Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
The political left has been euphoric since Saturday’s night historic landslide victory for Labour. But political commentators from across the spectrum are united in warning that the new Government isn’t about to be transformative. Instead, we will see more of a status quo administration grappling with a crisis, with very little in the way of radicalism or progressive politics.
For the very best commentary on this, read Tim Watkin’s Be careful what you wish for: Labour’s difficult triumph. He argues that although “the left feel so triumphalist”, “in many ways this result is a pretty good one for the centre-right”, and that the Labour Party itself have simply replaced NZ First as the handbrake on progressive reforms.
Here’s Watkin’s key point: “This unlikely coalition [of left and conservative voters] puts Labour in a bind for the next three years. It faces some tough choices on which master to serve. Its base or the new voters it has lured across the blue line? Does it listen to its loyalists and assume it is only borrowing some National voters for a few years or does it try to re-imagine itself as the social democratic centrist party of government? Does it want runs on the board for the poor and marginalised or does it want to build a legacy of power and lock in a third term and possibly a fourth term? This is the sort of tension that can tear at a party. Because the expectation from the left is now mammoth.”
He draws attention to David Lange’s lament after the 1987 general election in which Labour nearly won the deep-blue seat of Remuera. Lange believed this showed that the party had drifted dangerously to the right and away from its support base, amounting to “an act of treachery to the people we were born to represent”. Similarly, Labour might now feel captured by their centre-right supporters.
Progressive political commentator Danyl Mclauchlan says Labour doesn’t seem to have a plan beyond building National’s roads, additional skills training, and leaving “the tax system almost untouched”. He says such a minimalist plan is “inadequate to the scale of the problems that the nation faces” – see: Jacinda Ardern and the plan.
Here’s Mclauchlan’s elaboration on Ardern’s lack of a plan that he predicts will lead to disappointment for progresssives: “Her plan was to say as little as possible; promise as little as possible; minimise risk; capture the centre. Small target campaigning has delivered her a huge victory, but it will make her a huge target. The Covid crisis and structure of our economy is already accelerating inequality; we’re seeing job layoffs, a runaway property market, soaring rental prices. But in this time of catastrophic change Ardern has promised to change as little as possible.”
Former Labour and Alliance political activist Josie Pagani has also spoken out, asking this about the party’s promised transformative change: “If not now, when?” Instead they have promised to keep the lid on change: “But I bet they wish they’d been a bit more ambitious. Instead, they have boxed themselves in with water-tight commitments – no wealth tax, no capital gains tax, no increase in the age of eligibility for Super. The only new revenue will come from a small tax increase for top income earners, raising just $500 million a year. All of which will be sucked up into the $4 billion Lake Onslow hydro project (with dubious returns for the climate or the economy). That’s $500 million that won’t go to child poverty, health or schools” – see: Time for Labour to bank Jacinda Ardern’s popularity and take risks (paywalled).
Pagani hopes there will be pressure from the left, pushing Ardern to deliver: “Pressure on the government will increase, with two opposition parties (maybe three, depending on the Greens). Labour could end up getting swiped from the left and the right. The Māori Party’s win on the night in Waiariki is extraordinary in a red wave. They have a beachhead now, and a chance to amplify the voices of working class, predominantly Māori New Zealanders. That could be a major problem for Labour – unless they reset the party’s direction.”
Similarly, Morgan Godfery thinks there is now a need for a “left opposition” – from the Greens and the Māori Party – to pressure Labour to be transformative, otherwise Labour will merely make decisions designed to hold on to soft National voters. He warns if Labour don’t deliver progressive change, they’ll lose votes to more radical parties in 2023 – see: Power secured, now what about the programme?.
Inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke also writes with despondency, suggesting things are about to get worse under Labour, given the economic recession and Ardern’s decision to rule out new ways of raising the necessary funds to spend on fixing the long-term problems that supporters want action on – see: Jacinda Ardern has huge majority but that may not be much use to her.
Rashbrooke argues Ardern and Labour mistakenly made the promises not to introduce significant changes “in order to hang onto a final 2-3 percent of swing voters that, as it turns out, she didn’t even need (given the wasted vote, even 47 percent would have been enough for an outright majority).” He does think that the Greens might be successful in pushing for more action in areas where more money isn’t necessarily required, such as conservation and water reforms.
