Sludge Report #138 – This Winter Of Discontent
In This Edition: This Winter Of Discontent - MMP Hysteria - Helen’s Undefended Left Front - Opportunity Knocks For Harre, Fitzsimons & Donald.
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Sludge Report #138
This Winter Of Discontent
An early election is looking increasingly likely as MMP hysteria takes over the 9th floor of the Beehive.
Prior to last week the odds of an early election were being pondered by commentators in the traditional triennial fashion in which they are always discussed.
Conventional political wisdom holds that early elections do not endear Prime Ministers to the public, given that three years is short enough as it is. Everybody also recalls very clearly the fate of the most memorable victim of the exercise in pique inherent in bringing Parliament to an early close, the late Sir Robert Muldoon.
Nevertheless the discussion is traditional, if only because it is possible, and until it has been ruled out everybody wants to get inside the PM’s head, as the decision is her’s alone. Will she or won’t she push the button?
Till recently this debate has taken place largely in good humour, with niggly factors such as the ongoing debate over who the “real” leader of the Alliance fuelling the fires, but not making them particularly bright.
But in the past week a number of additional factors have come into play which make the whole discussion a far more serious business.
- the recent announcement from the Green’s on their GE bottom line;
- the dryest Labour budget since Arnold Nordmeyer's Black Budget of 1958;
- and the uncertainty that has now arisen over what the PM is going to do with Jim after Parliament rises.
Together they look likely to have the effect of making the ongoing governing of New Zealand a less than pleasant activity for our great leader and her loyal lieutenants.
Thus the winter of discontent has begun.
Learning about how MMP is supposed to work has been an uphill battle for a succession of NZ governments.
On its surface the principal problem has been the apparent inevitability of annihilation of any small party that takes a step into the “death grip” of coalition with a much larger traditional party.
First NZ First, then Alliance have fallen apart under such conditions.
Is this due to a flaw in MMP? As the major parties would like us to believe. Or is the problem a failure by those same major parties to embrace the notions of compromise and sharing?
In recent months the Labour Government, thanks to the disintegration of the Alliance, and its stalwart showing the polls, has been able to give the impression that it is a majority government in its own right.
Recently even the term “Labour/Alliance Government”, which has served us perfectly well for the last two and a half years, has been replaced in the nomenclature with “Labour Led Government”.
But everybody who remembers the result from the last election will recall however that the idea of a majority Labour Government is not in fact the case.
A quick look at the Scoop Election 1999 Feature Page will show that Labour in fact received 49 seats, not 61. And there is a significant qualitative difference between the two, not to mention an important reason behind the shortfall, namely that the Labour Party was not supported by the entire left of the centre spectrum.
The latest wrinkle in MMP has arisen as a result of the Green’s announcement that they will not support a government, any government, that allows GE into the environment.
The PM responded first by calling the Green’s “pathetic”, and then by calling them liars. Yesterday she accused them of raising the spectre of “Italian” style politics, in the form of early elections.
Obviously in Helen’s mind there is a significance difference between Italian style early elections called by her, and Italian style early elections caused by someone else’s actions.
But in responding with such fury to the Green’s announcement, the PM ironically behaved not only precisely as they probably expected (and therefore played strait into Green hands), but she also exposed for all to see the failures so obviously present in her management of the Alliance Coalition.
Helen has always given the impression that the very notion of a coalition partner is something she finds distasteful. But unfortunately that is the reality. Unless her party can occupy a very large political spectrum, it needs smaller friends.
And small parties like small children need room to grow. Slapping them down is counterproductive.
While the disintegration of the Alliance is probably mainly Jim Anderton’s fault, it would also be fair to say that internal Alliance Party dissatisfaction with Jim was fuelled by Helen’s dismissive attitude to her coalition partner throughout the period of the coalition.
Rather than treating the Alliance as a long term ally, Helen’s government has always treated it as an annoying inconvenience.
And now if she finds smaller parties reluctant to embrace her, “you are small and insignificant and have no rights” doctrine of MMP coalition politics she only has herself to blame.
