I must say I’ve found the run of leaders’ debates on television helpful when it comes to how deciding how to vote. Specifically, after watching the leaders of National and Labour go head to head three times, I’m pretty sure I’ll be voting for the Greens, although the Opportunities Party are not yet entirely off the table, and if I thought Labour were sufficiently politically competent to do a quiet deal to ensure The Maori Party remain strong in Parliament (why aren’t Labour standing aside there?) then The Maori Party wouldn’t be out of the picture either. What I’m fairly confident of is that neither National nor Labour are deserving of my vote this time around. Both, to my mind, present flaws that are ultimately rule them out from receiving my vote.
National’s weakness is clear. They are the incumbent Government and if there are things one genuinely cares about, upon which insufficient action is being taken, then there’s precious little credibility to a Government of nine years telling us they’re on to it now. For me, that includes the environment in general, and climate change in particular. It also has to involve inaction over housing, they were simply far too slow coming around to the idea it was a problem at all, and it certainly includes poverty (which is now being distastefully marketed by all parties as ‘child poverty’, as if the poverty endured by adults is somehow more acceptable). There are other charges we could lay against National, including an opportunistic and unplanned approach to immigration, being happy to use population inflow as a substitute for sustainable drivers for economic growth. And their approach to education has in general been appalling, with National Standards being the perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with their thinking.
In general, they are now paying the price for John Key’s poll-driven approach to policy making. At first, soaring house prices made house owners, National’s key constituents, feel wealthy, and encouraged debt financed consumption, so the government ignored it (as did the government before them). Climate change, as Bill English says, is not the first thing on most people’s mind when they get out of bed in the morning, so the government ignored it. Parents, if left unguided, will tend to get themselves into a paranoid ferment about their children’s educational progress, and so the government pandered to their psychological weakness by offering up comparative progress measures in primary schools. The poor had been there for a while, ignored for the best part of thirty years now, so it felt safe to keep ignoring them. At some point an articulate opponent would come along and call National on their inaction, and that’s exactly what has happened. Probably National will lose this election, and it will be on the back of a complete lack of desire to do anything other than keep a narrow majority of voters sufficiently docile and content to return them to office.
This is not to say all National has done has been bad. In fact they’ve been a steady government, sensible if not inspiring economic managers who negotiated the Global Financial Crisis well. Ironically enough, Bill English is far more committed to the country’s welfare than his predecessor ever was, and his approach to welfare targeting is, I think, well worth a look, and I hope elements of it will be adopted by the incoming government. But he will be judged on track record, and the deficiencies are plain enough to see.
Why then not vote for the party now calling him on this lack of vision? That’s where the three leaders’ debates come into it. That’s been a fair few hours of speaking time for Jacinda Adern to convince voters her party have, during their long years in opposition, developed a set of coherent and imaginative policies to deal with the very problems she’s exposed. And I have to say the results have been underwhelming. Labour have had the very great luxury of setting the agenda in these debates. The media, captivated by the image of a young, fresh new leader defying the odds and effecting a meteoric rise in her party’s fortunes, have made Labours’ issues the election issues. So they’ve talked clean rivers, housing crisis and child poverty, endlessly it seems, all areas where Labour have identified a weakness in National’s performance. And yet, what have we seen offered by this government in waiting? Well, an awful lot of something called vision, and a few policy details, many of which appear either ill focused or contradictory. It’s a mess.
Take housing. Do Labour want to see house prices fall? Apparently not, according to their leader. But she’d like to see them stop rising. Excellent. Only, they sort of have. So what is the crisis they’ve identified? Well, it’s unclear, but it’s got something to do with the desire to have a working party on a capital gains tax, although they’ve already extended the bright line test out to five years, so what else are they after, and why? They can’t say, because they don’t have policy on it yet, but they will have a working party. Then, bit by bit, they rule out certain conclusions from the potential working party. No tax on family homes, then later, no tax on property (but this clarification was a long time coming), and no new income taxes. So, there is a crisis, but there isn’t (no desire to see house prices fall, which I find gob smacking) and there will be potentially new taxes, but we can’t say what, or even why, because that’s over to the experts. After nine years to get this ready, that’s a shambles. There is a plan to build an awful lot of new houses, but the strategy for ensuring we have the resources to do that (builders say) is sketchy at best, and the accusation that this is contradicted by their immigration policy seems to have some merit.