On climate change, however, there is building concern that Ardern’s administration still don’t have the ambitions to make it the “nuclear-free issue” of their generation. Jonathan Milne reports that people like Jim Bolger and Greenpeace’s Russel Norman are calling on the new Government “to deliver rapid progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions” – see: Ardern challenged on climate courage. Norman sounds rather pessimistic about environmental problems being addressed, worrying that the next three years will involve Ardern and co “watching their polling and taking no risks” so that they can be re-elected.
On the right, commentators also see there is no great risk of Labour moving to the left. Matthew Hooton has written about how a transformative leftwing government is in theory possible, especially since Ardern has such an historic high vote: “She has an opportunity to deliver the transformation of New Zealand she has promised – and Clark before her – and lock in Scandinavian-style social democracy for a generation or more. There is an opportunity to implement new taxes, such as on land, to deliver the expectations of her supporters for a more progressive tax system. She could use such distributive policies to do the thing she said she is in politics to achieve (but has so far failed to deliver) – a big reduction in child poverty, at least on the relative measures she prefers. It will be possible for Ardern to genuinely take a lead on climate change, which she described as her generation’s ‘nuclear-free moment’, rather than fall into line with the agriculture lobby’s demands for protection from greenhouse-gas measures all other New Zealand businesses are expected to comply with. David Parker could be given free rein to resolve the vexed issue of the allocation of water rights. If Ardern really wanted to stretch herself, she could look at a universal basic income that would resolve the problem of massive effective marginal tax rates that lock people in welfarism and poverty” – see: Jacinda Ardern joins the pantheon (paywalled).
Yet, Hooton doesn’t fear this happening at all: “the administrative competence to develop and implement the truly transformational agenda that the likes of Savage and Fraser delivered? Second, do they have the will? There is nothing in Ardern and Robertson’s record in politics so far to suggest their true ambitions extend beyond broadly managing the status quo. They have operated as incrementalists in the same way that meant Clark and Key left nothing like the legacy they could have.”
Similarly, libertarian Damien Grant wrote yesterday that “boardrooms and executive offices” have nothing to fear from a government that “have proved themselves to be conservative managers of the status quo” and who “will continue to eschew radical change” despite the wishes of the political left – see: Conservative, cautious, and careful Labour will govern from the centre. He expects to see “a few token policies to prevent too many of their supporters drifting off to the Greens” but otherwise it’s all largely a continuation of the policies of John Key and Bill English.
This might be even more the case now that Labour has promised to govern in a way to keep favour with the soft National voters it has won over. Hence, Richard Harman says “What is driving Labour’s thinking is an understanding that they owe their huge surge in voter support to National voters crossing over and voting for them” – see: Labour has the power; National has problems. He says: “the question will now be how Labour manages to hold on to its new ex-National supporters as it keeps faith with its own base.”
There have been ideological glimpses of the future of this administration: “Ardern’s constant emphasis through the campaign, repeated yesterday, on the need to find consensus over policy and to make that policy sustainable beyond a change of Government points not only to her natural conservatism but also pure political pragmatism. She wants Labour to straddle the centre and become the natural party of Government in the way National was in the 1960s and 70s.”
None of this is to suggest that the next three years will be plain sailing for the Labour Government. Plenty of commentators are emphasising how challenging the times and decisions will be. Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins says Labour will have to deal with ongoing crises, especially in terms of the growing recession: “Our euphoria about beating Covid – not once, but twice – has masked a deepening economic crisis. Productivity and wages lag our nearest neighbour, Australia and the gap is likely to grow. We’ve got a crazy, out of kilter housing market, driving an even deeper wedge between the haves and the have nots. The costs of keeping jobs and businesses afloat during Covid have plunged the nation deep into debt and there is no obvious way of quickly earning it back yet” – see: An extraordinary result made possible by extraordinary leadership.
Watkins argues that “Ardern and her finance minister Grant Robertson have boxed themselves into the center with a campaign that reached across to soft National voters. Cementing that support will be a much harder task, given the scale of problems ahead.” She suggests that hard decisions will need to be made, and “Ardern may have to get used to being unloved.”
