Liam Dann explains why National’s leader is irrelevant right now:
Good luck to Simon Bridges, but regardless of whether he’s good, bad or average, the new National Party leader seems largely irrelevant to the political landscape in 2018.
The meaningful battles – the ones that define this Government – won’t involve the Opposition at all.
They will be fought between ministers and senior bureaucrats, behind closed doors.
Whether the new team of Bridges and Paula Bennett can score political points is irrelevant, for now at least.
Pretty much. This is the peril of failing to win elections and finding oneself in opposition because the former leadership team failed to either get enough votes or to cut a deal.
Nobody is sure yet whether this Government will be one that brings structural change or whether it simply brings a kinder face to the steady-as-she-goes policies of the last 20 years.
It is possible the leadership isn’t quite sure yet either.
So far Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and even Winston Peters, have presented a pragmatic and relatively conservative face of change.
That’s smart. They have understood the risks around derailing economic growth by spooking business and bursting the confidence bubble.
Jacinda Ardern is focusing on being a star and visiting kindies. Robbo has no idea what is going on and Winston Peters is having to paper over the cracks. It is all well and good to oppose everything and issue press releases but when in government you actually have to do something, and you get held to account for it.
But we are hearing two distinct philosophical tones in the rhetoric of the new Government.
One is pragmatic and fiscally responsible, the other is questioning the very foundations of modern economic management – reforming monetary policy and broadening the foundations on which the national Budget is written.
Finance Minister Robertson has already indicated that although the Budget this May will be quite traditional, next year though he expects Treasury to build “well-being” measures into the fiscal framework.
Can you really rewrite economic fundamentals that have underpinned policy for decades and still adhere to a self-imposed rules around fiscal responsibility?
Nope, you can’t. The demands on spending are becoming unbearable for Robertson, who literally has no spare money to spend without either massively increasing borrowing, which he opposed every single day he was in opposition, or breaking their election promises and increasing taxation. Being between a rock and a hard place is what he is going to have to get used to.
Economists on both ends of the political spectrum are struggling to see how these two approaches are not contradictory.
Which approach will dominate remains something of a mystery – even to senior officials, who will themselves seek to shape and refine policy.
Phil Twyford is another minister who is finding out that the gap between what he can do and what he said he would do is a gap that even he can’t span.
So the new Government faces a stark choice. It can carry on in the hope increased social spending and a handful of policy changes can rebalance the economic system.
Or it can rip up the rule book and restructure the way we run an economy – in a manner we haven’t seen since the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s.
I’m not sure Labour apparatchiks will accept radical change. The last time a government did that was the Lange government and the howls of outrage tipped them out after just two terms.
Thankfully, New Zealand is not on the edge of bankruptcy as it was for David Lange’s Government. There is the luxury of time to think.
Necessity and crisis drove the speed and depth of change in the 1980s.
More time to reflect in 1984 might have resulted in second thoughts and a softening of policy.
Pragmatism has a way of creeping up on you while you’re busy dreaming of bigger things.
Jacinda Ardern isn’t dreaming of bigger things, unless it is her stomach shape she is thinking of. She’s more intent on helping people not fill in forms at the airport and moving house right now.
National can gain relevance, though, by targeting the astonishing lack of talent in Labour’s line up. From Phil Twyford, to Kelvin Davis, to Clare Curran and Nanaia Mahuta, there is plenty of hurt they can put on the government with what’s coming out of those fools’ offices.
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