Oi! Jacinda! No! If Jacinda Ardern follows the advice of her advisers to scale back voter expectations and re-commit to the Labour/Green "Budget Responsibility Rules", then she will endanger everything she has achieved to date.
“DON’T YOU DARE, Jacinda Ardern. Don’t you dare!” That’s what I shouted at the television screen as she started hosing-down the political prairie fire she’d so spectacularly ignited barely a fortnight before. Someone, somewhere, had impressed upon her the importance of walking-back the expectations that “Jacindamania” is raising – especially among the young.
Someone, somewhere, has drawn her attention to Labour’s longstanding commitment to fiscal rectitude. Rapidly rising voter expectations of increased government spending on education, health and welfare are threatening to make a bonfire of the party’s much-vaunted “Budget Responsibility Rules” and, clearly, her advisers are insisting that she dampen them down.
But, if she heeds this advice, Ardern will endanger everything she has achieved to date. Instead of being hailed as Labour’s political saviour: the woman whose sunny ways have thrown her four dismal predecessors into shadow; she will begin to look like a front-person. A phoney. A fake.
All that promise; all that thrilling sense of now, at last, Labour has a leader equal to the challenges New Zealand faces; will dissipate. The radiance of “The Jacinda Affect” will fade. And, in the ensuing gloom, we will see only a smiley-face puppet whose strings are being pulled by the same grey men who gave us Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little. Those “leaders” who failed us by making promises, and then, almost immediately, taking them back again.
According to her Wikipedia entry, Ardern has a BA in communications. So, I’m betting there’s a little voice telling her not to listen to her over-cautious advisers. A little voice demanding to know why she is putting her dream-run to the Ninth Floor of the Beehive at risk.
She should listen to that little voice, and ignore the voices of all those telling her that the sky will fall if an Ardern-led Labour Government deviates even a smidgen from the numbers set down in the Labour/Green Budget Responsibility Rules. Because it won’t.
No need to take my word for it, however. This is what Aussie economist, Professor Bill Mitchell, from the University of Newcastle, NSW, said when asked to comment on the rigid fiscal parameters set down in Labour’s and the Greens’ budget rules. He described them as “the height of economic irresponsibility”.
Responding to RNZ’s Wallace Chapman on the Sunday Morning programme of 30 July, Mitchell went on to argue that, since roughly 1 in 8 New Zealanders are either underemployed or unemployed; a third of our children live in poverty; and we have record levels of household debt – “so you’ve got consumption expenditure being driven by debt which is an unsustainable process” – and since we have an external sector that’s draining spending through current account deficits; the very idea of running a fiscal surplus is, in Mitchell’s own words, “irresponsible in the extreme.”
Of course all those grey men whispering in her ear will tell Ardern that Bill Mitchell is a crank whose views should, on no account, be heeded. But that is what the advisers to the British Labour Party’s tragic Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Snowden, said about John Maynard Keynes in 1929. And it is also, I’m guessing, what all the people she got to know in Tony Blair’s office said about Jeremy Corbyn’s “For the Many, Not the Few” manifesto. Grey, cautious men will always tender grey, cautious advice.
But if she really means to be New Zealand’s Justin Trudeau, then Ardern should follow his campaign strategy. Trudeau saw the New Democratic Party (Canada’s Labour Party) doing everything it could to be “responsible” – to the point where Canadians found it difficult to distinguish Thomas Mulcair’s NDP from Steven Harper’s Conservatives. Seeing the political opening before him Trudeau said something along the lines of “Let’s do this!” – and won.
Don’t hose down the expectations you have raised, Jacinda. Be guided, instead, by Bill Mitchell:
“[W]hat you’ve got in New Zealand is similar to many other countries in the advanced world. You’ve got the so-called “progressive parties” – the Greens and the Labour Party, who have abandoned [their traditional roles]. The Greens are sort of neoliberals on bikes. And the Labour Party are Neoliberal-Lite. They say, we’ll do austerity – but we’ll do it fairer.”
Except: “There’s no such thing as fair austerity when a third of your children are living in poverty.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 August 2017.