Tracy Watkins on extreme politics by small parties

Tracy Watkins explores the extreme level of politicking we are experiencing from smaller parties:

Is Metiria Turei’s election year fraud-bomb the smartest thing the Greens have ever done, or the dumbest? Like Turei herself, it seems the question invites no middle ground.

The Green Party co-leader has made herself one of the most polarising figures of the campaign. On one side are those – usually younger voters – who view her confession as brave and a mark of integrity. They see a world where corruption on a much larger scale goes unpunished. But on the other side of the battle line are those who view Turei’s mantle of entitlement as repugnant.   

But in turning it into a debate about beneficiaries versus the rest, Turei risks making the issues of poverty and inequality equally divisive.

Young people hit like or retweet but they don’t vote. So no amount of virtual signalling or crim-cuddling by Green supporters is going to overcome the revulsion older middle NZ voters feel about bludgers who steal from taxpayers.

NZ First leader Winston Peters is no newcomer to polarising politics but in this year’s campaign he seems to have an extra edge.

Labour’s weakness has given Peters a sniff of a return to 1996, when NZ First was at its most dominant and could write the terms of its coalition agreement. That threatens not just the Greens but ACT, whose leader, David Seymour, has also resorted to extreme politics, labelling his opponents a cabal of crooks.

Seymour just sounded like the proverbial smart-alec at school.

While the guts of the Greens’ policy was obscured by Turei’s startling admission about lying while on the DPB, the visceral reaction to her lack of contrition will likely drive a wedge through the electorate on the broader welfare issue.

The Greens want to lift benefits by 20 per cent while scrapping all sanctions, including penalties for women who fail to reveal the name of their child’s father, or sole parents who want to begin a long-term relationship. For a period of up to three years sole parents could even continue to claim the DPB while living with a working – or even wealthy – partner.

The policy itself is standard fare for a far Left party and the electorate currently has a sympathetic ear for any measures addressing child poverty. There is a rising sense of angst about poverty and inequality, even though the stats show these have largely flat-lined since National came to power.

But framing the welfare policy around Turei’s confession of DPB fraud smacks of the same desperation that drove Labour in 2011 to announce a boost to beneficiary incomes.

Desperation is a stinky cologne.

Labour’s $2.6 billion plan to extend the in-work tax credit to beneficiaries came out of nowhere just three weeks before the 2011 election and voters saw it for what it was – a desperate, last ditch, and cynical attempt to mobilise the beneficiary voteto stave off an ugly rout.

The beneficiary uprising never happened – beneficiaries could see just like everyone else that Labour was dog tucker by then. But it did succeed in further alienating the blue collar workers who once sustained the Labour movement.

And it won’t happen here.

Left-wing commentator Josie Pagani was pilloried by the Left after writing at the time about door knocking minimum-wage households and seeing them think “what’s the point of working my guts out all week while someone sitting at home on the dole gets the same tax credit as me?”.

But Pagani was only pointing out the obvious, that Labour had delivered National a classic wedge issue for the election – wedge politics being when you find an issue that will separate a group of traditional voters from the opposing party and pull them over to your side.

Nothing is more likely to do that than policies that pit one group of hard-ups against another group who feel themselves to be equally disadvantaged and hard done by.

And that is what the Greens have done and they are inextricably linked to Labour.

But where Labour’s move in 2011 was as hamfisted as it was blatant, Turei’s is more calculating and nuanced; it’s not just about how generous the state should be with welfare, but about Turei’s framing it as a fight between the poorest “underclass” and the privileged and the elites.

That invites its own equally visceral reaction from those who believe in Turei’s view of her benefit fraud as part of the broader class battle and done in the name of a higher cause.

The ideological battle lines couldn’t be more clear.

And we will soon know if their strategy works or not.



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