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Dunne Speaks: The Price of Consensus


About 80% of the legislation Parliament passes is non-controversial, and could just as easily be introduced by any government. Another 10% is controversial and more likely to arise from one particular government than the other, but is not so out of line that it will not be retained by the next government when it comes to office. Only the remaining 10% is so hard-line that it will not survive a change of government. Industrial relations, taxes, and some aspects of education and welfare policy are most likely to come into this latter category.


Essentially this means there is a large degree of continuity in New Zealand politics, which contributes mightily to our political stability. We are not prone to swings from one end of the spectrum to the other as different governments come to office. All of which makes life difficult for the Opposition of the day, as it tries to define itself separately from the government, but without painting itself as too extreme to frighten off the potential voters it will need at the next election to gain office.


However, sometimes there are issues where the Opposition knows it is on the wrong side of public opinion or practice and that it has to change its position to have a chance of electoral success. So it was that the National Party adopted Labour’s Working for Families programme, and enhanced it in office, despite John Key once having derided it as “communism by stealth”. And why John Key, like Jim Bolger before him, also moved quickly moved to shore up the nuclear-free New Zealand legislation, which an unsuccessful predecessor had pledged would be “gone by lunchtime”.


But there are limits to all this consensus building in Opposition. After all, it is pretty hard to argue that things would be different if the Opposition came to power, if they have spent too much time agreeing with the government on too many of the major issues. What would be the point of voting for them to get even more of the same than usual if they were to come to power? As always, the trick will be to know where the line should be drawn.


The National Party will be weighing up all these considerations as it finalises a position on the government’s zero-carbon legislation, currently before the House. Certainty, continuity of policy, and doing the right thing by the planet are strong and noble reasons to support the legislation, but National may calculate that such an essentially “me too” stance will not differentiate it sufficiently in voters’ minds (especially its farming core which still harbours strong doubts about the impact of too rapidly reducing methane emissions) to attract or retain their support, particularly if New Zealand First sniffs the same breeze and abandons the government on this issue.


National will also be looking closely across the Tasman at the strong sceptical stance the Morrison Government took on emissions and reducing fossil fuel reliance, and the electoral dividends that apparently paid in their recent election. Now that Judith Collins has put her stake in the ground opposing the zero-carbon legislation it is virtually certain that the consensus in its favour that was building up in Parliament during the last two to three years is about to be broken.


A similar situation seems to be occurring with regard to drug law reform. While there was never anything approaching a consensus between the two main parties on this issue, there had been signs earlier in the year that National might have been willing to look at the government’s ideas, vague and waffly as they have been, but National’s spokesperson’s increasingly critical comments suggest those signs have gone. Rather, National now looks likely to oppose cannabis law reform, and perhaps become part of the “no” campaign, which will make for interesting times if the referendum votes “yes”, but National comes to power after the election.


However, there are particular risks associated with National’s emerging position. It will have had to calculate very carefully its assessment of the potential political gains and losses, and it must therefore be assumed that in terms of its specific political advantage, it has concluded there is more to be gained than lost in adopting such an approach. Then, having rejected the current government’s plans, it will have to factor in what it will have to do about climate change and drug law reform, should it find itself leading the next government. It need only look across the political aisle at the rapidly increasing shambles that is the current government to see what happens when you come to power on the basis of a few slogans and no clearly thought out policy.


Time will tell the wisdom of National’s eschewing of consensus on issues that cut across traditional political boundaries, like climate change and drug law reform’ but it is certainly different from the approach most likely to have been seen from former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger and John Key. And they both went on to win three elections.

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