Government needs to step up and walk their transformational hype in 2019

Over the last year the incoming Labour-led Government had some big challenges, in particular to get themselves in a position to run the country after unexpected success in the 2017 election and subsequent coalition negotiations.

With some notable exceptions, like Clare Curran, Meka Whaitiri, and the difficulties getting Kiwibuild up to speed, they have largely been successful – so far.

2019 poses different challenges. The Government deferred many decisions by setting up a myriad of reviews, inquiries, working groups and whatever else they called their policy-formation-while-in-government devices. Some of these are supposed to address issues that they had claimed were urgent, like housing shortages, homelessness, poverty, mental health, health generally.

They have to be seen to taking semi-urgent action (belated) on a number of things.

Peter Wilson reviews what they have done this year in Year in NZ politics: Promises, scandals, progress (RNZ).

The government began 2018 with a largely inexperienced Cabinet and an ambitious First 100 Days programmeto implement. Parliament and the Beehive were frantic places but it pushed the legislation through.

National’s tax cuts were scrapped and in their place the Families Package was rolled out. Winter energy subsidies for pensioners came in and the billion-dollar-a-year regional development fund was signed off.

During the year the year the government set up its tax working group after promising there would be no changes during its first term in office.

Another flagship policy was introduced, making the first year of tertiary education free. At the beginning of this year, it hadn’t made much difference to enrolments and the government said it would take time to become effective.

Foreigners were banned from buying existing homes, the sale of state houses ended and the Pike River Recovery Agency was set up to supervise re-entry to the mine.

Ms Ardern took personal responsibility for reducing child poverty and holds the Cabinet portfolio.

The promise of KiwiBuild – 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years – began to deliver, but only just. It’s the one flagship policy that could damage the government, and evidence of success is so far elusive.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson presented a cautious Budget in May with an emphasis on rebuilding public services.

With the economy running well and the tax take up he was able to forecast strong surpluses which can be harvested in the next election year.

A healthy and improving economy, and the prudence of Minister of Finance Grant Robertson, have set this Government up for their second year in power.

The government can head into 2019 confident of its stability, but there are some big challenges in the New Year.

It has set up numerous reviews and inquiries into vital issues including health, justice and mental health. The rubber hits the road when those reports come in and ministers have to decide what to actually do about them.

This is, by its own claim, a transformational government. The status quo or minor tweaking won’t do.

It is not a transformational government, yet. Most tweaks so far have been relatively minor.

Prime Minister Ardern (in particular) and her Government talked a lot of talk about what they might do and what urgently needed doing in 2018.

2019 is the year they need to walk the walk, or they could stumble in election year in 2020.

It will probably take until May, budget month, to see how bold and how transformational the Government really wants to be.

And the future of this Government could depend a lot on what comes out of the tax working group. This won’t be easy because it was hobbled before it started looking into possible tax reforms, with some transformational options ruled out by Ardern and Labour.

Ardern has been given an easy ride by journalists so far, even to the extent that some fawn over her, but they need to put aside liking the Prime Minister and her baby and looking seriously into whether Ardern and her Government are going to live up to their PR hype.

That needs to happen in 2019.

Government looks transitional rather than transformational

Jacinda Ardern promised a “government of transformation” in her Speech from the throne in November, but so far it looks more transitional, according to Colin James.

I hear  some transformational talk but mostly see tinkering walk.

ODT: Govt looks transitional at this stage but could yet be transformational

Jacinda Ardern’s Speech from the Throne in November promised a “government of transformation”. After six months in power, it looks more like a government of transition – to the post-baby-boom generations.

The last transformational government was Labour’s in 1984-90: an independent foreign policy, a start towards biculturalism, renovated environmental and constitutional law and a market economy open to an economically globalising world – and abruptly to a much more unequal society, a tax system favouring the well-off and an electorate so angry it changed the electoral system for the better.

Ardern insists her transformation will avert the 1980s damage and insecurities. Also, she said in Berlin last week, it was not just a transition to younger generations but a “just transition” to the 2020s, when technology would kill many jobs.

Is she on course?

