be the flow effects to wages and salaries generally. Already unions are signaling wage increases well above 5%. Teacher unions want increases above 10% and this is likely to be reflected in all state unions.

Logic indicates that state sector wage increases above the rate of economic growth will damage the national accounts. Effectively it means the state is taking a greater percentage of national output, but without any more services. The private sector will have less. Responding to these pressures will test the government’s resolve.

New Zealand will soon find out whether changing government priorities will have an effect on current levels of growth or whether such growth is relatively immune to government policy.

If there is an economic slowdown, expect a resurgent National opposition to take every advantage of government weakness. This does not require an abandonment of the normal civilities that New Zealanders expect within our body politic. Bill English’s personal style should ensure that this aspect of our political system will remain. But there will be an intensity in our politics that we seldom seen.

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