"Hell, Yeah!" - Labour must not retreat before National’s “Let’s Tax This!” counter-attack. Not when a majority of New Zealanders are ready to rescue their ailing public services from further deterioration. When National hurls the “tax and spend” accusation at Labour candidates they should respond instantly with a hearty “Hell, yeah!”
‘LET’S TAX THIS!’ Looks like being the National Party’s strategic rejoinder to Jacinda Ardern’s “Let’s Do This!” campaign slogan. If it is, then it deserves to be as ineffective as it is unoriginal. National’s campaign manager, Steven Joyce, is experienced enough to know that making the Left’s alleged propensity to “tax and spend” the central feature of a National Party election campaign only works when Labour is in power.
The reason for this is obvious. One of the main reasons National governments fall is because they are ideologically allergic to both taxing and spending. As the years pass, and the necessary investments in health, education, housing and infrastructure are withheld, the public starts to notice a worrying decline in the quality and quantity of essential social services.
Urgent surgical operations are routinely deferred, or, worse still, declined. School classrooms become overcrowded. The recruitment and retention of qualified teachers becomes impossible. Demand for affordable housing outstrips supply. Homelessness reaches crisis levels. Rivers and streams become unswimmable. To all but the greedy and the cruel, the moral case for increased taxation, to enable long-deferred public expenditure, is irrefutable.
Where New Zealand now stands, the need of a “tax and spend” government is palpable. Voters convinced of this need are, therefore, unlikely to run screaming for the hills at the prospect of a Labour government taking office. That National is defaulting to such a tired old attack-line is a sign not of strategic confidence – it actually signals something pretty close to despair.
Why then is Mr Joyce rolling the dice so recklessly?
The most likely answer is that he believes Labour’s leaders – most particularly its finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson – are incorrigibly risk averse, and that they will recoil from National’s “Let’s Tax This!” counter-attack in confusion and dismay.
On the strength of Labour’s performance under Andrew Little, Mr Joyce’s gamble is not unreasonable. It was, after all, Mr Little who nixed Labour’s 2011-2014 policy of introducing a capital gains tax. Nor was he willing to countenance a sharp rise in the progressivity of the Income Tax. His preference for a “working group” of “experts” to write his party’s tax policies – but only after Labour has been safely elected – betrayed the Opposition’s extraordinary sensitivity towards these issues.
Mr Joyce is hoping that the more pressure the National Party is able to heap upon Labour in relation to tax, the more confused and equivocal its spokespeople will become. This would be of enormous assistance to National; not least because it would spike the Opposition’s rhetorical guns on at least two issues where the Government is acutely vulnerable: Auckland’s escalating traffic woes; and the appalling condition of New Zealand’s waterways.
Ms Ardern’s bold policy announcements on both of these issues have included unabashed references to such fiscal instruments as regional fuel taxes, resource-use royalties and irrigation levies. Had she not included these references, National’s charge would have been that Labour has no idea how its promises will be paid for. By anticipating this criticism, however, and countering it, Ms Ardern handed Mr Joyce the “Let’s Tax This!” attack-line he was looking for.
For a day or two, Mr Joyce’s strategy appeared to be working. Interviewed by Lisa Owen on the Three network’s current affairs programme, “The Nation”, Mr Robertson’s confidence visibly faded when asked whether or not Labour would be putting a capital gains tax back on the agenda. As his opponent floundered, the wolfish grin on Finance Minister Joyce’s face told the viewers everything they needed to know!
By the following day, however, Labour had developed an attack-line of its own. Interviewed on TVNZ’s “Q+A”, Labour’s environment spokesperson, David Parker, hit back against criticism of his party’s water policies by turning the disparagement back on its originators. Mr Parker simply demanded to know whether or not the Government, Federated Farmers, horticulturalists and vintners were suggesting that the biggest contributors to New Zealand’s water problems should be exempted entirely from making a reasonable contribution to their solution?
That Mr Parker rebuked his critics while wearing an expression that positively shouted: “You have got to be kidding me!”, made his challenge even more persuasive. Television is an ideal medium for this sort of non-verbal communication – As Mr Joyce had proved the day before.
Labour should not, therefore, retreat before National’s “Let’s Tax This!” counter-attack. Not when a majority of New Zealanders are ready to rescue their ailing public services from further deterioration. That “taxation is the price we pay for civilisation” has become increasingly clear over the nine years of Bill English’s undeclared, but unmistakeable, austerity campaign against the public sector. When National hurls the “tax and spend” accusation at Labour candidates they should respond instantly with a hearty “Hell, yeah!”
“Let’s Do This!” and “Let’s Tax This!” are simply different ways of saying the same thing.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 15 August 2017.