Far more talk than walk so far, and much of the talk is vague.

Next month’s Budget provides a platform. It will restate the fiscal parameters and will devote large sums to begin to address funding gaps after Bill English’s “more with less” turned to “less” last term, particularly for health, housing and infrastructure.

Critics say Robertson is exaggerating, echoing all new Cabinets’ “discovery” of a “fiscal crisis”. Actually, Robertson talked up the “crisis” pre-election.

But fixing shortfalls is not transformation – or even transition.

Neither, so far, are the dozens – or scores, depending what you count – of reviews, working groups, strategies and so on. They open issues up rather than open up “bold” (another Ardern word) new vistas. For example, the education review reads more like adjustments to the 2010s than anticipation of the 2020s “gig”, “sharing”, robotised and artificial-intelligence economy.

So, too, for the tax working group. Its terms of reference – and Sir Michael Cullen’s 2000s “third way” background – rule out some big matters, including a real land tax and fixing the mess of tax, rebates, allowances and phase-outs at the bottom end.

They skirt around wealth, the core factor in embedded inequalities through the privilege it confers via untaxed inheritances. Likewise, the distortions that drive people to invest savings in houses and the attack on disposable income a high GST imposes on those at the bottom.

So, fix-it, not transformation.

The tax and welfare system has become a complex behemoth. Tinkering with tax with as many exceptions and targets is at this stage looking nothing like transformational.

And plans on welfare reform have been hinted at but are yet to be revealed.

But what if Cullen’s report next year lists those gaps and suggests a “phase 2” deeper rework of our 1980s tax system to gear it to the 2020s?

A tax “phase 2” could point to a transformational second term, if Ardern, Robertson and co really mean it.

Also transformational would be real policies that step on to the path to net-zero-carbon emissions by 2050. The ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration (Ardern calls it a step along her “just transition”) is gesture, not transformation, since pumping could go on for decades.

The budget will give a better picture of how much transforming rather than tinkering the Government is prepared to initiate, but we will also have to wait until the many working groups and committees have reported back and decisions made.



Left politics – same old or transformational?

The resurgence of the Labour left in the UK under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has prompted discussion here about whether the New Zealand centre left should stick to something similar to the same old, or if they should be promoting some sort of ‘transformational’ politics.

Yesterday from the Drug Law Symposium at Parliament Green MP Chloe Swarbrick was quoted:

It’s important that as we talk about drug reform we realise it’s just one part of a broader system. Let’s just not rethink drug law, let’s not just rethink prisons, let’s rethink politics as a whole.

There were some pokes at this.

@MatthewHooton “It’s a Chloeism. It doesn’t mean anything. But it will be spoken with great professionalism and passion.”

@AndrewBLittleNZ “Clearly Chloe is talking about a paradigm shift – not just a reimagining, but a new hyper-reality. Bold, inspired.”

Rethinking politics as a whole might be an interesting exercise, but changing how our politics works any substantial way will be very difficult – after looking at opinions, issues and options on our system of MMP democracy several years ago the main parties chose the comfort and safety of the status quo.

Andrew Dean, a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, has written at Stuff: For the Left, more of the same won’t cut it

Over the last year, Left politics has been transforming across the world. This has especially been the case in Britain.

Running on a platform of strong economic redistribution and state intervention, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has inspired activists and voters alike.

From an almost 20-point deficit at the start of the election campaign in April 2017, the party ended up running the Conservatives remarkably close on June 8. Polls now suggest that if the election were to be held today, Labour may win.

The Corbyn phenomenon is part of the wider delegitimisation of the so-called “Third Way”. It has been a year in which Centre-Left politics globally has been defeated by establishment parties and newcomers to both the Left and the Right.

This may be true of the left in the UK (remember that Labour still lost the recent election) it is hardly representative of the world.

Last year in the US Bernie Sanders made a mark but still failed against the ‘same old’ Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, who lost the presidential election the the sort of Republican Donald Trump.

So I don’t know what Dean bases his “Left politics has been transforming across the world” from.

