It was a year of much effort but little reward for Labour and the Greens (and the Progressives). So was it a year wasted, another step towards oblivion? Or was vital groundwork laid?

I seriously need to get over 2010, but first I need to write about the opposition parties; which means Labour, the Greens and, for the sake of history rather than politics, the Progressives.

It's a short list, which is an often over-looked aspect of this, our 49th parliament. With New Zealand First missing out in 2008 there's one less voice being offered in opposition to the government's will and whim. And when you consider that voice is essentially Winston Peter's, that's like a brass band trying to play without its tuba. And its cymbals, for that matter.

The parties that are there to oppose certainly sounded as if they were a few instruments short of a band last year; the intent of course was there, but they couldn't raise the volume to a level where many voters could here it.

Perhaps they were strategising badly, missing the point or up against better operators. Arguably they were just too nice, or too dull. But a heck of a lot that was beyond their control went against them.

My observation a week or two back that National had a very lucky year by definition means that the opposition parties were unlucky. Terribly so. None more so than Labour.

Each time leader Phil Goff and his front bench seemed to be gaining a hint of traction, a natural disaster struck – the Canterbury earthquake, the Pike River explosion, Chris Carter... For the Greens, it was a matter of winning the Schedule 4 mining debate, only for the big mining story of the year to turn out to be about human safety... And the Progressives, well, their well-orchestrated dissolution – ie, Jim Anderton's move from central to local body politics – was rumbled by the earthquake.

But luck aside, none would be very happy with the year gone. Then again, none apart from Anderton would be gutted either.

Labour was largely impotent. It failed to gain in the polls, Goff couldn't get past the curse of experience in an age when voters bore quickly, and it simply lacked spark. By any normal poltical standards, Goff's leadership failed because it failed to connect with voters. I mean, 20 points behind. Dead man walking, and all that.

If David Cunliffe (or even Trevor Mallard) had wanted the job last year, or if Shane Jones hadn't porned himself out of the running for a year or two, Labour's caucus might have had something to think about.

But the fact is that Goff is safe until after this year's election. He gets one shot, at least. And you can make the case that Labour's year wasn't as bad as it looks.

While Goff's ratings are hopelessly low, Labour's held steady in the early 30s. The party hasn't slumped to the Bill English-led lows that National endured between 1999 and 2002 (although Labour hasn't faced its equivalent of the 2002 election yet, so, while it's unlikely, Goff could yet become Labour's English). After nine years, Labour can take comfort in retaining a base only around 10 percent (or less) of what it would need to govern.

And it has spent its fallow time wisely. Looking back, 2010 may be remembered very fondly in Labour circles as the year it rebuilt, even rediscovered, itself.

I've heard from people across the political spectrum how well Labour has worked up new policy ideas, and given that 'Old Goff' is Labour's greatest detriment, fresh ideas will be vital.

Annette King's new child-led policy focus is smart politics, Goff's excitement about green-tech is the enthusiasm you expect from a Leader of the Opposition (remember when Key really was ambitious for New Zealand. Ireland of course wasn't the promised land he once thought, but he had schemes, oh yes he did), and Cunliffe seems to be fashioning an interesting economic platform that recognises a renewed, post-recession public willingness for governments to lead.

If National doesn't remain nimble, Labour could yet nick the whole NZ Inc concept out from under its nose.

Yet National has been nimble, and Labour failed to find a way round that. It's been able to pin shared responsibility on Labour in every major crisis, or blame it on international forces. Labour has tried and tried again to lay blame at this government's door, but John 'teflon' Key has repeatedly prevailed.

Chris Carter and his eternal expense escapade just made the party look silly, the relationship between Goff and president Andrew Little still seems to need some work, and the Mana by-election was a pretty poor showing in many ways.

But, again, the glass half full view is that the party has shaken off Carter and some other dead wood (it's, er, time Mr Hawkins) and, without loss of seats or too much face, has had some trial runs at framing its message and tactics before the big race this year.

Perhaps the best news for the party in 2010 was Len Brown's comfortable victory in the Auckland mayoral race, reassuring the party that Labour ideas and lingo can still triumph in the big city, at least. While the question of whether that can work as well in any of the provinces remains moot, it was encouraging for the party given Auckland's importance in the general election.