How about child poverty, and the desire to redistribute wealth? Jacinda Adern made the point during the debates that the biggest leap in child poverty came in the nineties when benefits were cut. This was being slightly cute, by the way, for the eighties were the time when inequality really began to cut in, but she is right, the single simplest thing that could be done (and international experts agree on this) to reduce poverty would be to increase benefits. Only, that’s not her party’s policy. Only the Greens have committed to a significant rise in benefits. How dare any politician take the moral high ground on poverty and have no intention of returning benefits to their already meagre pre-cut level? Labour had an awfully long time to do this under Helen Clark, and instead turned their attention to working for families, in order to lure middle class votes and ensure a third term. At the bottom end it reduced poverty, but it was poorly targeted, missing beneficiaries while rewarding others who were by no means poor but who had votes to offer. Nothing to be proud of there.
Here The Opportunities Party are worth a shout out. Both their tax plan, which is a radical re-imagining of taxation and wealth redistribution, and their universal youth payment, would do much to alleviate poverty, and it’s been refreshing to have their ideas in the debate (although unfortunately they’ve rather been drowned out by the media’s excitement with the Adern narrative).
Clean rivers is also a weakness for Labour, in so much as their headline policy, taxing water use, is about rationing supply, rather than preventing waterway pollution. The way to prevent pollution is to make the polluter answerable, putting in place financial incentives to get it right, and financial punishments for getting it wrong. Again, this is Green policy. Labour are talking up the idea of swimmable rivers (which is transparent vote trawling, people respond emotionally to rivers, in fact there are many bigger environmental issues to consider) but again, their policies don’t shout out that they’ve thought this one through. National’s response, of course, that encouraging people to do the right thing is better, is ludicrous. We don’t just encourage people to do better then it comes to drink driving, although that’s clearly part of the solution. We also put in place some pretty large and clear disincentives. Of course polluters should pay, how’s that difficult?
Jacinda Adern called climate change the nuclear weapons issue of her generation (how this generational talks bores me, aren’t we all in this one together?) and yet, where is the front and centre climate change policy? What exactly is being done to move towards a carbon neutral economy? Where is the urgency? Where is the leadership? Nope, thought not, rather it’s been sound bite, move on. And people, apparently, are loving it. Sigh. The Greens could do much better on this too, much much better. They have the policy outlines and commitment, to be sure, but their own message has been far too diverse, and this time around undermined by infighting, and for those not curious enough to dig deep into their policy pronouncements, it’s almost possible to believe Climate Change isn’t their number one priority either. How I would love to see them talk environment, environment, environment at every opportunity. There is hubris at the heart of the Greens’ weakness, they are unable to see themselves as a small, single issue suport party (something the Maori Party have been very good at). Rather the Greens wish to see themselves as a viable ruling party, which they will never be, and so have developed far too wide a focus to be an effective promoter of environmental sustainability. We saw this with their refusal to position themselves as a support party for National (what good things have happened in education under National have been at the urging of the Maori Party, who seek only to serve their constituency and reason for being. The Greens could learn a lot from them).
Nevertheless, Labour at this election remain a disappointment, not yet sufficiently organised nor focused to provide genuine leadership. Under Andrew Little, this was the general narrative, and the polls reflected our disillusionment. Under Jacinda Adern, the narrative has changed completely, but not the policy, it seems. And so, the Greens present as the party whose policies are most closely aligned with my values and aspirations for my country. Although, as I say, The Maori Party are making an important contribution, and in many ways are more politically savvy and hence effective. And it is sad that TOP have been effectively excluded from the debate this time around, and sit languishing in polling oblivion, because they’ve consistently brought the most interesting ideas to the table. Much as I resist the idea of not voting for a party because that vote will be wasted (it is this thinking that makes it so hard for fresh voices to emerge) if TOP stay at 2% or below I can’t imagine I’ll consider them. So, it’s down to two choices. The Maori Party look like they’ll win one or two of their seats. If they win a second, a party vote for them (they’re just over 1%) would be similarly ineffectual. If only Howie Tamati makes it, however, a party vote might make all the difference there. So that’s still tempting.