Enough of "Let's do this", Jacinda. It's time to say "Let's do them!" Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.
FIRST OF ALL, it’s just one poll. And, one poll does not a Labour election loss portend. RNZ’s Poll of Polls which averages out the results of the three or four most recent polls, presents a considerably calmer picture. In a nutshell, National and Labour are level-pegging; NZ First and the Greens are drifting dangerously close to the 5 percent MMP threshold; the Maori Party looks set to take two seats; Act just one; and the rest (including The Opportunity Party) simply aren’t in the race.
Even so. The latest Newshub-Reid Research Poll has delivered a pretty solid kidney-punch to the Centre-Left’s morale. What had begun to feel like a smooth escalator ride to certain victory has been brought to a sudden, stomach-lurching halt. The Nat’s are sitting pretty on 47 percent – enough, with the Greens out of the running, to let them govern on their own.
The cynical genius of the Crosby-Textor pairing has armed the National Party with a pretty serviceable baseball bat and they are swinging it hard. Frustratingly, that Nat bat has been carved out of Labour’s errors. In a fine example of Crosby-Textor’s standard operating procedure. National’s fightback strategy zeroes-in on Labour’s point of maximum vulnerability: their MPs’ abiding fear of stating clearly what it is that they intend to do – and how they intend to pay for it.
Instead of responding to National’s “Let’s Tax This” jibe with a resounding “Hell, Yeah!”, Jacinda has been persuaded to double-down on the Little-led Labour Party’s “keep it vague until the election’s safely won” strategy. The Tax Working Group was supposed to save Labour’s blushes by placating voters with the promise of wise and disinterested expertise. Clearly, the party strategists failed to read the Brexit Memo. Had they done so, they would have been alerted to the fact that the electorate’s faith in “expert opinion” has grown rather thin of late. The stock response of 2017 voters to the prospect of having their future decided by a committee of experts is: “Whose experts will they be?” and “Which side will they be working for?”
Forced to rule out more and more of the promised Working Group’s most predictable recommendations, Jacinda has been made to look as if she already knows what her committee’s findings are going to be – but is reluctant to tell us. This merely reinforces the doubts National has been at such pains to sow. Tactically, her position is grim. As Paddy Gower observes:
“Part of Labour’s problem is that it keeps ruling certain tax variations out during heavy interviews. That keeps the story going. And the problem now is there is no way out for Labour – it cannot backtrack on this. It has to take its vague tax policy all the way to the election – and National will hack at it every step of the way. Labour must find a way out of the tax vortex. Suggestions on back of an envelope to J. Ardern of Mt Albert please.”
Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time for snail mail. So, Jacinda, please accept the following as my best shot at describing “a way out of the tax vortex”.
Strategically, Labour’s best bet is to go on the offensive over tax. Not by responding to endless challenges to rule this or that tax out of contention, but by reminding voters why they pay taxes in the first place. Give it to the voters straight. That if they want better health care, better education, more affordable housing, improved mental health services and clean rivers and streams, then they cannot avoid the question of how all these things are to be paid for. Tell them that Labour’s Tax Working Group will be asked to come up with the fairest ways to gather revenue, but also tell them that they should not be in any doubt that gathering-in more revenue is, simply, what her government has to do if it is to fulfil its promises to repair the damage wrought by nine years of National rule.
Jacinda should remind the electorate that the determination of tax policy: how much should be gathered, and from whom; goes to the very heart of the democratic tradition. It’s why Kings were required to summon Parliaments. It provided the rallying cry for the American Revolution: “No taxation without representation!” Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation – and democracy.
And then she should turn her attention to the farmers. Because, with their bare-faced lies and angry demonstrations, they have shown the rest of New Zealand exactly why a Working Group to improve the fairness of our taxation system is needed. The farming sector’s dirty dairying has been subsidised by urban taxpayers for long enough. A reasonable contribution from farmers to the cost of cleaning up the waterways they have so recklessly befouled is only fair. Jacinda should invite all those who believe farmers should pay a water tax to join her and James Shaw outside the headquarters of Federated Farmers in Wellington. The spiteful decision of Waikato cow-cockies to protest in Jacinda’s home-town of Morrinsville should be answered in kind.
Labour thought it could bluff its way through this election with warm fuzzies and vague promises. They assumed that these would be enough because the electorate has grown weary of the National Government. Well, the Newshub-Reid Research Poll has reminded them in no uncertain terms that this is still a fight.
The National Party doesn’t do surrender. It understands what the Centre-Left appears to have forgotten: that every general election involves a deliberate intensification of what Labour’s founders referred to unashamedly as “the class struggle”. Or, in the words of Leonard Cohen: “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”
“Sunny Ways” have taken Jacinda a long way, but now it is time for her to unleash a blast of true arctic fury. “Fear and lying” is a good start, but, to put it bluntly, at this point in the campaign Labour’s voters are in need of a much more visceral morale boost. The opportunity is there to deliver a blunt message to all those who believe that taxes are what other people pay.
National’s friends in the countryside have raised their hands against “Let’s do this”. It’s time to show them what it means.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 13 September 2017.