Research NZ reports this week that New Zealanders have a 90% level of confidence in our democratic system. This is higher than other comparable countries – 66% confidence in Australia, 55% in the United Kingdom, and only 23% in the United States. The survey also showed that New Zealanders support a change in the Parliamentary term, from three years to four.
Research NZ were prompted to ask New Zealanders their views on the length of the Parliamentary term after it arose during the election Leaders’ Debates, and both Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins supported a change.
However, there are dubious grounds for change to a four-year term. It won’t necessarily lead to more efficient or better policy making. It’s not the length of the electoral term that is stopping the delivery of change – or even incremental steps on the inevitably long path to ‘transformation’; it’s political timidity, a perceived voter constraint, the business limits to the ‘art of the possible’. With a Capital Gains Tax, inaction is due to ‘no support from the public’. With the refusal to increase benefits, the hold-up is because progress takes time – ‘it takes more than a week, a month or a term’.
But as the Child Poverty Action Group’s Janet McAllister says, in ‘Ardern tells us to be patient on benefit levels. But we’ve been patient long enough’, Labour have already had a term to deliver their transformational child poverty promises, “so what are they waiting for?” When even the most popular and supposedly progressive government in a generation is so paralysed, a longer Parliamentary term might prolong a delay to the change needed to respond to social and economic crisis even further. Indeed, at this rate, no Parliamentary term will be long enough.
More than 60 NGOs, public service providers, unions and others, signed the open letter to Jacinda Ardern asking for an increase to core benefits before Christmas. Without irony, while earning $471,000 per annum as Prime Minister, Jacinda said that benefits had already been raised $25 a week, citing that as a ‘substantial increase’, with the indication that was politically sufficient, even if objectively, economically, and as a matter of survival and decency, it clearly is not. In her article, McAllister says core beneficiary entitlements are below the poverty line, tipping people into the severest poverty. An additional 70,000 children are at risk of poverty due to Covid-19 on current policy settings, with the worst poverty aggravated by benefit levels and housing costs. Benefit levels are within Government control.
But the news item where Jacinda said the previous $25 increase was enough for now, was directly followed by announcements of extended small business Covid-19 support. There is extra money for business but not for the unemployed worker, or single parent struggling to house and clothe and feed their kids. Bryce Edwards reflects that the Government’s move to the middle class has seen it become distanced from its earlier redistributive agenda. The new Parliament reflects the nation’s ethnic, cultural, gender and gender orientation diversity well, but it has become too comfortable and socially conservative to make substantive change. Dylan Asafo says trading on the rhetoric of kindness and unity while betraying the diverse, marginalised groups who are most often the victims of settler-colonial politics, is actually a form of exploitation and social and psychological violence. Both the cause (Government inaction) and effect (a betrayal, leading to increased poverty) will be denied by Labour Party devotees.
Last week, Minister of Oceans and Fisheries, David Parker was among other MPs receiving a Greenpeace petition with 50,000 signatures calling for a ban on ocean bottom trawling. Bottom trawling does terrible damage to the sea floor (among other things), and New Zealand companies not only conduct this indiscriminate practice legally, but illegally too. Parker seemed to rule out reform, indicating no mandate and no serious enthusiasm for change. He said banning bottom trawling was not something Labour had taken to the election. However, the list of things that Labour hadn’t taken to the election is a long one, and if that’s the criteria for deciding whether progress will be made, we may well feel like giving in already.
On the other hand, new Tourism Minister Stuart Nash’s ‘visionary’ idea for the future of New Zealand tourism, while more advanced than anything that came from Kelvin Davis in the last year, to focus on ‘high value’ tourists and to ban vans without toilets, seemed like an ill-thought out, elitist brain-fart. Banning unserviced vans won’t stop people shitting on the side of the road. With years of travelling around New Zealand by van, I am yet to see the legendary, alleged mountains of faeces and toilet paper, or how they can be ascribed to those in vans without toilets. Has the Minister never seen where even the vans with toilets, keep them? (Under the bed, tucked under the kitchen units in the back of the van), and has he never travelled around the country to actually see how easy it is to get caught short given the dearth of public toilets for any traveller, in this country? But banning vans without toilets wasn’t something that Labour took to the election, and judging by the mood of the nation in response to his grand plan, I don’t think the Government has much of a public mandate either. Wouldn’t you think cleaning up cow shit from rivers was a higher priority. Or even dealing with child poverty for the Government, if not for the Tourism Minister?
Will we spend the next three years being denied action on the things that matter because Labour hadn’t taken them as explicit policy to the election? But also seeing things that don’t matter elevated to importance, like a longer Parliamentary term, or a freedom camping van ban when tourism operators are crying out for more custom? The political agenda is a crowded space with issues jostling for attention. With house prices rising faster than pay rates, with poverty increasing in direct inverse correlation, structural fixes are important. Tinkering around the edges, “hints” of slightly more money for first home buyers, will do nothing to correct a housing market gone mad. RMA reforms to expedite urban development are a property investor’s dream but will not deliver new houses quickly, or necessarily make them ‘affordable’ when benefits and wages are so low.
Problems with inequality and homelessness will surely take more than a week or a month, and sometimes more than a Parliamentary term. Indeed, Governments and Oppositions of red and of blue, have come and gone while these problems have been in the making. The long, unmitigated neo-liberal experiment in New Zealand dates back to the Labour Government from when Jacinda Ardern was a toddler. Now as Prime Minister she will be realising that twitter posts while in Opposition criticising Governmental inaction, are easy to make, but real change may be hard.
What’s the optimum Parliamentary term to achieve substantive change? How many Labour-led Governments does it take? What are the right economic conditions? What are the right policy settings? Do we rely on the trickle down from business support to improve worker’s status and pay, or do we support people themselves?
Jacinda Ardern said she doesn’t like to be alone too much because it gives her too much time to think. She might allow herself some more time alone over the Christmas break, to recalibrate her vision for the country on reflection of her more reactive governing in the face of Covid-19 and other crises. Because the critical element in effecting a fairer society, with less poverty and environmental destruction, is that the Government must want to change.