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Thomas Coughlan: The case for Labour

5 min read

OPINION:

“Do you know who I am?”

About eight years ago, almost dead in the middle of National’s nine years in power, these six words dominated the national political consciousness.

With no small amount of irony, I can say that by the end of that week most of the public did indeed know the identity of the alleged speaker, one Aaron Gilmore, number 59 on the National list.

Gilmore apologised for what he described as a messy and unbecoming verbal altercation at the Heritage Hotel in Hanmer Springs – although he denied using this particular phraseology.

The reason I regurgitate this particular anecdote is to compare it to the current government, which, in a mere four months’ time, will have survived for half as long as the previous one. The previous government was starting to show its age by then, inevitable and unavoidable scandals of government (the ongoing Kim Dotcom saga, for one) were mounting, unpredictable and unforced scandals, like the Gilmore affair were mounting too.

National went on to easily win the 2014 election – and nearly won the 2017 election too, but there’s little doubt that in the sagging middle, the party was looking tired.

This column has previously argued the case the gap between the left and right is closer than appears – and the Labour had better watch its back.

This column will look at the contrary.

The key political question currently, one that no one can really answer right now, is what role Covid will play in the next election. Covid will obviously be an issue in 2023, but it’s tempting to think that a combination of high vaccination rates and treatments like Paxlovid will have shifted Covid from a domestic health crisis to a domestic economic crisis.

That would likely mean the political focus shifting back to more bread and butter issues like health, education, transport and housing.

What’s Labour got to say on those issues?

Well, housing is a bit of a moot point: the accord with National means that the opposition will find it difficult to attack Labour on its most unpopular housing policies: the infill measures of the NPS-UD and the MDRS – that leaves only the issue of housing tax changes on which National could mount an assault.

That, however, is a story about renters and, barring a total realignment of the political landscape, renters don’t tend to vote Tory.

Health is strong too: Labour’s credentials as a manager of health have been strengthened by the crisis. The crisis has also strengthened the argument for its signature health policy: this dismantling of the DHB system.

The decentralised health system has functioned poorly in this crisis; it’s proved impossible to direct, control – and impossible even for ministers to get a clear picture of essential inventories.

The pandemic has also made an argument for the Māori Health Authority – including an argument for it to have input into health policy beyond Māori, in the form of the woeful vaccination rollout – of course, this is an argument Labour is probably less keen to make, considering it casts aspersions on the Cabinet as much as it does the health system.

Labour’s biggest problem is that Jacinda Ardern’s theory of change was forged during her 1980s childhood and period as a staffer in the Fifth Labour Government. She doesn’t believe in swift, transformational but painful change because of the social harm it creates (to say nothing of how unpopular it tends to be). Having seen things like the ETS, and the NZ Super Fund neutered by National, she believes consensus is important for lasting change too: hence child poverty, the Zero Carbon Bill and the housing accord.

But this consensus is slow, and it won’t help her in 2023, or even 2026.

The utopian vision of life under Labour isn’t a bad one. In 2030, the number of low-income households (measured after housing costs) will fall to 10 per cent, a reduction of 130,000 children living in poverty.

Many middle-income millennials will have found a place to live in the 48,000 to 105,500 new dwellings built as a result of only the most recent housing changes (to say nothing of those built by previous strategies). EVs will be cheap, supported by a large second-hand market.

Short-sighted planning that’s beleaguered New Zealand for three decades will be a thing of the past. Water will be cleaner and cheaper.

New Zealand’s emissions will be just slightly lower, but there’ll be a plan to stop relying on overseas offsets.

The problem with this, of course, is that few people believe the Government has the delivery capabilities to achieve this stuff, and even if everything goes to plan, some of the biggest things the Government wants to do won’t even be functional by the end of the decade (think light rail in Wellington and Auckland).

And for the utopian vision, there’s a dystopian vision too, something that looks like rebuilding Auckland with buildings three stories tall, sunlightless slums tenanted by unevictable meth-addicted, state-funded gang members. Emissions in 2030 will still be high – particularly in agriculture. Expect this case to be made in 2023.

Perhaps the strongest argument for Labour’s continued strength is its caucus. There have been no Aaron Gilmore incidents – the worst to come from the new intake has so far been Anna Lorck’s unusual speech on berocca, and Arena Williams’ ill-advised (but innocent, on her part) involvement in Kāinga Ora ads.

The new intake is well-credentialed, one of whom is already in Cabinet and several who will make it there after the next election if not sooner. The party bureaucracy is keeping egos in check, reminding MPs they’re servants of party and leader, not themselves, and soothing feet that might get itchy as polls drop.

National’s caucus, by contrast, is factious and pugilistic.

The main question of just how long Labour will last in the future is how it manages Ardern’s succession, which could pick incoming modernisers against an ambitious old guard jealous to have their moment at the top.

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