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The CIA, Labour and the 'Credit Card' Campaign

Setting Themselves Apart – The CIA, Labour and the Credit Card Campaign

Labour Party President Bob Harvey’s claims that the CIA killed Norman Kirk earlier this week were undeniably crazy and very poorly timed. However with the election only two months away his comments could at the very least be welcomed as some kind of effort to brand Labour as even slightly different from any of the other parties running for parliament.

And this would be refreshing as, to date, Labour’s election campaign – and believe it or not they are now all under way - has been characterised by its non-committal, vague and heads-down approach. And that’s a shame. With so many people apparently supporting a change of government it looks likely that Labour are set to sleep-walk to victory on the failings of the current government rather than the merits of what they stand for themselves.

The vagueness of Labour’s ‘credit card campaign’ is a case in point. “Labour’s vision is about building a better future for New Zealand. A future in which everyone has a stake and a chance” it reads. Fair enough. But the seven following pledges show that Labour has not been prepared to separate or distinguish itself far from National – particularly on the fundamental issue that defines all political parties – taxation.

“Labour is very clear about its priorities and direction,” reads the card. However the once party of the left separates itself from the fundamental direction of National by a very modest tax increase on the top five per cent of the country’s earners. This is expected to bring in around an extra $700 million dollars per year which is hardly conducive to any substantial policy or direction change.

However it is not necessarily more tax revenue that Labour need, rather it is new and innovative ideas. Take this from the credit card for example; Labour will “Crack down on burglary and youth crime” and “Labour aims to cut [hospital] waiting times, promote better health and bring back publicly elected and accountable decision makers.” So Labour wants more accountability, less waiting times and better health for New Zealanders. Well… who doesn’t? Certainly no new or distinguishing ideas there.

Last night the Alliance’s Laila Harre’s Paid Parental Leave Bill was voted down in the House by 58 to 60 votes. Now however the pressure comes on Labour to outline what it will favour if it becomes the new government. How many weeks paid parental leave will they support and who will pay for it? Labour are extremely sensitive about their approach to Industrial Relations which has been intensely scrutinised over the last two weeks, and Labour would be most reluctant to now announce that a parental leave package would be funded by a pay-roll tax on employers.

Over two thirds of New Zealanders support paid parental leave. However, through not giving themselves much of an increase in their tax base, Labour are again between a rock and a hard place – they don’t want to bill employers, don’t want to disappoint the voters and don’t really have the tax revenue to pay for it themselves. This is the unenviable middle ground of the desperately political moderate.

Labour has again come under mounting pressure – and has been similarly non-committal – over challenges regarding native logging on the West Coast. The government has approved what they say is a sustainable logging programme of West Coast beech forests, a move which has been widely condemned by the conservation movement, and again the onus comes on Labour.

A coalition of conservation groups and the Greens believe contracts between saw-mills and Timberlands West Coast are currently being signed and these groups have asked Labour to state their position on the scheme, particularly on whether they will repudiate these contracts when and if they form the next government. They say it is crucial that Labour indicate their preferences now so that there is no ambiguity over the future of these contracts. However, no comment from Labour yet. The public don’t support native logging but Labour can’t be seen as anti-business and employment. There will be criticism either way they go… the rock or the hard place?

Two weeks ago Labour’s maverick MP Tim Barnett promised a review of cannabis laws under a new Labour-led government. Given that cannabis law reform is, in terms of votes, more trouble than it is worth, this was probably not a smart thing to do. The government jumped on this statement and expressed their outrage and disappointment. Labour however kept their heads down, made no comments or commitment and rode out the minor storm. As a result nobody is any wiser on whether Barnett’s statement is true or not. A spokesperson from the Labour offices certainly wasn’t sure.

Hearings have now been held on whether genetically engineered cows and a semi-commercial genetically engineered crop should be allowed to go ahead in the North Island. If the Environment Risk Management Authority approve these trials then it is on Labour’s head. Earlier this year Labour voted down Phillida Bunkle’s bill which proposed a moratorium on further commercial crops and field trials, only to announce the grounds on which they defeated the bill as their own policy. Had Labour not dithered on their GE policy these two trials would simply not be going ahead – or even being considered.

