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Should Labour Fear National’s Backslapping?

David Miller Online

Should Labour Fear National’s Backslapping?

Whether you agree with their policy statements or not, there is no denying that the National Party has emerged from its first conference under Don Brash with renewed optimism and spirit as the election campaign begins to gather momentum. In contrast to the conferences of the past few years, it appears that National believes it is in much better shape to fight the election than it was under the ineffective Bill English and the fiery and populist speeches of Dr. Brash, Gerry Brownlie were aimed at not only bolstering party morale but also maintaining its upsurge in the polls. Yet should the Government be overly concerned with the sense of confidence displayed at the conference? Does the fact that Dr. Brash has now turned his guns on Labour’s record on law and order mean that the opposition has found another serious chink in the Government’s armour?

Labour has reacted to Dr. Brash’s law and order policy in a far more sensible manner than it did following the Orewa speech. They seem to have learnt their lesson of trying to meet the challenge head on and launch a counter-attack that bordered on personal and this time have simply absorbed the blow and formulated a rational line of defence. The Government has not rushed into any policy U-turns and have cleverly raised the issue as to whether Dr. Brash’s bold statements are feasible due to monetary cost and will he actually follow through with his pledges. In doing so, the Government has not appeared to be rattled or allowed the opposition to portray them as shaken, indecisive and at worst, inept. This time, it is Dr. Brash who will be faced with the questions.

The other reason Labour can feel a little more relaxed is that party conferences are nothing more than vehicles for a party to make its grand statements, pat each other on the backs and spend a weekend trying to convince the leader that they were born to rule the country and only they are capable of doing so. For his part, Dr. Brash as Helen Clark, Winston Peters and Rodney Hide will have to in the next fifteen months, has to bring his forces together and compel them into a single direction, under his guidance of course. He has to convince them that the best is yet to come and for all their efforts, much will be unpaid and generally unappreciated by an often indifferent electorate will be rewarded once he and his small band take control of the Beehive. Yet, for all the bluster and fire-talk these gatherings are empty vessels as they are not the forum for determining policy and nor are they designed to be. That luxury is in the hands of the party’s elite executive that spends its days shouting and arguing in Parliament.

However, the Government cannot be too complacent in the wake of Dr. Brash’s law and order statements. He certainly faces questions over monetary costs, problems with the RMA and the inevitable protests from those people unfortunate enough to live in region that is selected to house the extra prisoners and while has not gained National at the polls it has at least maintained its strength. There is a fervent debate taking place in the public arena at present over pro’s and con’s of tougher sentencing, stories concerning the defects of home detention, rising youth crime and the question over the competency of the parole board. There is definitely a mood within the public that demands tougher action over criminals, especially violent and repeat offenders and Dr. Brash has tapped into this as he did the country’s race-relations. Labour has tried to deflect this into a debate over the sociological aspects of crime and those who enter its fraternity, but they must not focus on this policy exclusively. They have to examine the issue of tougher sentences for violent criminals and repeat offenders and the matter of criminals being granted parole. Preventative measures are needed yet it will be to the Government’s detriment if they only present an argument that rehabilitation outside of prison is the way to lower crime. Hence, Labour cannot allow the Opposition to show them as being weak on sentencing and parole and once again tied to political correctness.

Dr. Brash has opened up another contentious issue with his attack on law and order and in doing so he has managed to attack the Government on a different tact other than beating his race relations drum. He will now present an image of himself as a leader of a party that has a range of policies on a range of issues. Even though he is accused of being a populist, he is certainly skilled at seizing on issues that strike a cord with the public and law and order is one of these. His next big speech is likely to be welfare and this is an issue on which he could strike trouble but Labour cannot be complacent. If they are to run an effective campaign, they must not only defend their policies and promote them to the voters but they need to use their position in Government to introduce tougher sentencing and reduce the opportunities for parole for violent offenders and those most likely to repeatedly offend. They must move on this issue and try and take some of the wind from Dr. Brash’s and National’s sails.

ENDS

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