Tuesday, March 30, 2004

A Government is only as good as...

Read these two questions in Parliament following from the recent decision to scrap Project Aqua:

Dr DON BRASH to the Prime Minister:Does she have confidence in the Minister for the Environment; if so, why?

JEANETTE FITZSIMONS to the Minister of Energy: What additional steps will he be taking to promote energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy following the cancellation of Project Aqua?

There's an adage in parliamentary politics that a government is only as good as its opposition. That's because when an opposition party does its job well, it's able to help direct the response and energies of government.
Opposition parties can try to take advantage of populist sentiment, or they can engage in intelligent and constructive criticism of government policy.

To do this, opposition parties can try to take advantage of populist sentiment, or they can engage in intelligent and constructive criticism of government policy. Sometimes they try both, but considering the stakes many parties opt for the former over the latter.

Labour's chief opposition is the newly reactionary and simple-minded National party under Don Brash. The determination of Brash to play the race card or the recent attack on grants (the Social Entrepeneurship scheme) given to people who don't happen to members of the elite are examples of spinning issues in a purely negative and populist way. It's a strategy that works best in an opportunistic media environment and when government fails to articulate why such programmes or policies are fair and reasonable.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what Labour has chosen to do, most likely because it fears that the middle ground of New Zealand's political landscape has shifted to the right. Where the middle goes, Labour will follow.

But if there is no credible political voice defending the policies that have been subjected to populist attack, we have to ask how the electorate is able to make an intelligent decision about them? If there is no-one to articulate the need for a policy, how can we really say that the electorate feels one way or the other about that policy? More to the point, what justification is there for Labour to abandon and review programmes without first doing the basic work of defending these programmes as based on sound policy?

The problem for Labour is this: the more it fails to articulate its programme, the less popular that programme will be. The less that Labour demonstrates why policies like the social entrepeneurship programme are a good idea, the more that National will be able to demonstrate that such policies are a bad idea. The more that Labour responds to National's attacks by announcing reviews, the more we begin to feel that Labour's entire policy approach lacks credibility.

I can't think of a better way to move New Zealand's political centre to the right.