Such are the risks of aiming right for the middle and trying to keep both sides happy. Eventually you end up looking indecisive, sending mixed signals and making nobody happy.

It promises to be very interesting to see what Labour reveal in their tertiary education policy which people in the sector have been waiting to see for months. The credit card says Labour will “Cut the costs to students of tertiary education, starting with a fairer loans scheme. Full time students and other low income students will pay no interest on their loans while studying.”

Wow! Hardly promising the earth, especially considering their pledges at the last election. It looks unlikely that, given what little extra cash they have given themselves to play with, the tertiary sector is going to be thrilled with their plans. It looks almost certain that the universal student allowance will be off the cards and little impact will be made on tertiary fees. It will be interesting to see whether Labour will even take fundamental steps like reinstating the Emergency Unemployment Benefit for students over the summer and what changes they make to the loan scheme will be interesting to measure against the reasonably significant changes to the scheme announced by National.

Other comments on the credit card include a “crack down on burglary and youth crime”, “focus on patients not profit and cut waiting times for surgery” and “create jobs through promoting New Zealand industries and better support for exporters and small exporters”. They have also promised to reverse the 1999 superannuation cuts and restore income related rents for state housing.

Given the run down state of the public health system, the soaring student debt, the monstrous trade deficit and serious levels of unemployment, one could perhaps have expected some dramatic solutions from a party on the left that had been in opposition for nine years. Given the slight increase in the tax base Labour propose, this is quite simply not the case. Indeed Labour’s claim to in fact being a party of the left doesn’t even really add up anymore.

So far it has been a very moderate campaign for an extremely moderate party with very moderate solutions to a stack of serious problems. It seems that people want National out more than they want Labour in because at least National have a firm direction and policy to support it. We are seeing nowhere near that level of commitment to a direction from Labour.

It’s the lack of planning and attention to detail from Labour that can be seen in their Wellington Central campaign. In arguably the most significant seat in the country, Labour have shipped a candidate up from Christchurch with a poor campaign record and a special interest in education. Polling by City Voice newspaper shows the number one issue for Wellingtonian’s is health and ACTs Richard Prebble and the Alliance’s health spokesperson Phillida Bunkle are already campaigning hard on the issue of the region’s hospital.

The Wellington Hospital is an issue which raises a number of issues – how many beds, where will it be, what services will it provide and who will pay for it? Labour’s Marian Hobbs has still failed to get involved in what promises to be a crucial issue in the seat and, given her alien status to the seat – alongside Bunkle who has lived in Wellington for 25 years – and her poor campaign record – she came third in the Selwyn by-election behind the Alliance’s John Wright – she has a lot of ground to make up.

Changed electoral boundaries in the seat show that there is a real chance of either Bunkle or Hobbs defeating Prebble and, if ACT poll under five per cent, potentially removing ACT from parliament. The stakes are extremely high but, like her party, Hobbs is already running a poor campaign and appears to be taking her support for granted. A huge effort is going to be required in Wellington Central. Prebble and Bunkle are well and truly underway but Hobbs’ performance to date indicates she seems to think she can sleep walk to victory.

The Wellington seat can be seen as a mirror for the whole Labour campaign. It is likely Hobbs will be the candidate left standing against Prebble, though not that she has particularly earned the right. Her campaign has been complacent and very low profile to date in a seat where exactly the opposite is required. She has refused to face up to the scandalous performance of Labour members of the Wellington City Council and has yet to make any real impact at all.

Labour and the Alliance must decide who is the best candidate to defeat Richard Prebble. The opportunity exists for them to remove a key National Party ally from parliament and the best campaigner must run against him. On current performance that is clearly not Hobbs.

Annabel Young has become increasingly outspoken as National’s list candidate in Wellington, Phillida Bunkle and Richard Prebble have long political histories and the Greens’ launch of list-only candidate Sue Kedgely rounds off a collection of reasonably high-powered candidates. They are all standing on solid platforms which is where Hobbs, and indeed the whole Labour campaign, falls down.

Labour’s launch of their industrial relations policy next week is going to be a crucial announcement with employers and unions both saying this area is going to be a cornerstone of the election campaign. Maybe with this announcement Labour will recognise that you can’t please everybody and it is bad politics to try.


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