If you want an idea of how much that worries National, consider that the PM allowed both Nikki Kaye (Auckland Central) and Paula Bennett (Waitakere) to criticise the government on local issues in 2010 and let ACT's Rodney Hide take centre-stage over the Auckland city elections.

In short, the Labour party still looks the unfashionable skinny kid being picked on in the playground. But it spent the past year taking karate lessons and saving up its lollies to give out come playtime. We'll just have to wait to see what happens in the next few months, when the bell rings.

The Progressives... Let's not even bother. They prepared to rejoin the Labour Party, which will finally close the circle after a generation of post-1984 warfare on the left, but they hardly troubled the scorers.

The Greens, I suspect, will feel they should have done just a little better. The Schedule 4 debate is the kind of rare crossroads where Green core values and public opinion meet, yet they never owned the issue as they might have.

They too had a prepatory year, with the second generation leaders warming up on the sidelines for what they hope will be a more prominent role this year. They got their face and names out a bit, and probably won more brownie points than they lost, thanks to the government's backdown on mining and the Greens' consistent stance on MPs' expenses.

But history's current was running against them. New Zealanders were in a cautious mood, focused on solvency and short-termism. The Green's politics of the 'greater good' didn't fit easily, and no-one was really listening to them much on tax and savings anyway.

When people are worried about their jobs and savings, Metiria Turei's bone carving can look just a bit too big and Russel Norman's passionate defence of rivers a little too dry. The search for that extra few percent, which frankly has to be found in middle class suburbs, did not seem to progress, however. And it's in that crucial regard that I think they'll feel disappointed. It didn't help either that National's u-turn on foreign ownership stole one of their main weapons in another core Green issue that voters get wound up about.

But if you want to see the river as half full, the party's poll ratings ended the year about where it began (although it had slid a little late in the year). Around seven percent isn't a way for a third party to be entering an election year, given it's almost identical to what they got at the polls in 2008, after all the glare of an election campaign.

The Greens didn't seem to profit from the by-elections, but they did get two new fresh faces into parliament (I know, Dave Clendon arrived at the end of 2009, but December hardly counts), including the country's youngest MP in Gareth Hughes, who was born in 1981... Sigh.

And it's something of that youthful vigour both parties will be looking to find in themselves in the year ahead. With National still feeling the public's laid back love two years after the previous election, both parties must be wondering what on earth they can do to disentangle them from each other's embrace.

Ah, but isn't that what election years are all about! Is that a brass band I hear a-coming?

 

Comments (19)

by stuart munro on January 18, 2011
stuart munro

In fact it would seem that the game has been lifted across the board, for which perhaps we can thank the absence of Winston, but it doesn't necessarily mean a better result on the day.

But for the oppositions to get traction, they must hit National where they're weak - and that means on the economy. An opposition that won't make a decent hit in a frankly recessionary environment can't want to be in government very much. Because though they don't always, people often will vote their chequebook.

Key has been making all his points on charisma, and none on the bottom line.

by Claire Browning on January 18, 2011
Claire Browning

And it has spent its fallow time wisely. Looking back, 2010 may be remembered very fondly in Labour circles as the year it rebuilt, even rediscovered, itself

...

Annette King's new child-led policy focus is smart politics, Goff's excitement about green-tech is the enthusiasm you expect from a Leader of the Opposition (remember when Key really was ambitious for New Zealand. Ireland of course wasn't the promised land he once thought, but he had schemes, oh yes he did), and Cunliffe seems to be fashioning an interesting economic platform that recognises a renewed, post-recession public willingness for governments to lead.

It is a platform with a good foundation. I don't believe these are just random selections. Take a look at this swingeing assessment from the New Zealand Institute:

we are a country like the proverbial frog in a boiling billy. The temperature is slowly rising and we are just not alert to it ...

if the question is: "Are we doing well enough?", the answer is "not even close", says NZI director Rick Boven ...

Kiwis are a complacent lot with a somewhat over-generous estimation of themselves, he says ...

So the first thing to do, says Boven, is to start taking our national underperformance more seriously.

Here is the Institute's list of the top ten issues, that Boven is referring to. In no particular order: child policy, low carbon economy, environmental management, capital raising ...