In retrospect, the June 2016 EU referendum in Britain and Hillary Clinton’s November 2016 loss to Donald Trump, both appear to be decisive moments. The Centre no longer holds.

Emmanuel Macron and his new party were successful in France. He has been in the Socialist Party in the past but founded En Marche, a ‘liberal, progressive” movement’ got support from across the political spectrum and doesn’t appear to be swing France left or right.

Parties of the Centre-Left in New Zealand, however, have doubled down on business-as-usual politics. The “budget responsibility rules,” signed by both Labour and the Greens, would require that a coalition government keep spending “within the recent historical range of spending to GDP ratio” – with “recent” here meaning the last 20 years.  Such a government would operate a surplus and reduce debt.

Through this gesture, voters are being shown that under a Labour-Green government, they would get more of the same.

In my view, the budget responsibility rules are a serious mistake. At the very least, they are unlikely to convince voters. They reflect electoral strategies from the 1990s and 2000s, in which Centre-Left parties shied away from criticising the contemporary arrangement of capitalism.

Helen Clark’s centre-left strategy seemed to be pretty successful for three elections and terms.

It was imagined then that electoral success lay with winning over a “middle ground” of voters who didn’t want to rock the boat too much.

That closely describes the National led government of the past nine years. We have had eighteen years of fairly centrist politics. It may be no coincidence that this is under MMP, something the UK doesn’t have.

It is decreasingly clear, however, either that there is such a middle ground to appeal to, or that most people are truly satisfied with things as they are.

I don’t think that’s clear at all.

A recent survey out of Ipsos shows that disenchantment is at remarkably high levels in New Zealand. As Henry Cooke reports, according to this survey, 56 per cent of New Zealanders think that traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like them. Sixty-four per cent think the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.

But that doesn’t tell us much without knowing if it reflects a changing trend or if it is much the same as in the past.

It’s common to be disenchanted with the Government, but that doesn’t seem to urge people to vote for radical change.

Voters have resisted giving National one party rule, therefore moderating policies implemented. Green support seems to have hit a ceiling, suggested there isn’t a strong demand for a surge towards socialism.

In environments of high dissatisfaction, the middle ground contains fewer and fewer voters – and winning it will come at the cost of alienating many.

I don’t know where he gets this claim from. I don’t see any real sign of high dissatisfaction here – the poll didn’t measure whether people were dissatisfied enough to vote for radical change.

Promising not to change things too much is not an inspirational message for the political Left to be running.

Perhaps that’s because voters aren’t very interest in inspirational messages of radical change – and in any case we don’t have inspirational leaders of any of the parties.

A bolder Left party would make the following argument: wealthy households and companies are taking an increased proportion of national production, and have been doing so for decades. The idealised economic model which has driven this – that “free” markets are the most efficient, and therefore best – has failed on multiple levels, not the least of which is fact.

What ‘fact’?

We have nothing like an idealised free market. And our economy is doing very well right now, with larger than expected surpluses announced yesterday.

The concentration of wealth that we have seen has meant that political power has become further concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, stifling political change. Recognising all of this, this party’s policies are united by the grand vision of ensuring everyone has a fairer share of the nation’s economic production and political power.

A grand vision that is difficult to put into policies that appeal to voters.

In the place of budget responsibility rules and attacks on immigration, Labour and the Greens could make the case for an increased redistributive role for the government.

Rather than seeking to arbitrate between partisan tribes – constituencies in decline – they could try to give leadership to those who imagine themselves to be lonely and lost.

‘Partisan tribes’ probably are constituencies in decline, but the ‘ lonely and lost’ hardly seem to be in the ascendency as a voter bloc.

And it’s pointless trying to will Labour and the Greens into suddenly changing their election strategy of the past year just as they launch their campaigns.

A substantial change in approach now is more likely to be seen as a panic than bold vision.

There’s nothing wrong with grand political theories and visions, but parties don’t tend to read an article and suddenly change their whole approach based on claimed facts that don’t actually cite anything to back them up.

Any transformational politics is unlikely to emerge before the election. Post election, in coalition building is where that is most likely to happen, if it happens at all, but our MMP has so far moderated rather than radicalised.