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Bryce Edwards: where's the contest of ideas this campaign?

Aug 07, 2020

By Bryce Edwards * for The Democracy Project.

Analysis - Can we postpone this year's election? Quite frankly, the political parties don't seem ready for it, and aren't about to offer voters the necessary policy choices for the unprecedented times we're in. We've ended up with a campaign focused on scandal, personality and leadership, with a policy void that's worse than usual.

Voters face a policy desert when choosing who to vote for, says Bryce Edwards. Photo: Supplied

Most of the parties are failing to release much in the way of new policy. The justification for this is that the coronavirus crisis and the associated volatility means policymaking is too difficult or unnecessary. And yet it's this very crisis that makes fresh policies and a contest of ideas more vital than ever.

Nonetheless, this week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned Labour doesn't have much in the way of new policy to announce, saying "I would flag to voters not to expect to see the large scale manifestos that are a significant departure from what we are doing". According to this quote, in comparison to 2017 when Labour campaigned on introducing KiwiBuild, extending paid parental leave, and fees-free tertiary education, Ardern "suggested that new policy ideas on this type of scale were off the table for Labour this election."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has justified Labour's lack of a plan, saying "this is not a time to be making grand promises, when there is so much uncertainty in the world".

Bryce Edwards. Photo: Twitter

It's hard to see when would be a better time than right now to hear about how parties are going to deal with the new economic reality, and rebuilding both economy and society. Back in April I wrote in The Guardian that this would be a big policy-based election campaign with big bold policies being put forward.

I wrote then, that "Politicians will need to provide voters with a compelling vision, backed by detailed policies, for rebuilding the country. Recreating the old order won't be good enough." How wrong - or blinded by wishful thinking - I was.

Reaction to Labour's policy-free approach to the election is swiftly building. Newsroom editor Bernard Hickey has published a searing criticism of Ardern for taking what he sees as a conservative strategy to the election when transformation is required.

Hickey reports the PM's post-Cabinet press conference confirmation of Labour's conservative approach: "She confirmed Labour had no plans for major new spending or tax or welfare reform in the last full post-Cabinet news conference of her first term. Instead, voters should look at the Government's current achievements, its plans for Covid-19 recovery and Budget 2020's debt track as an indicator of 'steady-as-she-goes'. There is no more. That is it. After months of wondering if she was about to flex her new and larger political muscles to pull a big policy rabbit out of the hat, she tapped the hat, turned it upside down, asked us to peer inside at the emptiness, and put it back down on the table: a popular magician without a trick who doesn't harm rabbits."

Hickey explains the electoral pragmatism behind the conservative strategy: "In political circles, it is known as the 'low target' strategy: offer little obvious change from the status quo to give your opponent few clear pain points to target you on the grounds you want to 'hurt' one part of the electorate or another. It is essentially a conservative strategy, often employed by conservative parties in government. This week Jacinda Ardern revealed herself as a small 'c' conservative, focused on maintaining the current shape and (historically and comparatively small) size of government, but with a friendlier face."

Labour's approach is, of course, being celebrated by some. Conservative political commentator Liam Hehir writes today that his side can essentially claim Ardern as one of their own, and he celebrates Ardern's lack of interest in advocating a transformative agenda.

According to Hehir, Ardern's lack of focus on policy and her status quo-orientated politics of kindness are actually a good thing, and it's why conservatives like himself are comfortable with this government, especially since they want to retain so many of the settings of the last National government.

On the left, some are less impressed about the lack of differentiation or advocacy for reform. The normally pro-government blogsite, The Standard, has published a critique of the failure of the various parties to rise to the occasion, asking: "Why have we fallen into the most boring and predictable election we've had since Bolger's second term? Neither National nor Labour have put out fresh policy in months. New roads don't count as fresh anything. Nor do medium-scale regional projects".

The post says the public deserve more than vacuous slogans like "Let's keep moving" and what they represent, arguing "there is zero sense of urgency from either side of the political spectrum". But it doesn't have to be like this: "In most previous governments, there would have been a huge national call to arms, with summits and unified departmental purposes, and seriously bold policy initiatives, and at the end of which everyone knew that there was a plan, they were part of a team working on that plan, and they could get up in the morning and know how they were assisting that team with their effort. There's no plan at all, other than: print money and stay disinfected."

Labour's policy-free approach was also discussed yesterday in a Stuff editorial, which highlighted a letter to the editor that said: "Ahead of a general election, voters need to see policy, and they need a clear plan. Otherwise, how are we to make a sound choice?"

The editorial agreed that Labour's policy-light approach could be seen as arrogant or presumptuous, as it looks like the popular party is attempting to get re-elected without the scrutiny of a contest of ideas taking place.

