Simply inept political improvisation

Chris Trotter comments on Bill English’s superannuation screw up:

We’ll probably never know whether Monday’s announcement on NZ Superannuation was carefully planned, or simply inept political improvisation. Either way, it is highly likely that Bill English has just cost National the 2017 General Election.

I think it was inept political improvisation but disagree with Chris that it has cost National the election. Labour are so conflicted on this policy and so inept they make even Bill English look competent.

As if high-interest student loans and unaffordable houses were not intergenerational injustice enough for Generation X, a Baby Boomer Prime Minister has just advanced their retirement age from 65 to 67.

For older New Zealanders, English’s announcement has stirred-up bitter memories. Fears that John Key’s pledge to leave NZ Super alone had put to bed for nine years have been reawakened.

The fact he uses the term intergenerational injustice shows how out of touch he is. Most people would just say, eh?

Very early on in his career as leader of the National Opposition, John Key realised that he and his party were vulnerable on the superannuation issue. In the most blunt term, he understood that, in the minds of most older voters, his party had “previous form”.

Too many of them remembered Jim Bolger’s “no ifs, no buts, no maybes” promise to restore NZ Super to its former universal, non-means-tested and un-surcharged status. The Bolger government’s subsequent promise-breaking on NZ Super inflicted huge damage on National’s brand.

It was the making of NZ First.

No one really has properly dealt with the dud hand we were all dealt by Robert Muldoon’s superannuation bribe. Winston Peters has pretty much made this topic his own and Bill English has handed him a fresh platform on the same issue. That’s just plain dumb. I bet Steve Joyce wanted to whack Bill with a cosh.

Clark had gone to considerable lengths to look after New Zealand’s older voters and ensure as many as possible remained in Labour’s column. Unfortunately, her support for Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill had fatally undermined older voters’ trust and confidence in the Clark-led Labour Party’s values.

Ordinarily, that would have prompted these voters to shift from Labour to NZ First. Not this time. Peters’ “disgrace” and Key’s unequivocal pledge had laid down a royal road to National as the pragmatic custodian of “Mainstream New Zealand’s” core values. They defected in droves.

All of which makes English’s decision to advance the age of eligibility by two years electorally incomprehensible. All he had to do to keep National’s elderly supporters on side was to re-confirm Key’s pledge. ‘No change to NZ Super’ was the simple and straightforward formula for removing the issue from the 2017 election agenda.

So, why didn’t he do it?

Because he has tits for hands and isn’t a natural politician. He has been conditioned to think he is brilliant by having a safe blue seat that a weasel riding a donkey could get elected in if it wore a blue ribbon. His sycophantic fan club has always told him he was brilliant too. The only thing he has done well was the job of Finance Minister. Everything else has been and will be a disaster.

Just as Andrew Little’s and Labour’s previous stance will be used to beat them black and blue over this issue so too will Bill English’s past performances and pronouncements.

The critics of NZ Super (which, unfortunately, includes the Retirement Commissioner, Diane Maxwell) will do their best to paint English’s decision as a brave attempt to prevent New Zealand Superannuation from becoming “unsustainable”.

But English’s past pronouncements make it clear that he does not believe the scheme is unsustainable. Immigration flows and the over-65-year-olds remaining in the workforce for longer will take NZ Super over the Baby-Boom hump quite comfortably – after which the demographic stresses will reduce significantly.

The only explanation that makes any sense is that English sees NZ Super as the last remnant of the welfare state’s universalist heritage – and he hates it. His whole “social investment” approach to state support reflects his determination to substitute “tightly-targeted” services for the demonstrably more efficient and cost-effective policies of universal entitlement.

In other words, English has allowed ideological extremism to undermine his predecessor’s phenomenally successful pragmatism.

Bill English has never been much chop as a politician and this issue shows it.

All that Little and Peters need to do now is loudly recommit themselves to honouring Key’s pledge. Not only will this reassure older voters, but it will also incentivise younger New Zealanders to get out and vote. After all, if National can advance the age of eligibility in 2017, what’s to stop it introducing a means test in 2018? Or changing the formula for calculating the pension’s value in 2019?

The scale of English’s political folly is astonishing. His refusal to honour Key’s pledge has front-footed the very political combination that National should be doing all it can to destabilise: Labour, NZ First and the Greens.

The proud defenders of NZ Superannuation.

What is stopping any politician in the next seven governments changing superannuation again? Nothing. Politicians will meddle. Andrew Little simply isn’t believable on superannuation when for two elections Labour had raising the age as policy. If the National party research unit was any good they’d be piling up all the pronouncements on superannuation like the one I posted yesterday from Andrew Little.

 

– Fairfax

 

 

 


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