|Not Labour: If you’re out to punish the government you once loved, then the last thing you need is to be shown evidence that the opposition parties are much, much worse.|
THE GREATEST VIRTUE of being the Opposition is not being the Government. Only very rarely is an opposition party elected on the strength of its manifesto. In the usual course of events, most voters don’t pay all that much attention to what the opposition parties are offering. Providing they present policies which convey at least the appearance of coherence, the electorate generally refrains from asking too many questions. After all, what they’re seeking is the defeat and humiliation of the party/parties which have so recklessly squandered their trust – and their faith. If you’re out to punish the government you once loved, then the last thing you need is to be shown evidence that the opposition parties are much, much worse.
One of the odd aspects of the 2023 General Election campaign is how little real effort the governing Labour Party has put into convincing voters that the National and Act parties are actually planning to hurt them. Labour knows this because it is also planning to hurt the voters. Not as much, admittedly, as the Right, but pretty badly nonetheless.
The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, alerted by his Treasury advisers, has already announced a multi-billion-dollar reduction in state spending over the next three years. In this he has little choice – not after his leader unilaterally ruled-out any new or significantly increased taxes. Robertson is, thus, acutely aware that even minimal reductions in taxes must be answered by savage cuts in spending. He knows that National’s promised tax-cuts can only be paid for by imposing an austerity programme even more ruthless than his own.
That being the case, Labour’s supporters are entirely justified in expecting both Robertson, and the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, to go for National’s jugular – and rip it right out.
In the first Leaders’ Debate, for example, as Luxon was trotting out his usual platitudes and slogans extolling – but not verifying with even the most rudimentary computations – National’s tax-cuts, why didn’t Hipkins just interrupt him, in a voice of cold command:
“Stop lying to the New Zealand people, Mr Luxon! If there was even a shred of truth attached to these nonsensical figures, you wouldn’t hesitate to prove it by releasing the evidential basis for your claims. Your refusal to do so proves that you are lying about the affordability of your tax-cuts. New Zealanders deserve better than a liar for their prime minister, Mr Luxon!”
Luxon would have expostulated that he was not lying, and demanded a retraction and an apology. At which point, Hipkins could have responded by saying:
“You say you are not lying, Mr Luxon, and you demand an apology. Well, you shall have it, Mr Luxon, and gladly, if, by the time of the next Leaders’ Debate, you have released your party’s computations for the nation’s economists to peruse, and if, having perused them, the consensus view of the experts is that your tax policy is both sound and affordable. Let us have the numbers, Mr Luxon. Let us have the proof. And if your claims are vindicated, then, most certainly, I will withdraw and apologise. And yet, something tells me that you won’t be presenting us with the truth, and I will not be apologising.”
Can you imagine how utterly confounded poor Jessica Much McKay would have been by such an answer? How effortlessly, it would have handed the advantage to Hipkins? How humiliated Luxon would have felt – and how impossible it would have been for him to hide his humiliation? It would have been Hipkins’ “Show me the money!” moment, and with it he would have won the debate – and, quite possibly, the election.
Except, of course, that is not what we saw, was it? What we saw was two politicians who seemed to agree, more than they disagreed, with each other, and who called each other by their first names, like old mates. What we saw was living proof of the old saying: “Why bother voting? Politicians always win.”
Effective rebuttal of the Opposition isn’t limited to the set-piece debates. Every day of the campaign, the Opposition is releasing material with which Hipkins and Robertson could have a field day.
The release of the GDP figures, for example, offered Labour the opportunity to spring a trap for the National Party’s finance spokeswoman, Nicola Willis.
The better-than-expected numbers were rightfully trumpeted by Robertson as evidence of the soundness of the Labour Government’s economic management. Predictably, Willis responded with a scathing media release:
“Labour has mismanaged and vandalised the economy on a scale unlike anything we have seen in recent history.” Thundered Willis. “Government spending is up 80 per cent - $1 billion a day more than 2017. The current account deficit is the largest in the OECD. The economy has been anything but well-managed by Labour.”
Knowing he would later be facing the cameras, Robertson could have prepared a reply for the woman who would be Finance Minister:
“Nicola Willis clearly regards the Labour Government’s management of the Covid-19 Pandemic as an economic disaster. That can only mean that she would not have taken the measures adopted by our own, and practically every other government in the Western World, to keep New Zealanders safe; to keep their jobs and businesses safe; to keep their children safe.
“If Nicola Willis had been in charge, New Zealand would not now be experiencing an inflationary surge, because she would not have authorised the Reserve Bank to create the credit needed to keep our economy from crashing in the face of the worst global pandemic for a hundred years. So, no cost-of-living crisis.
“We would, however, now be in the grip of a much greater crisis: a devastating recession, with unemployment levels not seen since the 1930s. And that wouldn’t be all. No, that wouldn’t even be half. In addition to economic devastation, New Zealanders would be facing the moral and emotional devastation of 10,000 to 15,000 Covid fatalities – a death toll greater than New Zealand’s losses in the Second World War.
“Still, New Zealand would not now be facing a record current account deficit – just a deficit of human potential, talent and wisdom. Just the aching absence of beloved family members at ten thousand Kiwi Christmas tables.
“Am I being too harsh? Are you telling me that Nicola and National would, in all probability, have done exactly what we did? Then, perhaps, you should ask her what she means, precisely, when she accuses us of mismanaging and vandalising the New Zealand economy. Is she accusing us of saving more lives than was reasonable? Is she saying that National would have allowed more people to die – for the sake of the economy?
“Perhaps you should ask Ms Willis how she can leave something as huge as the Covid-19 Pandemic out of her economic narrative? Because, frankly, the people of New Zealand have a right to know how many people saved were too many people saved?
Sadly, Labour doesn’t talk like that anymore. Somewhere, back along the track, the party lost its sense of responsibility for the people who were bound to suffer if its MPs and candidates lost interest in the contest and gave up. Somehow, they forgot that winning and holding political power is not a game of bloody beach cricket! For true democratic socialists, it is never time to give the other team a turn. Not if the other team is itching to employ body-line bowling against the weak and vulnerable in their own.
Labour’s job is to win – and keep on winning. And if, every once in a while, it loses, then its right-wing opponents should damn well know they’ve been in a fight.
POSTSCRIPT: It seems that I wasn't the only person decrying the lack of aggression in Labour's election campaign. In the second leaders' debate, broadcast on TV3 on Wednesday, 27 September 2023, Hipkins came out swinging and landed several heavy blows on a stunned Christopher Luxon. Took you long enough, Chippy! - C.T.
This essay (minus the postscript) was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 September 2023.