Learned Nothing, Forgotten Nothing: Assembled across the parliamentary aisle is a collection of politicians who appear to have benefited not one iota from their rotation to the Opposition Benches. Indeed, the policies released by National Party Leader Simon Bridges so far contain nothing new, nothing imaginative, nothing inspiring. Confirmation, sadly, that the party has drawn precisely zero lessons from the nine years it spent in power.
“EVENTS, DEAR BOY, EVENTS.” That’s how the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, answered the young journalist who asked him what might blow his government off-course. Macmillan’s response is remarkable not only for its aristocratic brevity, but also for its weary fatalism. Compressed into Macmillan’s bon mot is the political experience of a lifetime. It speaks to the folly of trying to anticipate the future: the whole ridiculous notion that the lives of individuals – and governments – are theirs to command. Who would have thought an old Tory could be so wise?
Although our “youth adjacent” Prime Minister was a long way off being born when Harold Macmillan (Britain’s PM from 1957 to 1963) made his contribution to History’s Big Book of Memorable Political Quotations, the last seven days have given her plenty of reasons to appreciate it. The last time the world faced anything as serious as the present triple crisis of a global pandemic, tanking sharemarkets, and a hugely destabilising energy price war, was more than ten years ago when the entire world teetered on the brink of financial catastrophe. It’s easy to see why the Prime Minister might think that somebody ‘up there’ really has it in for her!
Not that she needs to look up to locate those ranged against her. A quick glance across the parliamentary aisle in the direction of the National Party Opposition will more than suffice. There she will find assembled a collection of politicians who appear to have benefited not one iota from their rotation to the Opposition Benches. Indeed, the policies National has released so far contain nothing new, nothing imaginative, nothing inspiring. Confirmation, sadly, that the party has drawn precisely zero lessons from the nine years it spent in power.
Instead, we have witnessed the very worst of ‘tick-the-box’ conservative politics. Tax cuts for the rich. (Tick.) Crack-down on the gangs. (Tick.) Make a “bonfire” of irksome regulations. (Tick.) Weaken the trade unions. (Tick.) Build more roads. (Tick.) Pay lip-service to fighting Climate Change – but make sure nothing gets done. (Tick.)
An intelligent Opposition would have analysed the causes of voter dissatisfaction with the previous National government, and then asked itself whether simply replicating its policies was a politically responsible electoral strategy.
Further shrinking the fiscal resources of the state by deliberately lowering the tax-take, for example, can only render it less capable of meeting the needs of its citizens. It means leaving the country’s crumbling infrastructure unrepaired. Similarly, the country’s rapidly ageing population’s sky-rocketing health needs will go unmet. An intelligent Opposition would have recognised these consequences and refrained from placing tax cuts on the election-year table.
Especially irresponsible, is the National Party’s promise to make a “bonfire” of irksome regulations. Reading the media releases of the Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges, and his Finance Spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, one is left with the impression that they were out of the country at the time of the Pike River Disaster and the CTV Building’s collapse during the Christchurch Earthquake. How else to explain their complete inability to grasp the role New Zealand’s notorious “light-handed” regulatory regime played in those tragedies? Do they truly believe that the persons responsible considered themselves to be exercising anything other than “common sense” in health and safety matters?
As if these failures weren’t egregious enough, the National Opposition has clearly decided that it would be an unforgiveable political error to let a major health emergency go to waste.
In the very worst case scenario, the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic could kill millions and unhinge the global economy. As an open trading economy, New Zealand would be especially hard hit. Of course, if the virus moves aggressively into the community transmission phase, the crisis will be compounded by several orders of magnitude. New Zealand could not be more at risk if faced with an imminent military attack.
Historically, these are the circumstances in which political parties set aside their differences and join together to meet the national crisis with a united front – as happened with the all-party coalitions formed spontaneously at the outset of the First and Second World Wars.
Sadly, this is not what we’re getting from Simon Bridges’ National Party. On the contrary, the Opposition seems hell-bent on undermining public confidence in the Government’s handling of the crisis.
National’s response to “events” has, so far, been disgraceful.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 March 2020.