This growing economic crisis is also emphasised by Herald business editor Liam Dann who says “If there is one thing that New Zealand’s economists agree on it is that we have not yet felt the real force of the economic downturn.” He argues business knows this Labour government will need to carry out certain pro-worker policies but, by and large, Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be pro-business because “he knows he needs business on side to rebuild this economy” – see: Congratulations Labour, now for the really hard bit (paywalled).
Some commentators are sympathetic to Labour’s need to rule in a moderate and cautious way. Chris Trotter doesn’t expect anything more than “incrementalism” and suggests that this is the right approach given that transformative change can be undone by subsequent governments and create division – see: Ardern claims “mandate to accelerate” – but where to?.
Similarly, today’s Otago Daily Times editorial explores Ardern’s style of politics and her determination to create “changes that stick”, which she believes is more likely to occur if Governments move slowly – see: Queen Jacinda’s road ahead. Here’s the key point: “Although their personalities differ, Ms Ardern will endeavour to drive change in the Helen Clark ‘incremental’ manner. While the occasional jolt will shift the dial left, progressive agendas will be enacted progressively, step by step. Soon, such change accumulates and makes a difference — for better or worse depending on the perspective. And only if such changes ‘stick’, will their legacy last.”
Nonetheless, the newspaper says “Ardern and Labour are vulnerable to accusations of sweet talk and little action” and “Already, even before the Left’s euphoria dampens, rumblings surface that Labour needs to show starch, be decisive and use its political capital to make a real difference.”
Economist Shamubeel Eaqub also says “the timing is not right for dramatic changes” and that we shouldn’t “expect large-scale and bold changes” – see: Five things for Jacinda Ardern’s to-do list. And he explains: “Building genuine consensus on issues is possible, and is the necessary ingredient for enduring large-scale policy changes. This has not happened during this election campaign. Instead, the landslide this term will be hoarded to prepare the ground for future change. Politicians can look to make changes in three ways. By tinkering with existing policies, introduce new policies, or change the goals of what we want to achieve. Expect more of the first two from this term.”
Former finance minister Michael Cullen has spoken out in defence of Ardern’s approach, saying “I was worried they were being too safe. But in the end, that paid off and allowed Jacinda to project that image of competence, combined with kindness” – see Derek Cheng’s Sir Michael Cullen on Labour’s historic victory – no mandate to scare the centre. He says Labour now has a mandate for changes in climate action and transport infrastructure, “But it is not a mandate for a lurch to the left in terms of tax or welfare reform, and any attempt to do so quickly could risk ‘middle-ground voters jumping off a cliff’.”
Herald political editor Audrey Young also examines what sort of government the new administration is going to be, but focuses on what mandate Labour has been given: “Jacinda Ardern has won a huge victory on the barest of promises. The election result is a massive vote of confidence in her judgment over the past three years but particularly through Covid. It is a mandate to continue to exercise that judgment in a sound and cautious way for whatever the pandemic throws up next” – see: Jacinda Ardern wins a clear mandate but for what is still open (paywalled).
Yet it’s still not clear how Labour will deal with the demands for it to make big changes, against the fact that it has promised little: “The decision to under-promise is not without its challenges especially for a Labour Government, whose activists live and die for policy. The mandate Labour has received at this election cannot be a mandate to do nothing. But nor can Labour exceed its mandate by imposing big policies it has not consulted the electorate about. The party leadership needs to spend some time working out the Labour it wants to be or if it is going to spend the rest of the term trying to keep the centrists with them.”
Finally, there are others who don’t accept that Ardern and Labour will be too moderate. Dame Anne Salmond says we should expect some major reform from this Government: “Some pundits describe Jacinda Arden as cautious, but I think they are mistaken. I think we have a leader who is bold and visionary, but understands the need to take as many New Zealanders as possible with her on the wild ride ahead” – see: Navigating by the stars. Salmond says that, under Ardern, the “radical idea of aroha is replacing a neo-liberal mythology of life as a market based on egos pursuing their own interests” and “the star path to Aotearoa has been laid down in this election – to cherish diversity as a source of richness in decision-making and ways of living, rather than conflict”.