It also endorses Ardern's argument "that her party's priority is the Covid-19 recovery, and that trumps significant new policy". The news outlet says it's fair enough for Labour to focus on "bedding in the successes" and preventing Covid outbreaks. What's more, "Managing the pandemic response means regular policy announcements anyway, just not according to an election campaign schedule."

The editorial draws a parallel with Joe Biden's current campaign for the US presidency, which is also "without major splashes on the policy front". This is a point made by Newstalk ZB's Heather du Plessis-Allan: "Joe Biden seems to poll better when he's invisible. The idea of him is better than the reality of him. The less he's in the media, the better he does. It's looking like Labour might try to pull the same thing here. They're running an invisible campaign: hardly any policy, hardly any typical campaign media stuff, almost trying to pretend the campaign isn't happening".

Du Plessis-Allan criticises Labour for not telling us how they will deal with the crisis: "If you're hoping to get an idea of how they're going to get us out of this economic hole before you vote, judging by that comment, you're going to be disappointed. Furthermore, the PM's not participating in the regular media interviews you'd expect during a campaign." She argues Labour's policy-free approach is masked by the party's emphasis on the health crisis.

So, is the government milking Covid instead of devising and selling new policy? That's the argument of fellow broadcaster Kate Hawkesby, who says politicians are cynically forgoing policy messaging and going down the easier and more productive route of ramping up a focus on the virus and Labour's success in dealing with it: "Labour has seen what Covid has done for them, and they're running with it. Forget policy, forget issues, forget future plans, as long as they can keep reminding us to wash our hands, it keeps us in a state of fear".

Similarly, Barry Soper says this election campaign is reminiscent of Labour's policy-free re-election campaign of 1987: "In the run-up to that campaign the country was also in a state of shock, it had been dragged out of the Muldoon economic ice box with the promise from Roger Douglas of short-term pain for long-term gain". He points out that, back then, the party rode a wave of popularity and won by a landslide, but were severely punished at the following election.

However, it's not just a problem with Labour. Richard Harman of the Politik website has detailed National's policy drought, saying "political professionals are surprised that the party is only starting to develop its policy seven weeks out from the election. The party does have a new policy website which has 14 infrastructure policies (all transport projects) three long-standing education policies and nothing else".

Harman explains how policy development has chaotically evolved over this year: "National had been developing a series of policy discussion documents under the leadership of Nelson MP, Nick Smith. These were posted on the party's website, but at the start of the Covid lockdown, they were taken down, apparently at the direction of then-leader, Simon Bridges. When Todd Muller replaced Bridges in May, Amy Adams was appointed to head up a series of policy development teams. Politik understands Adams' teams have yet to produce any policy and what policy the party has produced has come from the campaign director, Tim Hurdle."

National is heavily pushing its slogan about jobs and the economy. But according to Duncan Garner the public requires more than that: "Saying 'jobs' and 'economy' doesn't make anything happen. We need to see your plans and ideas - now".

Here's Garner's wider point: "There is drought on new policy from both parties. I'm not voting on how well Ardern handled the crisis, that's now banked. I want to know what these parties are offering for the next three years. Labour, are you going to tax us more to pay for the cost of Covid? National, if you're going to spend less - what goes? Enough about yourselves, what about us? I can barely name a policy anyone has put out in recent weeks, and in 66 days we go to the polls."

Of course, it's not easy in the current volatile environment to come up with policy solutions. This is emphasised by Interest's Jenée Tibshraeny: "Creating policy in response to a pandemic and recession is of course a mammoth task - especially for broad-based parties like National and Labour. What's more, the situation with the virus is evolving, making it difficult to look too far ahead. Parties would be foolish to set too much in stone, when they need to be agile".

Tibshraeny points out that the Greens and Act are coming up with some detailed policy, but she suspects the other parties are simply "too afraid of alienating voters by tackling the issues facing the country in this new Covid era". She warns against allowing any party to treat "the election as an inconvenience to its God-given right to govern" and concludes "We need to demand a realistic contest of ideas from our leaders."

But are the public actually interested in policy detail? The Greens have put out a 52-page election manifesto, which leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury has poked fun at: "Only the biggest politics geek with an enormous luxury of time or the most fastidious Green Party follower who recycles their own body waste is going to read all 52 pages. Sure there are some great ideas amongst all this, but the point is to sell those ideas in easy bite sized chunks, subsection 5A -with 12 point KPIs will sail over the heads of 95 percent of the electorate"

Finally, political journalist Thomas Coughlan says "the current paucity of election policy is something of a scandal", as is the propensity of governments to farm out policy questions to working groups and experts. He looks for solutions to the problem.

* Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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