True the Green Party are playing with fire with their demand of an extension to the moratorium, but through being so uncompromising it was Helen that drove them to taking up the matches.
Helen’s Undefended Left Front
The funny thing about where we find ourselves now is that for the first time in the past few months of ever rising popularity for our great leader, this writer now discerns some uncertainty in her gait.
While on its face an early election would now seem more likely than ever (if only because the running of Parliament is going to become remarkably unpleasant and destabilising now the winter of discontent has well and truly begun), on the other hand the GE factor has probably raised a few questions among Labour election strategists as to what the outcome of an early election is likely to be.
Save the (incredibly) remote possibility that Don Brash or Michelle Boag suddenly come up with a credible and compelling economic and social alternative to the Labour program, the GE issue is set to become the lightning rod for this election.
And as a consequence the Green Party looks set to receive almost as much media coverage during any campaign as the National Party.
As any election strategist will tell you, this is good news for the Greens. And bad news for Helen. It stands to reason that she may be sufficiently curious as to the likely result of this to wait for a few more polls to show which way the voters are running.
Meanwhile this is not all Helen has to worry about.
Following the self-immolation of the Alliance Helen Clark and Michael Cullen had a remarkable opportunity.
With the traditional party of the left in disarray, they could have called those voters back into the fold. The opportunity to do so was the budget.
Not through any bold spending plans for the immediate future, but through signalling a vision of social inclusiveness and adequate social spending in the future (in essence a shift to the left), and through indicating that their election strategy would be to pursue a mandate to put such a vision in place.
Instead Michael Cullen’s speech included a bunch of McKinsey-speak about the vertical and horizontal components of change and the need for the creation of a “vertical innovation chain”.
For her part Clark attempted to claim in her budget speech that the budget has adequately provisioned the health and education sectors for the future. Unfortunately everybody looking at the figures knows that this is a lie.
As a result of this failure to take the opportunity to bring alienated elements of the left back on side, Helen and Michael now have a completely undefended left front.
Opportunity Knocks For Harre, Fitzsimons & Donald
The principal beneficiaries of Michael and Helen’s lack of imagination as displayed in Budget 2002 will undoubtedly be the Greens. Derek Fox’s Maori Party might have also done well out of the vacuum on the left, but his decision not to proceed this year is perhaps the only good news Helen has had in the past few days.
The Green’s now have a golden opportunity to leverage the exposure they are likely to receive as a result of their GE stance, to press a message of social inclusiveness to former Alliance voters and left wing Labour supporters who feel lost thank’s to Michael and Helen’s resolute occupation of the centre.
In short they are the natural inheritors of The Alliance strategy of campaigning to provide the conscience of a Labour Government.
In terms of pursuing this strategy the principal requirement is for Labour to demonstrate its need to have a conscience imposed upon it. And with the budget this has now been done.
The fact that Helen has now announced that she doesn’t want a Green conscience if it means making concessions of GE will probably just serve to convince would-be Green voters of the need for her to have one imposed on her.
Just like the Green’s, Helen’s strategy has left Laila Harre and Matt McCarten’s team plenty of material to play with in coming months.
While it will still be an uphill battle to either win Waitakere, or to make the 5% threshold, thanks to Labour’s abdication of any pretense of having left-leaning principles it is definitely worth a shot.
It is easy to forget when living on Tinakori Road in Wellington, eating with world leaders and riding around in LTDs that the average household income in NZ remains extremely low, that food prices have risen 6% in the past year (and wages haven’t), and that there are more than 300,000 NZers living on benefits, not to mention 500,000 superannuitants.
There are a lot of voters out there who have not benefited from labour’s mastery of the economic levers.
Meanwhile running at 51% in the polls has the effect of numbing these realities and making re-election look deceptively easy.
However, remarkably high approval ratings for the current path of the Labour Government are in part due to the fact that no-one has been telling anyone anything different, as they have been too busy fighting among themselves.
You can rest assured that a multiplicity of views are more likely to be heard as soon as an election is called. And in fact it would appear from the releases being received here at Scoop that the campaign is beginning now anyway.
And so it seems we have a fascinating campaign ahead. Let’s roll!