Thursday, January 9, 2020

Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup - Are politicians delivering for New Zealanders?

Are our politicians doing a good job? Are they on top of the urgent problems that need fixing? These are some of the big questions that have arisen from reflecting on the last year in politics, especially as we shift into an election year.

Yesterday’s Political Roundup looked at the politicians who performed strongly in 2019 – see: Evaluating NZ’s politicians. But many end-of-year reviews also focused on where the politicians failed, especially the Government, given that 2019 was pronounced by Jacinda Ardern to be her Year of Delivery. The consensus is that the Year of Delivery failed to eventuate.

The Year of Stagnation?

So, do the politicians even deserve to be awarded the various “politician of the year” prizes given out at this time of the year? Former Cabinet Minister Peter Dunne doesn’t think so. He says that “2019 was an unsatisfactory and unsettled year, dominated by awful tragedies and missed opportunities”, and hence it’s inappropriate to “perpetuate the myth of celebrity” by focusing on personalities at the expense of dealing with serious issues. He argues that “Politicians should be judged on their achievements, not their appearance, turns of phrase or witticisms” – see: Goodbye to a year of stagnation and tragedy.

Elaborating on this and the superficiality of contemporary politics, Dunne says: “singling out a politician of the year as some sort of superstar simply fuels that vacuity. Rather, the focus should be on the progress the country has made during the year under review. In short, are we in better heart than we were at the start of the year, and has our emotional, social, and economic prosperity been advanced?”

For Dunne, 2019 was actually “the year of stagnation”. And the Government is responsible: “What was touted boldly at year’s start as the year of delivery slowly but surely morphed into the year of whimpered excuses. The failure of KiwiBuild is the most dramatic example – achieving only about 3 percent of its projected first year target, making only the slightest dent in the demand for affordable first homes. Elsewhere, optimistic deadlines for various projects were constantly announced, and then steadily pushed further back as reality struck, with decisions on the planned TVNZ/RNZ merger deferred being but the latest to join the ever-lengthening lists of delays.”

Dunne then catalogues the many areas in which things have stagnated or got worse: economic growth, job growth, rising fuel costs, poor public transport, child poverty, suicide levels, state housing waiting lists, health and education staffing, and the state of the environment. He concludes that “Too many timebombs are ticking, faster than ever.”

I’ve also argued that our politicians failed to make much real progress in 2019 – see my end-of-year column for the Guardian: New Zealand’s year of style over substance. In this, I contend that “politics was dominated by spin doctors, PR professionals and talented communicators”. Both major parties need to improve their game and move away from the soundbite-driven policies and sloganeering.

The Year of Spin?

In my column I also look at the question of whether we should be holding the Government to account based on the promise that 2019 would be their Year of Delivery. This is in light of recent revelation from Beehive sources that Ardern’s “Year of Delivery” promise in January last year was an impromptu creation from a spindoctor, rather than from Ardern herself, when she needed a soundbite for the media.

I argued that this exemplified the PR-approach of contemporary politics: “The explanation from the Beehive was to convey that it’s not actually fair to hold the PM to account for a catchphrase that was never intended to be taken so seriously. It is extraordinary that something presented as a solemn promise to the electorate is now being explained away as nothing more than a manufactured PR soundbite.”

The origins of the catchphrase were reported on 21 December by two different political journalists. Here’s Audrey Young’s account: “Ardern's first mistake was made during her opening remarks to the MPs at the retreat, with media present. She didn't have a prepared speech and she and chief press secretary Andrew Campbell put their heads together shortly before the start. Having copped so much flak in 2018 for it being a year of reviews and task forces Campbell came up with the crisp phrase that 2019 would be The Year of Delivery. She duly delivered the line and it became instantly mockable” – see: And my politician of the year is... (paywalled).

Young gives her own critique of such promises: “Both the KiwiBuild promises and Year of Delivery catchphrase epitomise the single biggest weakness of Ardern – a propensity to over-promise and a failure to manage expectation. Whether it is promising ‘transformational Government’, ‘the most open and transparent Government’ or ‘the Year of Delivery’ she fails to grasp that there is often little difference between a great sound-bite and a superlative that sets yourself up for failure.”

Stuff political journalists also reported the Beehive line about how that Year of Delivery line came about: “It was a sunny day in Martinbrough and KiwiBuild was falling over. Just days before the out-of-office caucus meeting in January, Housing Minister Phil Twyford had admitted that KiwiBuild would not be getting anywhere near close to 1000 homes ready by July. Jacinda Ardern, facing her caucus with the media pack watching, needed a line that might change the narrative that her Government hadn't really done much so far. Her press secretary Andrew Campbell came up with just the thing: The ‘year of delivery’. It led headlines everywhere. But it also would come to haunt the Government” – see: The biggest political moments of 2019, from tragedy to farce.

Stuff political journalist Henry Cooke also reported on the origins of the spin-line, adding that “It is housing which Ardern pointed to as the biggest problem in her ‘year of delivery’ when talking to Stuff for an end-of-year interview” – see: Jacinda Ardern found new heights of power in 2019 – and hit hard limits. And he points out that a few months later, “Labour lost its decade-long battle to introduce a capital gains tax, a key tool in the party's planned assault on high house prices.”

