National stagnates as the government makes waves

by Graham Adams / 27 August, 2018
Opinion.
RelatedArticlesModule - Bridges

Six months into his time as National leader, where is Simon Bridges taking his party? Photo / RNZ

After six months as leader, Simon Bridges needs a clearer strategy.

It might sound enviable for National to have maintained a poll rating in the mid-40s so long after the election but it is not a straightforward blessing. It is unlikely to be high enough to win the government benches alone but it’s also not low enough to force the changes it needs to win the next election on its merits.

Hoping your opposition implodes or a potential coalition partner pops up out of nowhere is not really a strategy and 10 months into the term of the Labour-led coalition we still have no idea of what National stands for — except possibly more of the same policies that led to it being turfed out of office last year. Oh, and the opposite of whatever the Labour-led government is doing right now, which means the opposition spends a lot of time barking at passing cars.

 

There is, of course, smaller class sizes (which was the only significant policy announcement to come out of the National Party conference in July) and being tough on crime (which seems to be its default option despite our appalling prison muster) but neither is particularly compelling.

Polling in the mid-40s means the party has little incentive to come up with dramatic new policies or a philosophical stance that might distinguish it from Labour and its partners. Its biggest incentive is to not rock the boat in any major way lest it lose support, and instead to simply hope that Jacinda Ardern’s government stumbles and falls and propels National back into government.

This may seem to some to be a sensible approach but National is faced with a government that is rocking the boat in all sorts of directions — whether it’s employment law, oil and gas exploration, the role of China in the Pacific, education or a host of other minor issues, including recent popular moves such as freezing politicians’ pay and ditching performance pay for public service chief executives.

The government is both responding to and fanning the winds of change. As a consequence, it is getting nearly all the media air-time, and leaving National scurrying in its wake to condemn nearly everything it is doing without identifying a clear programme of its own.

It’s true that leading a do-little government worked surprisingly well for John Key for many years — until suddenly it didn’t. With a National opposition offering no significant new approaches, it simply looks like a continuing vacuum of ideas and purpose.

Disastrous handling of expenses leak

Responsibility for the problem can be laid in large part at Simon Bridges’ door inasmuch it is his job as leader to articulate a coherent alternative philosophy to the government’s. However, after six months in the job, Bridges has revealed himself to be at heart a tactician and not a strategist — and an erratic tactician at that. He started off brilliantly on the first day of Parliament last November when he brazenly bamboozled the government into giving National more places on select committees but his pursuit of whoever leaked his travel expenses has been a disaster. All it has revealed so far is that there is quite possibly a mentally unstable member in his caucus who finds him arrogant, and extravagant with taxpayers’ money, and who would prefer him not to be leader.

The person responsible could, of course, be anyone with a grudge against Bridges, including a government MP or ally, but the immediate effect of Bridges’ pressing for an inquiry has been to make any National MP with leadership ambitions suspect. As, indeed, are close associates of MPs such as Cameron Slater, who went to the trouble of declaring on his Whaleoil blog that: “I categorically deny that I have active mental health issues and further deny, since people are speculating, that it was me who leaked”).

This is truly not the sort of publicity National needs, not least because it undermines its reputation for caucus unity as well as its claim to be a safe pair of hands.

Economic bona fides questionable

And that is exactly what National is trading heavily on. As finance spokeswoman Amy Adams tweeted last week about what she said was economic growth stalling: “NZ needs the proven economic mgmt of @NZNationalParty.”

Unfortunately, this invites us to wonder if the “proven economic management” she is referring to was the unsustainable rises in GDP generated mainly by loading the country — and Auckland, in particular — with hundreds of thousands of often poorly skilled immigrants, while neglecting to upgrade vital infrastructure to cope with the increased demand. Or the “proven economic management” that failed to improve per capita GDP across the country. Or failed to do anything meaningful to rein in ballooning house prices, including not allowing the Reserve Bank to have debt-to-income ratios in its macro-prudential arsenal

The truth is National has no particular economic and financial expertise that makes it superior to the Labour-led coalition — apart from being willing to do anything to keep its business lobby happy. Its reaction to the GFC and earthquakes, which is its principal claim to being economically effective, was exactly what Labour would have done — borrow billions and hope that low interest rates and a booming China would save the economy, which they did. Unlike Labour, NZ First and the Greens, however, National was happy to let the devil take the hindmost among society’s most vulnerable citizens.

That approach has not aged well and Bridges should articulate how he would manage the economy differently because relying on mass immigration and an over-inflated housing market is not a viable prescription anymore. We’re all tapped out on those fronts.

It would also be good to know how he might deal with a serious recession if one occurred on his watch and whether he would be any more mindful of society’s most disadvantaged. It is worth remembering that when Winston Peters threw his lot in with Labour in October last year he indicated it was largely because he could see a downturn coming and “far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism not as their friend, but as their foe” — which was an obvious shot at the previous government’s approach to social issues

Others have been far less circumspect about Nationals record. Company director and economist Kerry McDonald recently rated the John Key-Bill English government at 0/10, adding that it “probably should be negative”. He reckoned its “toxic legacy will damage the living standards of New Zealanders for decades”. 

Peters warned that critics would inevitably blame the new government for any downturn, which led commentators to claim he was just covering himself for future failure, but John Key also made the same prediction on the eve of the National Party conference and referenced economic instability worldwide. 

He implied that voters would prefer National to be in charge during a downturn but, given the problems that have become apparent in health, education, housing and infrastructure from the last government’s neglect, that proposition is highly debatable.

Nevertheless, Simon Bridges is intent on pretending the last National government, in which he served as a senior minister, left office with mostly clean hands. He also appears to be hoping that the entire country has severe amnesia about the previous government’s failures. He tweeted in late August, “Yet another week with no focus [from the government] on what matters to New Zealanders: the economic downturn, education & health”.

His stance would be much more convincing if he started presenting imaginative answers to the problems the Key-English administration left behind for the coalition government to clean up.

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