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Bonfires? U-turns? Or Responding To Events?

By Marcus Roberts, Senior Researcher, Maxim Institute

Chris Hipkins has been Prime Minister for only two months. In that time, he has already undertaken two policy “bonfires.”

Back in February, Hipkins scrapped the proposed merger of RNZ and TVNZ, pushed the compulsory income insurance scheme off at least until the election, withdrew the religious hate speech legislation, passed the issue to the Law Commission, and ditched the biofuels mandate.

The second policy pyre was lit last week when the Prime Minister announced the Government would not introduce legislation for lowering the voting age to 16 for general elections, scrapped the clean car upgrade scheme and social leasing car scheme, and focussed public transport improvements on the five major population centres.

Although a policy bonfire sounds permanent, it might be more accurate to say that at least some of these policies have been spared the fire and have instead been put in the Government’s deep freeze to be thawed out at a later, more politically convenient, date.

Either way, the question arises: why has the Government decided that so many of its projects should not be pursued now? Presumably, these policies were considered good ideas when proposed, so why eliminate them?

A critical eye could discern this Government was running scared of the unpopularity of its ideological policy desires during an election year. Thus, these announcements are just cynical ploys to garner enough votes to be re-elected, after which everything thrown on the bonfire will be up for grabs again. The Government is simply trying to appease the focus-group-driven whims of the electorate rather than trying to lead by standing up for the policies that it believes in.

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A more charitable reading would explain these “u-turns” as prudent responses to the most significant challenge a government can face: “events, dear boy, events” (according to former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan). Is it any surprise that the Government has reprioritised its spending and policy focus when food price inflation is the highest it has been in 33 years and when recent flooding and cyclones have caused billions of dollars of damage and wrecked communities? Furthermore, shouldn’t we be happy when a government listens to the people and drops genuinely unpopular policies – isn’t that called representative democracy?

Ah yes, says the critic, it’s called representative democracy. Our politicians are elected to lead us and not merely to be a mirror of the aggregate of the electorate’s inconsistent, poorly-informed views.

But, says the more charitable viewer, the Government now has more money to spend on “bread and butter” issues like increasing payments for superannuation, benefits and student allowances. That’s clearly good election-year politics, and now it also has more resources and time to devote to bedding down its more significant reforms like Te Whatu Ora and Te Pūkenga.

It wouldn’t need that time and resource if it weren’t hellbent on breaking pre-existing institutions and remaking them into something worse!

Thankfully, it’s less than seven months until election day.

Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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