Labour Turns A Page: But which way? A parsing of David Shearer's Address-in-Reply speech suggests that the party is about to revert to the economic and social priorities of the Clark-Cullen Government of 1999-2008.
THE ADDRESS IN REPLY to the Speech from the Throne presents the Leader of the Opposition with a great opportunity. The newly elected government has placed its words in the mouth of the Governor General, and now it’s time for the alternative government to have its say. The Address-in-Reply debate is a time for grand themes and memorable lines; a time for inducing “buyer’s remorse” among the governing party’s supporters; a time – in short – for the man or woman who would be prime minister to really shine.
Did David Shearer shine? In delivering his first Address-in-Reply speech, did he rise to the occasion? And what (if any) grand and memorable lines did he deliver? Let’s find out.
Mr Shearer began with an acknowledgement that, on 26 November, the electorate rejected what Labour had to offer:
Just over three weeks ago the National Government and the Labour Opposition put our ideas in front of the people of New Zealand, and our side didn’t win.
And therefore Labour will be different in these coming three years.
We will turn a page.
To “turn the page”, in common English usage, means “to stop thinking about and dealing with something”. As in: “Your divorce came through over a year ago, it’s time to turn the page”.
So what is Mr Shearer so keen to stop thinking about? What’s he so tired of dealing with? Is it Helen Clark’s Labour Party? The Labour Party that Phil Goff inherited but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, change? Turning a page on that would make a huge difference.
It would also be extremely difficult. Helen Clark dominated Labour for 15 years – longer than any other Labour Leader. There are those in Camp Shearer who insist that, even now, from a distance of 15,000 kilometres, she is still trying to call the shots. That in the just-concluded leadership contest, Ms Clark actively lobbied for Mr Shearer’s opponent, David Cunliffe.
A party leader reveals a great deal about his character and intentions through the people he chooses to sit alongside him, and those he relegates to the back-benches. If Mr Shearer really is determined to stop thinking about and dealing with Helen Clark, his ‘Shadow Cabinet’ ought to show it.
What it actually discloses, however, is that the Shearer-led Labour Party is more about continuity than change. Mr Shearer’s two big winners, Grant Robertson and Jacinda Ardern, though certainly younger than Ms Clark’s generation of politicians, have yet to demonstrate the slightest ideological deviance from her “social-democratic” prescriptions.
Some of Mr Shearer’s other picks: David Parker, Clayton Cosgrove, Shane Jones, Nanaia Mahuta, Su’a William Sio, Trevor Mallard, Phil Goff, Annette King and Damien O’Connor; suggest a greater willingness to acknowledge the ideals and aspirations of his more conservative caucus colleagues. This could presage a turning away from the social-liberalism that cost Labour so dearly in Ms Clark’s final term. But, the inclusion of David Cunliffe, Phil Twyford, Charles Chauvel, Lianne Dalziel, Chris Hipkins, Darien Fenton and Clare Curran in the Shadow Cabinet points to the more mundane conclusion that, rather than any burning desire to turn over a new leaf, Mr Shearer’s choices reflect Labour's need for “rejuvenation” and a balancing of caucus factions.
But Mr Shearer was not about to let his page-turning metaphor go. A little later in his speech he declared:
The Labour Party is turning a page.
This Labour Party will put growing the pie for all New Zealanders at the front of our agenda.
We cannot be content dividing an ever shrinking pie.
But, “growing the pie” is simply a way of expressing the deeply conservative idea that how one’s country’s national income is distributed matters less than its constant expansion. Ms Clark was fond of quoting John F. Kennedy’s observation that: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But, as JFK undoubtedly knew (because he used to sail them) and Ms Clark surely appreciates, there’s a world of difference between struggling along in a row-boat, and sailing in a luxury yacht.
In pledging to “grow the pie”, Mr Shearer is speaking in code to New Zealand’s wealthiest men and women. He is telling them that they need not fear a future Labour Government. Wages will continue to be subsidized by Working For Families, and the government will pour millions into scientific research and development. Mr Shearer will use the additional revenue flowing into the state’s coffers from innovative new business ventures to boost spending on education and health. The new jobs created by these business will reduce the government’s welfare obligations, allowing it to repay debt and rebuild surpluses.
If you’re asking yourself: “Weren’t these the economic and social policies of Ms Clark and Dr Michael Cullen?” The answer is: “Yes, they were.”
Mr Shearer and the Labour Party aren’t turning the page forward – they’re turning it back.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 December 2011.