THE POLITICS OF KINDNESS may have left a deeper impression on the New Zealand electorate than is generally acknowledged. Though the nation has not quite arrived at the point of asking: “Jacinda who?”, the speed and thoroughness of the former prime minister’s political eclipse has been remarkable. The temptation, therefore, is to assume that the ideas that characterised her premiership have similarly faded into the background. That the “Politics of Kindness” no longer has electoral currency. But, in George Gershwin’s memorable formulation: “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Certainly, there are strong echoes of Ardernian kindness in Grant Robertson’s sixth budget. The extension of childcare subsidies to two-year-olds, allowing children to ride free on public transport, and, most importantly, the abolition of prescription charges – all point to a still-strong compassionate impulse animating Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ cabinet. Indeed, the Finance Minister’s strategic preference for borrowing over spending cuts stands athwart the Reserve Bank Governor’s recessionary pathway. In effect, Robertson is demanding to know whether the Governor counts himself among the kind – or the cruel.
Hipkins and Robertson are asking the same question (albeit considerably amplified) of their National Party counterparts. “What will it be, Christopher and Nicola? Responsible compassion, or unkind austerity?” The voters need to know.
Astonishingly, the National leadership replied to Labour’s question immediately, telling the voters that prescription charges would be reinstated by an incoming National Party-led government. Given that Labour’s policy of free prescriptions was the announcement received by the electorate most warmly, National’s pledge to nullify it struck most observers as nuts. It is explicable only if one assumes that Luxon and Willis are convinced that the electorate is counting on them to deliver policy medicine of the bitterest kind. Or, at least, every bit as bitter as Act’s.
Act is fast becoming the biggest single obstacle to National forming a government. It has enlarged its share of the Party Vote almost entirely at National’s expense by arguing that only the Act Party is prepared to manage the New Zealand economy with the rigor it requires. In doing so Act has corralled a significant percentage of those voters who like to use their votes as weapons – primarily against people they perceive as undeserving of the state largesse lavished upon them. They expect any incoming right-wing government to discipline and punish these “parasites”.
National’s problem, assuming it really is planning to get all medieval on the asses of the undeserving poor, is that the women-voters of all ages who deserted it for Labour in 2020, the voters it so desperately needs to win, may not be all that keen to take up their allotted seating in the National-Act Theatre of Cruelty. Contrariwise, if National shows the slightest sign of returning to the “Labour-Lite” days of John Key and Bill English – let alone to “Jacinda’s” Politics of Kindness – then they risk seeing even more of their voters deserting the National mother-ship for Act’s swashbuckling space-cruiser.
Presumably, it was to avoid such damaging descriptions that Luxon and Willis were so quick to announce their intention to restore prescription charges. But, their resolve to be right-wing pirates every bit as scary as David Seymour and his crew turned out to be less-than-adamantine. Within hours, National was walking back its hardline commitment to austerity. Perhaps the holders of Community Services Cards and superannuitants’ Gold Cards could be exempted from paying prescription charges. “Targeted assistance” – that’s what National stands for. That’s what it would be offering.
If only it was that simple. Unfortunately for Luxon and Willis, all that those crucial swing-voters will remember is that, first, National was against abolishing prescription charges, and then, the moment it registered the force of the public backlash, its leaders couldn’t backtrack fast enough. In other words: Luxon’s and Willis’s first response made them sound cruel, and their second made them look weak. Is their anything more pathetic in the world of Sado-politics than a “Dom” too squeamish to wield the whip?
Significantly, this backtrack over prescription charges is very far from being National’s first. Over the past year, Luxon, in particular, has appeared to stumble from one hastily-corrected policy misstatement to the next. The public is perplexed. Is it a case of Luxon having bold right-wing ideas which he simply cannot persuade his timid, more centrist, colleagues to accept? Or, is it simply the Leader of the Opposition talking off the top of his head about matters he is not equipped to discuss, and then having to walk his statements back in the face of unrelenting media questioning and caucus fury?
Regardless of the explanation, the cumulative effect of these gaffes is electorally sub-optimal. Luxon, a man with next-to-no serious parliamentary experience; a man, moreover, who spent a large chunk of the past 20 years living and working out of New Zealand; stands revealed as a man not so much out-of-touch as tellingly unfamiliar with the cues most Kiwis respond to without thinking. His performance is reminiscent of those German soldiers who, during the Battle of the Bulge, were apprehended wearing American uniforms. The GI’s tested these imposters by asking them questions that any genuine American could answer without hesitation. Those who failed the test were shot as spies.
It is Luxon’s ongoing struggle to present himself as an authentic politician that explains his failure to make the sort of steady gains in the preferred-prime-minister polling stakes that are the sure sign of a prime-minister-in-waiting. Even worse, Luxon shows every sign of lacking that “gut feel” for politics that distinguished Rob Muldoon, David Lange, Jim Bolger, Jim Anderton, Winston Peters, Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Unlike those leaders, he has yet to come up with a political narrative in which not only dyed-in-the-wool Nats, but also a solid majority of ordinary New Zealanders, can see themselves.
Muldoon promised “New Zealand the way YOU want it.”, Bolger talked about restoring the “decent society” following the betrayals of Rogernomics, and John Key held out the promise of “a brighter future” as Labour’s lustre faded. An opposition’s narrative need not be one the whole country can agree with, but it must be one in which most New Zealanders can see themselves living – more-or-less happily.
Jacinda Ardern’s enduring political legacy is that fewer and fewer New Zealanders can see themselves living happily in a society where kindness no longer counts. There was time when Kiwis would vote for bullies – but that time has passed. At need, New Zealanders will use their vote as a shield. From preference, they will use it as a tool. But, increasingly, they are refusing to use it as a weapon. Labour grasps the need to “be kind”. Until National does likewise, it will not be the government.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 22 May 2023.