Also at Stuff, Thomas Coughlan looks at the results of the Government’s Year of Delivery, and he declares them to be “mixed” – see: Tragedy and triumph: the moments that defined politics in 2019.

Here’s Coughlan’s list of Government achievements: “The Government has built thousands of public houses, unveiled $1.9 billion of mental health spending, and passed the Zero Carbon Act, alongside making vital reforms to the Emissions Trading Scheme.”

And here’s the disappointments: “KiwiBuild is all but dead, as are the key recommendations from the Tax Working Group, which received the bullet in April. Child wellbeing remains something of an open question, but the Government has shelved the heavy-hitting recommendations from its Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which was tasked with alleviating poverty in New Zealand.” In fact, he says, “Poverty looks like it's here to stay.”

According to Coughlan, Labour’s coalition partners were “horrified” at Ardern’s promise to make 2019 their delivery year. He reports their reaction: “Had Ardern, whose political education was as a staffer in the Clark Government, forgotten that Government's maxim: ‘under promise and over deliver’?”

Lack of progress in housing and infrastructure

Financial journalist David Hargreaves is despairing about the lack of progress made by the Government in housing and infrastructure, saying: “I think we'll look back at this three-year term of Government as a lost opportunity. It's been a time of a reasonably stable economy and very low interest rates. It's a time when as a country we could have been getting things done. Like building some much-needed infrastructure and the Government helping out in meaningful way with reducing our housing shortage. For me, the over-riding impression coming out of 2019 is that the current Government is big on the symbolic gestures but very lousy at implementation” – see: The year that didn't quite get started.

It's the effective abandonment of KiwiBuild that Hargreaves is most disappointed about. And he thinks it’s not good enough that the Government won’t implement such promises: “Amazingly it does seem like the Government, from a public perspective, is going to ‘get away with it’. At least for now. I find it remarkable that any political party can make something like a KiwiBuild policy such a central part of its election policy, walk away from it once in Government, and seemingly not get caned.”

The other major “lost opportunity” is tax reform to affect the housing market: “With the abysmal failure of KiwiBuild, then so the Government's decision to ditch any suggestion of Capital Gains Tax becomes more significant – and again possibly something that will cost us in the long run.”

The Spinoff’s Alex Braae also sees this as the biggest disappointment of the year: “The sheer wtf-ness of that moment still stands out, given how important a CGT was in the discussions and final report of the Tax Working Group. Not just a flop, but a moment of profoundly pathetic weakness from Labour to refuse to fight for something that there was previously every indication they believed in” – see the Spinoff’s New Zealand politics in 2019: we pick the champs and the flops.

Also in this Spinoff feature, rightwing political commentator Ben Thomas expresses his disappointment that more hasn’t been done in terms of mental health by David Clark, who he says is therefore one of the biggest “flops” of the year: “Seemingly unable to translate Labour’s much derided commissions of inquiry and working groups – and the better part of $1.9 billion in the ‘Wellbeing Budget’ – into any meaningful action on mental health.”

From the left, Morgan Godfery is also somewhat disappointed in his own Green Party, suggesting their time in Government this year has been to “compromise all our principles!”.

Godfery has also written that the Government has been very disappointing for Māori this year: “The government said no to a capital gains tax, no to most of the recommendations from its own welfare working group, and a ‘maybe’ to returning Ihumātao to its people. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came to power promising a ‘politics of kindness’ and a ‘transformational government’. It fails on the first count, refusing to lift all sanctions on beneficiaries, and fails on the second, content to preside over the system as is. Even the good things – like lifting the minimum wage – are things that were happening under the last government anyway” – see: The decade in the Māori world: from Taika to Tariana.

Former Act Party leader Rodney Hide says that Ardern’s promise of delivery in 2019 “has proved, like her government, empty and meaningless. The tragedy is that we accept it. It’s enough that politicians feel and emote; there’s no need to do or achieve anything. We should perhaps rename the country New Feel-Land” – see: Year of Delivery got lost in the post (paywalled).

He elaborates, suggesting that the current policy-making is driven by a new phenomenon: “The prime minister has plastics again in her sights. She says it’s what children write to her about most. There are news reports she’s planning on banning plastic stickers on fruit. I scoffed when we had government by focus group. We now have government by school project. It’s the age of social media. There is no thought and no analysis. It’s just the appearance, the look, the feel. There’s no need to do anything.”

Perhaps for a more objective measure of how the country has been going over the last year, we can look at our performance on key indices that compare us to other countries. In this regard, see Alexander Gillespie’s NZ's report card shows excellence in some areas, failures in others (paywalled).

According to this summary of the various international reports, New Zealand is doing well in terms of corruption, peace, democracy, press freedoms, happiness, and economic, civil and political freedoms. But we’re doing poorly in terms of the environment and suicide.

And for the latest report comparing New Zealand to the rest of the world, see John Anthony’s New Zealand ranked seventh in 2019 global prosperity ranking. This covers the Legatum Institute rankings, which is very positive for New Zealand, with the major exception of “living conditions”, for which the country received its lowest ranking.

Finally, for satire on the Government’s spin about the “Year of Delivery” and Simon Bridges’ lightweight approach in 2019, see Steve Braunias’ The secret diary of New Year's resolutions

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society.

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