Oppositional behaviour: The Nats' looting of other parties’ policies is complete

by Jane Clifton / 16 May, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Maybe it’s megalomania. Could be poll panic. Call it a one-selfie-too-many identity crisis, perhaps. But somehow the Government is now also being the Opposition.

There were portents of this audacious annexation. In the manner of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, National tiptoed in a few Oppositionish underplantings: lukewarmness over tax cuts; the Security Council biff at Israel; more power to curb and mitigate domestic violence.

Then the incursions came faster and bolder: capitulation to country-of-origin food labelling; strengthened iwi power in local-body planning; monetary policy review.

By this week, the takeover was complete. National committed half of its projected year’s surplus to pay equity and agreed to curtail immigration. Pin a red rosette on it and break out the socialist chardonnay.

Were Parliament not already in recess, the official Opposition might have staged a walkout. There’s such a thing as a decent degree of ideological demarcation, and National keeps trashing it. Although the Government hasn’t stolen every policy plank from Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First, it has territory-marked most of the important ones in the manner of an extremely ambitious tomcat.

Short of appointing Nicky Hager to head an inquiry into the SAS, National has barely left an electoral itch unscratched. If not for Nick Smith’s regular belligerent rampages to remind us otherwise, National could now pass for Labour on many fronts, and NZ First-lite on others. There may be scope for remedies under the Fair Trading Act for misleading labelling.

Erogenous overload

It’s very much the technique made infamous by professional campaign strategists Crosby Textor whereby you identify what David Lange liked to call your opponents’ erogenous zones and finds ways to indulge and thereby neutralise them. The most common way is simply to adopt them, in whole or part.

Trouble is, Labour and the Greens have been using a similar strategy by mutually inoculating themselves against being seen as too upheavalling, tax-happy and hard-left with self-restraints such as a tax-increase moratorium. So voters are increasingly having to choose between a Government bloc which is in many ways ersatz Labour, and an Opposition bloc that can sometimes pass for a Clayton’s National. How much of this neutralising binge is tactical and how much sincere? Voters must decide which is the wolf in sheep’s clothing and which the sheep in lupine drag.

When voters come to assess which side is the more credible promulgator of the samey policies, it’s no less perplexing. Labour has chronically low polling, only one experienced minister left ready for government and a recent history of internal instability, along with a leader who couldn’t catch a cold.

National’s recent history is one of cruising in the balmy wake of John Key’s popularity, and only now rattling dags to make some serious reforms – after having repeatedly said everything in the garden was perfectly lovely the way it was and anyone who said otherwise was a fruit loop.

Without a word of apology, it has this year backtracked on police numbers, superannuation, pay equity, monetary policy, resource management reform, tax-haven prevention and now twice on immigration.

It can be a mark of strength to change your mind, but generally this can’t decently be done without admitting you had previously been wrong.

On immigration, the Government has said often, and with tremendous conviction, that present inflows are: A. Not excessive; B. A mark of success; C. Brilliant for the economy, but without being able to provide evidence or quantify the benefits; D. Finely calibrated so as to meet skills shortages but not displace locals; E. Innocent of depressing local wages; F. Not being rorted; G. Not contributing to housing pressure and price inflation; H. Not straining the national infrastructure; and I. Only being criticised by bigots, xenophobes and racists.

It’s not as if the facts behind any of these assertions have suddenly changed. Yet in issuing its second redraft of work-visa criteria in less than six months without a word of regret, National hopes people won’t notice certain disjunctures in its rhetoric. At the very least, its two visa tweaks disclose that it either erred badly or straight-out lied about points A, D and F and ought shamefacedly to retract G through I. Beneficial as immigration is to economic activity generally, a single trip across Auckland illustrates what bad news it can be for the daily lives of all concerned when infrastructure cannot keep up with it.

As for B, C and E, we’re still waiting for the measured facts on whether our migrant inflows have been a net benefit to the economy and/or have depressed wages.

Sweetener’s sour taste

The other blockbuster election neutraliser, the $2 billion pay-equity catch-up wage rise for a slew of women workers over the next five years, is stupendously good news, but scarcely a cue for political gratitude.

National has sensibly acted before the courts forced it to do so. Since aged-care worker Kristine Bartlett won the landmark case she took in 2012, it has been clear that pay equity must be enforced as a matter of law. It is E tu, the union formed by the merger of the EPMU and SFWU, and other organised-labour strategists who can be thanked. They’ve driven a wedge into the chronic underpayment of low-wage work predominantly done by women in the state sector, which should in time lift more women’s wages.

The Government deserves points only for acting before the election, thus depriving itself of discretionary pork-barrel funds. The sweetener is that this also deprives Opposition parties of fiscal leeway for their promises. But National’s interests are probably better served by being seen to Do The Right Thing, and neutralise yet another political acid.

With all this cross-party consensus, outsiders might think we’re in danger of a grand coalition and an election-night singalong to If I Had a Hammer. Fortunately, that’s not quite what our politicians mean to do with hammers. Each new consensus is aggressively inflicted rather than rationally, mutually negotiated. But it’s remarkable that this election, clean politics is now regarded as more destructive to one’s enemies than last election’s dirty politics. Who knew the sharp elbow of agreement could be mightier than the leak or the smear?

This article was first published in the April 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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