David Miller: Sensible Electioneering
The Prime Minister’s speech to an audience in Christchurch last Thursday is the clearest signal yet that the 2005 election campaign is now underway. Ms. Clark used the occasion to launch a scathing attack on Don Brash’s recent statements as the government tries to wrest back some of its lost momentum by defending its own performance while in office. This speech, when placed alongside others that members of the government have been delivering of late demonstrates that Labour is at least prepared to meet National’s challenge head on. In choosing phrases such as ‘cynical’ and ‘manipulative’ to describe Dr. Brash’s strategy and warning voters that National is seeking a return to the policies of the 1990s, Ms. Clark is signalling that she is prepared for a fight and that this election campaign will be perhaps one of the ugliest ever fought. Yet is such an approach necessary to hold onto office?
As Leader of the Opposition, Dr. Brash has the space to be on the offensive in any political debates or pre-election posturing. After all, he is a relatively new leader and consequently is not in the position of having to defend any record of accomplishment. Strange though it may seem, there is none. His critics and opponents can point to the 1990’s when National last held power and list all the policy flaws of the Bolger and Shipley governments but Dr. Brash can evade such attack by simply claiming he was not there. Therefore, it is not surprising that Dr. Brash’s statements and speeches thus far have been light on policy detail. With the election campaign only just underway, the aim is to stir up as much controversy and debate as possible, and this he has done successfully and he will continue to do so for several months yet.
For its part, Labour does not need to react to these statements and speeches by the National leader or his colleagues in the manner they have. Speeches such as the one delivered by the Prime Minister last week and the sudden review on race policies, which are u-turns despite what spin Labour puts on it, are unnecessary reactions and give the impression that the government is in panic mode at the first sign of trouble in the polls. Rather than announce a review of its funding policies for Maori and appoint Trevor Mallard into some policy troubleshooting role, their best option would have to weather the storm, not react so strongly to Dr. Brash and quietly review their policies and forthcoming legislation. Instead they are already engaged in a public mud-slinging match that will not do their image or credibility any good at all.
What Labour does have in its favour is that in the months ahead, National will have to start delivering some definitive policies and fill in the blank areas around which Dr. Brash has sketched some very broad strokes. While the voting public may be currently concerned with race-relations and the role of the Treaty, the government can gain the opportunity to go on the offensive over a possible National agenda that is likely to be heavily influenced by monetarist thought. After all, the 1990’s were not that long ago and although Dr. Brash may consider the last decade a golden age for New Zealand, it was a time when many people found themselves worse off financially and an era of broken government election pledges and social division. This is what the government should be aiming for and looking to exploit and can do so in time. Instead, it is inflicting self-damage by rallying against the contents of a few speeches delivered eighteen months away from polling day.
The fact that the next Election Day is so far in the future is perhaps the redeeming feature in the government’s election campaign. Its best strategy from now on would be to sit tight, allow National its moments in the spotlight and then wait for the moment when the opposition has to convey its actual policies to the voters and not simply react to generalizations and sound bites. At the same time, Labour must work to set down some conclusive policies of its own, especially when dealing with issues of the Treaty of Waitangi and the foreshore and seabed where there is much confusion and a lack of understanding of the issues. This is their Achilles Heel and if they fail to do so then they will allow National more opportunities to convince voters of their policies. After all, opposition parties do not win elections; governments lose them.