Hit by the here and now

As discussion continue to swirl about the UBI, and Labour finds its next big idea knifed and destroyed through their lack of foresight, Vernon Small explains just how predictable it all was.

Pity is not an emotion you would normally spare for politicians.

But you had to feel sorry for Labour – and in particular its finance spokesman Grant Robertson – for the blitz of critical publicity that greeted a single idea in its “Future of Work” conference.

It was set up to be a future-focused and broad-ranging look at the changing nature of work, the impact of technology on the workplace and how we adjust the law and the welfare system to cope while ensuring greater job security in uncertain times.

But instead the coverage was overwhelmingly focused on the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) including the affordability – or otherwise – of notional schemes proposed by others, or constructed by opponents, and then shot down in a hail of spreadsheets.

It was as predictable a result as you could ever imagine. If you fly a kite in a  thunderstorm there is a good chance it will get struck my lightening. The fact that Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern didn’t see this coming say as much about their political radar as it does about Labour’s political advisers.

Labour can’t escape all the blame. It was entirely predictable that putting up an idea for discussion that would, in its most extreme form, radically change the wage, benefit and tax system would attract the lion’s share of attention.

But there wasn’t nearly enough pre-conference preparation from Labour on that score.

It should have laboured to the point of exhaustion that the ideas about to be discussed were blue-sky not Labour red. It wasn’t the only example of Labour flat-footedness – or shoot-itself-in-the-footedness – this week … but more of that later.

Meanwhile Prime Minister John Key gave them a lesson in soundbite-ology, merely saying the idea was “barking mad” before quickly moving on.

Given a UBI isn’t, and might never be, Labour policy – and also given there are as many variants as there are economists with ideas – it is easy to see why Labour luminaries came away from the conference peeved about the various “costings” of versions of policies it had not adopted.

If it isn’t policy, and it might not be adopted then why the dying in the ditch by Rob Salmond defending it? Labour put up the idea and wanted a discussion and when that discussion didn’t go the way they wanted then they got all nasty about it all.

The fact that Labour had no numbers, no idea, and no comeback was telling. This is a party that is still unfit for government.

[T]he stream of “experts” costing the hypothetical concept took no prisoners, nor much note of any nuances. Nor did they take much account of the drawbacks of a UBI, already covered off in the discussion paper, or that its writers concluded the Gareth Morgan option probably would not work. Nor that the closest Labour got to endorsing the policy was to “investigate new models of income security for New Zealand, including considering a limited trial of a universal basic income-type system in a town or region”.

Robertson tried to redress the balance this week, with an opinion piece highlighting the other issues discussed under the umbrella of the Future of Work Commission, especially the rapidly changing nature of work and the need for education to adapt to it.

But the political attacks, in the guise of “costings” have already landed and done their worst.

They were able to do their worst because Labour went kite-flying in a storm.

“How,” some of Labour’s chin-strokers mused this week, “can you ever have a long-term debate about policy options when that happens?”

And they have a point. The off-piste attacks Labour suffered this week impoverish the public policy debate.

But the issue is also one of political management and you can’t blame National for launching a pre-emptive strike on Labour’s key policy programme.

For that Labour needs to look to its own recent record.

For instance, on a day when Labour’s view on the flag effectively won the day, what use did Sue Moroney think it would do launching a twitter attack on someone with a “flash beach house” flying the failed alternative flag?

If Opposition MPs wants a lesson in message management they could do worse than use, as a workshop for young players, Paula Bennett’s efforts on Tuesday 

She used reporters’ questions about Chester Borrows’ driving, given she was in the car when he allegedly ran over a protesters foot, to segue into the aggressive tactics of the protesters, attack lines seen online, the growing unpleasantness of social media and finally to the awful and disgraceful threats she had received on Twitter some two weeks ago.

From potential sympathy for a protester at the wheels of an MP to sympathy for an MP. Cynical, maybe, but you can’t help but be impressed.

That’s why National win and Labour loses. Labour has only themselves to blame.

If brains were dynamite, Labour’s brains trust wouldn’t have enough to blow their noses.


– Fairfax


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.