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Fronting Up To Mediocrity

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Fronting Up To Mediocrity

First published on…

By Paulo Politico

National's 'Fronting Up' tour will get its leader Bill English out of Wellington - albeit bruised and battered. But will it claw back a few votes for the tories? Paulo Politico doubts it.

Earlier this year Bill English told a National Party regional conference that he felt like reaching for a bucket every time he heard comments about Helen Clark being New Zealand’s greatest modern Prime Minister.

For English, who trails Clark by a huge margin in all public opinion polls, the thought of the Prime Minister gaining in popularity the longer she remains in office may well be sick making. But English’s anger and frustration is politically motivated.

Modern National has become an increasingly lazy and trivial force in New Zealand politics. Its front bench is the weakest and most ineffective line up the party has produced in over 20 years. Many voters remain unconvinced about English, and view party president Michelle Boag as the real Leader of the Opposition.

But English’s problems are only partly of his own creation. There is no doubt that National sits in opposition to a government that is truly popular.

Labour can boast an impressive record of achievement in office. It has made good on all of its pledge card promises. It promised to promote job creation by working in partnership with private enterprise. Unemployment has fallen to a 13-year low, and over 100,000 new jobs have been created now compared to when Labour came to office in 1999.

The party promised to focus on patients not profits in the public health system. National’s profit-driven model of health care service provision was quickly scrapped. More money was directed towards paying for elective surgery. This year’s Budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in hospitals, increased subsidies for doctor’s visits, and money to develop a vaccine to combat Group B meningococcal disease.

Labour promised to make tertiary education more affordable. Tertiary students are among the most cynical voters in New Zealand. After all, National was elected on a promise in 1990 to abolish tertiary fees. By the time it left office in 1999, tertiary fees had increased by 280 percent as National systematically cut the per-student tertiary subsidy.

Labour in government has invested around a billion dollars to reverse the trend towards high fees and a mountain of student debt. The Clark-led government has frozen fees and written off millions of dollars in interest charged on student loans. The average student is nearly $2,000 a year better off now than they were three years ago.

Labour promised to reverse National’s cuts to superannuation, and set money aside to help offset the future cost of superannuation. National’s cuts were reversed soon after the Labour-Alliance government came to office, and money is being set aside in the New Zealand Superannuation Fund to pre-fund superannuation in the future.

State house tenants were promised that a Labour government would introduce income-related rents by the end of its first term in office. Labour did better than that. Income-related rents were introduced by the end of Labour’s first year in office. This has meant low-income state tenants have more money to spend on healthy food, decent clothes and prescription medicine.

Labour promised to crack down on burglary and youth crime. Burglary has fallen to a 20-year low and the police budget has been significantly increased. National’s much criticised police review, designed to cut 445 police jobs, was scrapped and Justice Minister Phil Goff has announced details of a youth offending package designed to target serious young offenders.

Prior to the last election Labour campaigned on a promise to raise the top marginal income tax rate from 33 cents to 39 cents in every dollar earned over $60,000 a year - affecting about 5 percent of all income earners. The party also promised not to increase GST or company tax.

Labour campaigned on a promise to increase tax - and it won. Now Michael Cullen can say he kept his promise on tax, and the sky did not fall in. And if more people are paying more income tax it is because more people are enjoying bigger wage and salary packets.

National is up against a government that has kept its word. And it is up against a Prime Minister who is both popular and well respected.

Helen Clark is both an accessible Prime Minister and a humble Prime Minister. She has met with world leaders such as George. W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Yet she goes out of her way to attend hui, visits schools and factories, and lend her support to worthy causes such as Project K and the Kakapo Recovery Programme.

This week Bill English is going to try and jump-start the National Party with a road show tour ironically titled ‘Fronting Up’. He will spend time in the South Island visiting Dunedin, Oamaru and Timaru.

Funnily enough National has no chance of gaining an additional seat in the South Island. Both Dunedin seats are firmly in Labour’s camp. Timaru is in the Aoraki electorate, held by Labour’s Jim Sutton by over 7,000 votes. Oamaru is in marginal Otago, where National’s Gavin Herlihy is defending a 7 percent buffer over Labour’s David Parker.

The ‘Fronting Up’ road show could just as easily be called the ‘Up Against It’ road show in the three South Island locations that English has chosen to visit. Dunedin’s students are much better off now compared to three years ago. Dunedin’s pensioners are enjoying increased pensions, courtesy of the Clark-led Labour government.

Otago residents are benefiting from strong economic growth and low unemployment. Indeed this year Otago voters may well decide that they are better off under Labour than they are under National. For example residents in the Otago town of Alexandra know that the Clark-led government announced a $21 million flood protection package to protect the town from future flooding from the Clutha River. In contrast the previous National government knew about flood risk affecting the town - but did nothing about it.

When English arrives in Timaru he will find a town energized by the benefits of economic growth and employment growth. According to the latest National Bank survey of regional economic trends, the Canterbury region recorded the second largest rise in employment growth during the March quarter. As well, the local MP is the well respected Trade Minister (and local farmer) Jim Sutton, whose work promoting trade liberalisation abroad has contributed to economic growth and prosperity at home.

What will Bill English tell the elderly at the Grey Power meetings in Oamaru and Timaru? Will he explain why he cut superannuation when National was last in government? Will he explain why National would redirect money, currently set aside for superannuation, to help pay for tax cuts? Will he outline National’s policy of asset testing elderly New Zealanders who need rest home care?

The ‘Fronting Up’ tour might get English out of Wellington. But it is unlikely to move a single extra vote across from Labour to National.

Send your comments to: Spectator News Editor.
© Spectator News Agency, Multimedia Investments Limited, 2002.

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