Personality matters more than policy in the political age where parties are clustered at the extreme centre. Just ask Andrew Little. There’s nothing wrong with his personality, but without much initial change in policy, the Labour Party leadership swap before the last election, made all the difference to Labour’s fortunes. The rest they say, is history – even if it’s unfolding in a way we would never have imagined.
Remember those heady days as the Jacinda-juggernaut took form. Crowds at party events featuring Jacinda, grew by the day. There were no promises too ambitious – light rail to the airport and beyond Westgate within ten years. A hundred thousand new Kiwibuild homes; An end to double-bunking in prisons; An end to punitive welfare sanctions. An end to child poverty! After nine years in Opposition, and more than thirty years of neo-liberalism, the pathologies of society were clear, and Labour were all-out promising nobly to address their symptoms, like chopping off the heads of the Hydra, regardless of whether they would actually be in a Government position to deliver.
Thanks to Winston Peters, -but only on issues with his support, in a position to govern, they were. The promises continued with the ‘Year of Delivery’, except it didn’t deliver. Even after a full suite of working parties and inquiries, the same problems have been diagnosed, solutions have been tabled, but change is slow – the neo-liberal tree is being trimmed and shaped, but not fundamentally transformed. Now there’s the Covid crisis, more immediate, and as politically demanding – and rewarding, as existing problems needing change. And for many, it’s churlish to judge for failures when so much of the Covid response seems to have been a success.
The Labour Party will be judged not by what it promised and failed to do, but by how it responded to the unexpected. More to the point, the Labour Party will be judged by what Jacinda did. It’s Jacinda’s Government, Jacinda’s Party and Jacinda who carries the weight of public trust.
With such loyalty, confidence, and even a type of religious faith, who needs policies? And in fact, latest polls show the support for Jacinda is now such a broad church that policies may be counterproductive. Where does Jacinda stand on euthanasia or cannabis reform – key issues at referendum at this election? We may never know. Some from those campaigns bemoan her silence, seeking an indication of leadership. Though there’s a political risk with indications of where she stands. If she doesn’t specify what she stands for, other than a liberal, humanitarian ‘general direction of travel’ she can’t be (mis)judged. She won’t alienate people with other views if she keeps her own views close to her chest.
But “where are the other policies?” people ask. “Know us by our deeds”, the Time magazine read in its headline accompanying Jacinda’s beatific front-page picture even before Covid-19. While it’s argued that the active interventionist response to Covid has taken voters to the left, it’s hard to tell which of the current deeds trying to keep the country afloat with lashings of cash, are a Government Covid response, ‘delivery’, or political party electioneering. This weekend it was Megan Woods with some energy sector tinkering, Shane Jones with around $40million for Chatham Islands tourism (good luck), and Eugenie Sage with another predator free Hauraki Gulf Island.
A Labour Party meme doing the rounds shows the Party’s July “to do” list – make apprenticeships free, boost pay for ECE teachers, a Southland school lunch pilot programme, paid parental leave extended to 26 weeks, new fast-track infrastructure rules, water infrastructure, Covid recovery plans, pay equity legislation, renewable energy scoping work – “Keeping NZ moving”. Which are essential Covid-19 responses, or expedient vote winning concessions? Does that distinction even matter? (There’s a similar issue with New Zealand First and the Provincial Growth Fund, though at that Party’s hands, it all seems much tawdrier and cronyistic). We may not all be socialists now, but most of us are definitely Keynesians.
As we face the rush into the 2020 election, Labour have learned it’s easier to make promises in a long opposition than it is to deliver them in a short three years. Chances are, there will be another three years to come, with or without a Coalition. Jacinda says she’s too busy dealing with Covid-19 to worry too much about the election. It’s a high-minded position, and can afford to be, when the election will be largely decided by that response. Overall, Jacinda has a clear mandate for action.
But we’re still waiting for a coherent ideological vision, a framework for a post Covid economy and society, and components within it. What broader vision of animal welfare, trade and economic redistribution does the pork-glut to food banks sit within; what framework of justified intervention, do cash funds to allow tourist operators to run empty boats, measure against? So far there have been budgets for businesses, but what about funding for people? What about tax redistribution? How to achieve economic intergenerational equity when the cost of recovering from Covid-19 will fall on the future? Where will public health sit as a priority against the economy in the future? What lessons will we take from Covid-19 for climate change – our nuclear free moment? Against the backdrop of growing US-Chinese tensions, is our lock-step with the Five Eyes alliance a risky default? Is it just business as usual for the Labour Party and future Governments in the global economy and foreign affairs?
The Covid crisis has been so unprecedented much of the (admirable) response has been an ad hoc type of praxis. (Ad hoc like sacking Ian Lees-Galloway at one extreme and Kurt Taogaga at the other – but not much kindness there). But now is our chance, there’s no time for gardening, we already needed root and branch change to address poverty, homelessness and personal debt – and moreso to withstand Covid and the oncoming storm. To not use this opportunity and mandate for fundamental change would be a tragically wasted moment. However, some of the most radical change proposed, like fast track consenting processes, threatens to undermine democracy, rather than to strengthen it.
The Labour Party says it will release its election policies closer to the event. But many voters already know where their loyalties -and votes- will lie. In the rush to respond to Covid-19, and with three crazy years governing, there may have been little time for Labour to reconceptualise a new way of doing business, society and the environment, even if, with the dries in the Party – David Parker, Damian O’Connor and Stuart Nash, there was an appetite to do so. Just as shovel-ready projects have been the ones to get traction in this ‘political window of opportunity’, we need a compelling shovel-ready plan to respond to the unprecedented pathway of uncertainty and opportunity ahead. It’s not just the individual policies worth hoping for, but a systematic red/green-path for the future. Covid-19 has highlighted both the need for, and the reality of constant change.
Indeed, with recession and global uncertainty, the future is already unfolding. The scale of imminent disruption is somewhat obscured by the wage subsidy, by lag in the unfolding of events. William Davies said “to experience a crisis is to inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs”. Civil society has ideas about what ‘grabs’ might be possible in a post-Covid world – a Green New Deal for example. Jacinda’s proven to be a great leader – will she follow?