Sunday, February 19, 2023

Point of Order: Not as simple as it looks

The international commentariat may be forgiven for believing new PM Chris Hipkins has relaunched the government rather well.

First a clever pivot to the centre and now a compassionate and inclusive focus on disaster recovery.

Giving credence to rumours that the key strategic brains agreed and executed a skilful change of direction rather well.

Maybe even elbowing National’s Chris Luxon from the middle ground where he yearns to be.

And yet, there’s something not quite right about this narrative.

It’s hard to explain away the binned policies (or is that postponed?) as ‘too far, too fast’ or an excess of zeal.

To many – both inside and outside New Zealand – they seem nicely representative of the direction in which the government (certainly the Ardern version of it) hoped to travel. They even seemed to be trying to actually implement some of them.

Their termination – so far without replacement – will leave the voting public with a short record of concrete policies to consider. And two of the more memorable – border closure and a thumping reduction in the gasoline tax – both dear to the heart of former President Donald Trump.

One of the weaknesses of small country media consensualism is that it obscures the divisive elements of the government’s approach to date. Even – or perhaps particularly – when it has been able to build majority support for that.

The result has been something of a soft ride for the cultural and social intolerance of the government and its supporters in public – and indeed private – institutions; failure to probe the impact of rule by the government’s preferred experts; and celebration of positive discrimination for favoured groups.

Above all of this, not much questioning of the gradual effect of the government’s spending more money on its supporters’ ever-narrower needs – and then limiting the ways the other people can spend what’s left. This gets particularly problematic when the growth machine stops.

You can’t blame any democratic government for making use of slightly-stretched claims of national unity. But it’s unprofessional (for both politicians and journalists) to believe them too much. Good politicians must always be aware of the need to agree to disagree. It’s the essence of durable compromise.

Luxon and colleagues have yet to convert the discontent into practical policies that can command a voting majority. Perhaps they need to dispel the sense that they might just try a more conservative version of the Hipkins approach.

ACT’s David Seymour has a clearer message but at this stage it feels more like that of an influential faction.

The government’s refocus has left both it and its opponents with more questions than it answers. But the next few months might help us understand how entrenched is the discontent it faces, and – critically – what form it is going to take.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton

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