Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The new government may not be so radical after all

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Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: The new government may not be so radical after all

Dr Bryce Edwards.

For a week now, the political left has been celebrating, and the political right has mostly been catastrophising. The dominant theme has been that this is a government of change – indeed, a government of radical leftwing change. But there are some signs and more sober readings of events that suggest the new administration might not be as radical as it first appeared. 

The political right is becoming relaxed

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right), Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters (left) and the Governor General of New Zealand Dame Patsy Reddy (centre) – image taken at the swearing in of the new Labour-led Government, October 26, 2017.

Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton has the most interesting and sober reading of the new government as relatively moderate. His NBR column today in print is titled “Why Ardern needs to manage expectations”. In this, Hooton responds to fears (or hopes) that the new government is anti-capitalist or even boldly radical.

He opens the column like this: “If this is what the end of capitalism-as-we-know-it looks like, everyone can relax. The seven-page Labour-NZ First coalition agreement and the equally brief Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement are surprisingly benign. There is hardly anything in either that Sir John Key or even Bill English wouldn’t have signed up to in a flash had they thought it was the difference between government and opposition.”

Hooton then goes through key elements of the new government’s programme of reform and sees parallels with initiatives under the former National administration,   including the regional development fund, tree-planting, the new Forestry Service, and the leap in the minimum wage.

But his thoughts on the new Cabinet personnel are most interesting. Here’s Hooton on Ardern’s two most powerful ministers: “The finance minister, Mr Robertson, is more the Wellington technocrat he became in the 2000s than the Otago student radical he pretended to be in the early 1990s. Economic development minister David Parker is a political puritan and can be expected to fix the worst of National’s corporate-welfare excesses and government-procurement mess. As trade minister, his views on modern international economic agreements like the TPP are entirely mainstream.” And he makes similar observations about other ministers.

Hooton even claims to be relaxed about the New Zealand First leader: “Mr Peters’ call for capitalism to have a human face is inherently conservative and not a call to nationalise the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” And as to why so many radical statements are being made by people in the new government: “It is perhaps because of the relative conservatism of her government’s announced programme and key personnel that the prime minister will have an ongoing need to throw some red-meat rhetoric to her left over the weeks ahead. The business community should set this aside.”

Even Mike Hosking is starting to relax about the new government. Initially the broadcaster struggled with the change of government – see, for example, Steve Kilgallon’s How Mike Hosking handled the election result – but now Hosking seems to have realised that the Labour-led coalition isn’t going to live up to his worst fears. He wrote, on Wednesday that Maybe the new Government’s not the end of the world after all. In this he argues that “If you look with an open mind, there is always a decent amount there to – at the very least – not be overly bothered or freaked about.”

Hosking goes through a number of key policies of the new administration, and challenges the reader as to what there is to disagree with. Even on the minimum wage boost, Hosking sees common sense: “A lot of people will argue the minimum wage needs to be higher than it is, and here’s a good example of why this Government isn’t as radical as its opponents might want to make it out to be. They want the minimum wage to be 20 bucks by 2020, that’s three years away, and it’s already over 16. So we are hardly talking radical change here.”

And business leaders themselves are ready to accept that the new administration isn’t all bad. For example, Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford writes today welcoming the Prime Minister “absolutely ruling out” allowing workers to negotiate their employment conditions by striking – see: Signals are encouraging, but some of the policies could be a problem. He also notes how keen Jacinda Ardern is to work with business.

The media on how moderate the government is

Newspaper editorials have been relatively positive about the new government, and are downplaying the notion there is anything to worry about. When the coalition agreements were announced this week, the New Zealand Herald seemed pleasantly surprised: “Much of what has been said in the past few weeks and days have raised fears the fundamentals of a modern, market-led economy might be at risk. The package of policies announced yesterday do not appear to go that far” – see: Peters agrees to a cautious, tentative deal.

On some of the major interventions in the economy, the editorial expresses relief that “they will likely not fundamentally undermine the economy”. Similarly, it regards Winston Peters as having made little ground in terms of his desire to reform monetary policy and “Most of the coalition agreements are token concessions to Peters.” The editorial concludes: “The language of both agreements is more cautious and tentative than a prescription for change. If this is as daring as the coalition gets, the economy should not suffer too much harm.”

The Dominion Post newspaper also seems to be giving the new government coalition agreements a stamp of approval, noting in its editorial that some of the more radical or alternative policy agendas of the three parties have been watered down or left aside – see: Fudging the coalition. It concludes: “The areas where it fudges, however, remain very important, and might simply lead to paralysis or cop-out. In reality the coalition’s plan is probably not radical.”

The latest Listener magazine is also somewhat surprised about the lack of boldness or real action promised by the new government, and says “the public awaits more details on how Ardern and Peters intend redressing capitalism’s shortcomings” – see: PM Jacinda Ardern needs to assert her authority over NZ First – and fast.

The magazine complains about the watering down of some key issues: “In Opposition, Labour talked a lot about child poverty and homelessness, creating expectations that it had new ideas for solving these long-standing and complex problems. However, the only reference to housing in the coalition agreement is the words ‘establish a housing commission’. Children do not live in commissions. Similarly, environmental causes that had a high profile in the election campaign have not translated into significant policy wins.”

And it lampoons the inclination of the new government to kick for touch on so many vital issues: “The Government intends to ‘commission a feasibility study’ on moving the Ports of Auckland, ‘recognise’ the potential for aquaculture, ‘examine’ agricultural debt, ‘re-examine’ the Defence Capability Plan, ‘investigate’ growing Kiwibank and a volunteer rural constabulary, ‘review’ the processes of Parliament, ‘hold a full-scale review’ into power prices and ‘hold a public inquiry’ on local-government costs.”

Modifying the status quo

But we may have to wait and see whether the new Labour-led administration is going to be one of radical reform . Audrey Young argues this week that “On the basis of the agreement released, it is not yet possible to tell whether it will a Government of radical change, as New Zealand First wanted, or whether it is one that modifies the status quo. That will become apparent in May next year when Grant Robertson delivers his first Budget with the plans to implement the gains” – see: Radical change or modified status quo?

Similarly, Tim Murphy argues that despite some of the rhetoric from Winston Peters, his party hasn’t really won any great boldness of policy in its coalition agreement with Labour, and so “NZ First’s effect on this government will be a ‘modifying’ rather than revolutionising one” – see: Searching for Winston’s legacy.

Furthermore, since Peters has chosen to be Foreign Minister, it seems unlikely he will be able to play any role as a radical reformer in this government. John Armstrong notes that the “appointment seems to be more about status and seniority than Peters being serious about mounting a reform-heavy offensive on ‘irresponsible capitalism’. If he was serious about tackling the latter, he would have ensured he was allocated such portfolios which offer the means to make a difference on that front” – see: Winston Peters starting to look like he’s ready to hand over to Shane Jones.

Nonetheless, if you’re after some counter-arguments to show that the incoming administration really is going to shakeup the economy and society, see Martyn Bradbury’s Why the new Government is far more revolutionary than many suspect, and David Slack’s Back to the future?

Finally, for the ultimate counterview, you can read an article published in The Australian: Kiwis now led by a Commie as Ardern attacks capitalism and embraces socialist roots.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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