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Dunne's Weekly: Never A Good Time To Be In Opposition


There are likely to be slim pickings for Opposition parties over most of the next three months for reasons that have little to do with politics. And there may not be all that much they can do about it because the reasons are beyond their control.

Opposition parties generally have their greatest impact when Parliament is sitting. The debating chamber becomes their forum. They can trip Ministers up at Question Time, delay or frustrate the passage of government legislation, and more easily attract the attention of the Parliamentary Press Gallery on the issues they are concerned about.

When Parliament is not sitting, it becomes that much harder for Opposition parties to have much impact on the news cycle. They are often reduced to being not much more than spectators during that time, as the government gets on with its business, without having to worry too much about the day-to-day scrutiny of Parliament. In that regard, given the ongoing momentum of government, and the inevitable media attention that attracts, Parliament is a much more important platform for Opposition parties to hold the government to account, than it ever is for the government of the day. Without the forum Parliament provides, it is significantly more difficult for the Opposition to get its message across than it is for the government.

Currently, Parliament is in recess until 23 July, to coincide with the upcoming school holidays. But the business of government will carry on unabated, with Cabinet and its committees continuing to meet, and Ministers making announcements each week. Some select committees will also be meeting during the recess, but others will not be, further limiting the opportunities for Opposition parties. There is nothing unusual in this. It is the normal ebb and flow of Parliamentary life, and a further reminder of the dominance a government enjoys, given it largely sets the timetable.

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This year, however, there are a couple of unusual external factors that have the potential to disrupt the news cycle over the next three months, again to the Opposition’s detriment, even when Parliament is sitting. The first is the Olympic Games, being held in Paris between 26 July and 11 August. They coincide almost directly with the next couple of Parliamentary sitting weeks from 23 July until 8 August. Given New Zealanders’ love of sport, the Games are likely to dominate news cycles over that period, especially if New Zealand competitors are doing well.

Parliament resumes on 20 August, but the media opportunities available to the Opposition then could be short-lived. In America, the Democrats will be holding their election-year convention in Chicago from 19 to 22 August. The extraordinary international interest that election is arousing because of its increasingly bizarre nature means it will dominate news cycles, here and elsewhere, during that time. More so, if the current questions around President Biden’s suitability to continue as a candidate remained unresolved by then.

And then comes the 37th America’s Cup and New Zealand’s defence of the “Auld Mug”, which gets underway in Valencia on 22 August. While the Cup will have lost much of its allure to New Zealanders because of the decision to shift the defence away from the Hauraki Gulf, the preliminary Louis Vuitton Cup regatta during August and September is still likely to attract considerable attention. Parliament will be sitting for much of that time, providing limited opportunities for the Opposition, before going into recess at the end of September.

However, its resumption for a two-week sitting period from 15 to 24 October will coincide directly with the America’s Cup finals, involving Team New Zealand, due to be sailed from 15 to 27 October. It is a more than reasonable assumption that, earlier disgruntlement over the shifting of the Cup venue notwithstanding, many New Zealanders’ focus during that time will be on what is happening in Valencia, rather than what is going on in Parliament’s debating chamber in Wellington. And once the America’s Cup is over, it will be the Labour weekend holiday and a Parliamentary recess until 5 November. But that is also the day of the United States Presidential election, the outcome of which is likely to dominate the news for at least the rest of that week.

This unusual confluence of events over the next few months occurs purely by chance. It is not the result of some clever manipulation of circumstances by the government, even though it may be a coincidental beneficiary. But it will make it even more challenging for Opposition parties. They are already facing criticism for failing to make sufficient impact against a government that cannot seem to stop itself from presenting opportunities for them.

Opposition parties might therefore be forgiven for looking ahead to 2025 – a year without the plethora of distracting international events of 2024. But if the commentators are right and the economy starts to improve, with interest rates and inflation falling, it might be just as challenging a year for them, although for different reasons.

All of which confirms that in politics there is never a good time to be in Opposition.

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