Cunning Plan Or Suicide Note: The scale of English’s political folly is astonishing. His refusal to honour Key’s pledge on NZ Superannuation has front-footed the very political combination that National should be doing all it can to destabilise: Labour, NZ First and the Greens.
WE’LL PROBABLY NEVER KNOW whether yesterday’s announcement on NZ Superannuation was carefully planned, or simply inept political improvisation. Either way, it is highly likely that Bill English has just cost National the 2017 General Election.
As if high-interest student loans and unaffordable houses were not intergenerational injustice enough for Generation X, a Baby Boomer Prime Minister has just advanced their retirement age from 65 to 67.
For older New Zealanders, English’s announcement has stirred-up bitter memories. Fears that John Key’s pledge to leave NZ Super alone had put to bed for nine years have been reawakened.
Very early on in his career as leader of the National Opposition, John Key realised that he and his party were vulnerable on the superannuation issue. In the bluntest terms, he understood that, in the minds of most older voters, his party had “previous form”.
Too many of them remembered Jim Bolger’s “no ifs, no buts, no maybes” promise to restore NZ Super to its former universal, non-means-tested and un-surcharged status. The Bolger government’s subsequent promise-breaking on NZ Super inflicted huge damage on National’s brand.
It was the making of NZ First.
Among the many “To-Do” items confronting Key in the run-up to the 2008 election were, firstly: pushing Winston Peters and his party out of Parliament; and, secondly: eliminating NZ Super as a negative issue for National.
Strategically, these two objectives were inextricably intertwined. If Key was to secure the required ideological head-room for his new “Labour-lite” government, then Winston Peters’ voters would have to become John Key’s voters. A National government obligated to Peters and NZ First would make the John Key = National, National = John Key equation impossible. If centre-Right New Zealanders were to repose their faith and trust in Key’s “Everyman” brand, then Peters would have to go.
Key’s pledge: That he would resign as Prime Minister before he would countenance any changes to NZ Super; was his inspired tactical solution to his own, and National’s, double-headed strategic problem.
As it became increasingly certain that Helen Clark’s government would fall, and the National/Act assault on Peters reached its crescendo, Key’s pledge encouraged a crucial fraction of Peters’ followers to believe that their damaged champion could be abandoned safely. Henceforth, that “Nice Mr Key” would be there, right at the top, to look after them.
It was a definite “twofer” for National.
Clark had gone to considerable lengths to look after New Zealand’s older voters and ensure as many as possible remained in Labour’s column. Unfortunately, her support for Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill had fatally undermined older voters’ trust and confidence in the Clark-led Labour Party’s values.
Ordinarily, that would have prompted these voters to shift from Labour to NZ First. Not this time. Peters’ “disgrace” and Key’s unequivocal pledge had laid down a royal road to National as the pragmatic custodian of “Mainstream New Zealand’s” core values. They defected in droves.
All of which makes English’s decision to advance the age of eligibility by two years electorally incomprehensible. All he had to do to keep National’s elderly supporters on side was to re-confirm Key’s pledge. ‘No change to NZ Super’ was the simple and straightforward formula for removing the issue from the 2017 election agenda.
So, why didn’t he do it?
The critics of NZ Super (which, unfortunately, includes the Retirement Commissioner, Diane Maxwell) will do their best to paint English’s decision as a brave attempt to prevent New Zealand Superannuation from becoming “unsustainable”.
But English’s past pronouncements make it clear that he does not believe the scheme is unsustainable. Immigration flows and the over-65-year-olds remaining in the workforce for longer will take NZ Super over the Baby-Boom hump quite comfortably – after which the demographic stresses will reduce significantly.
The only explanation that makes any sense is that English sees NZ Super as the last remnant of the welfare state’s universalist heritage – and he hates it. His whole “social investment” approach to state support reflects his determination to substitute “tightly-targeted” services for the demonstrably more efficient and cost-effective policies of universal entitlement.
In other words, English has allowed ideological extremism to undermine his predecessor’s phenomenally successful pragmatism.
All that Little and Peters need to do now is loudly recommit themselves to honouring Key’s pledge. Not only will this reassure older voters, but it will also incentivise younger New Zealanders to get out and vote. After all, if National can advance the age of eligibility in 2017, what’s to stop it introducing a means test in 2018? Or changing the formula for calculating the pension’s value in 2019?
The scale of English’s political folly is astonishing. His refusal to honour Key’s pledge has front-footed the very political combination that National should be doing all it can to destabilise: Labour, NZ First and the Greens.
The proud defenders of NZ Superannuation.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 March 2017.