It's the bones of a narrative and a plan that (whenever anyone wants to start listening) could stand in stark contrast with National's laissez faire, largely rhetorical efforts -- provided Labour, too, can rise above the rhetorical. (Which there isn't much evidence of, to date.)

The Institute also issued the Goal Is Not A Strategy paper in 2010. I think that's where the government is weak, Stuart, much more so than the economy.

But if you want to see the river as half full, the party's poll ratings ended the year about where it began (although it had slid a little late in the year). Around seven percent isn't a way for a third party to be entering an election year, given it's almost identical to what they got at the polls in 2008, after all the glare of an election campaign.

I think you might mean "isn't a bad way", otherwise, it doesn't make sense.

by DeepRed on January 18, 2011
DeepRed

"But for the oppositions to get traction, they must hit National where they're weak - and that means on the economy. An opposition that won't make a decent hit in a frankly recessionary environment can't want to be in government very much. Because though they don't always, people often will vote their chequebook. Key has been making all his points on charisma, and none on the bottom line."

 

In short, "It's the economy, stupid!"

by william blake on January 18, 2011
william blake

"Key has been making all his points on charisma, and none on the bottom line."

 

Only in New Zealand could this man be called carismatic.

by BeShakey on January 18, 2011
BeShakey

Its funny to hear what the Australians (who generally have no idea about his politics) have to say about Key.  Unlike NZers they seem to notice that he smiles a lot but never says anything of any significance.  Maybe his 'charisma' is based largely on the comparison with Clark.

by Andrew Geddis on January 18, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"Only in New Zealand could this man be called carismatic."

Is that 'coz New Zealanders are rilly, rilly bad spelers?

by Mamari on January 18, 2011
Mamari

On the spelling issue...hate to be pedantic but Tim - can you spell Metiria's name right please?  Little things mean a lot sometimes. Ta!!

by stuart munro on January 19, 2011
stuart munro

In short, "It's the economy, stupid!"

A line that insulted its audience, and lowered the level of  debate, without producing anything resembling the credible economic performance it should have presaged.

@ Claire- the New Zealand Institute's comments are relevant, but prioritising an export-led recovery - it's been tried for the last three decades without success. NZ is losing competitiveness, and not just from a freakishly high dollar compounded by morbidly obtuse Treasury policies. I'll accept the economy is symptomatic of multiple specific causes when the list is more credible, and governments create credible strategies for addressing even a handful of them. Geez - even ONE would be a refreshing change.

 

by Mr Magoo on January 19, 2011
Mr Magoo

I think you are barking up the wrong fern if you think this government is going to come up with 'strategy'.

Credible is not a word that can be credibly used to describe anything about them, which is incredible really...

by Tim Watkin on January 19, 2011
Tim Watkin

A missed word (Yes, I meant 'bad way' and a spelling mistake (that I had checked and still erred on)... Summer sloppiness really has taken hold.

Yes, I agree it's largely about the economy now. Arguably it always is, but even if that's true it's even more true now. The Greens need to realise that too.

 

by Tim Watkin on January 19, 2011
Tim Watkin

Claire, there's a lot of sense in the NZ Institute's priorities re capital and going low carbon, but as Stuart suggests, they're hardly new observations.

I think the NZ Institute is really important for this country as we have so few ideas generators, but those 'top ten' suggestions, they're all terribly broad and obvious. I mean, "Accelerate the growth of export sectors". Well, no kidding. And Bill English will say that's already happening. And Labour will say 'if only our tax credits weren't cut'. And round and round we go.

Develop a "population that works together". What does that even mean? And an "innovation ecosystem"? Maharey spent years banging on about that and we have incubators and universities linked to them and so on. We haven't developed the longed-for 'Nokia of New Zealand' yet, but there is progress.

One thing that actually bugs me is the idea that we need a long-term vision regardless of our electoral cycle. Yes, we are terribly short-termist, but to suggest a strategy needs to "transcend" (the reporter's word, to be fair) the electoral cycle seems both naive and a little patronising.

We live in a democracy with competing visions of leadership. We can't ignore the public will, we shouldn't have some elite – business, academic, union or whoever – deciding long-term what's best, and surely business people of all folk should have more faith in competition.

I tend to agree with many of their policy prescriptions and the sentiment re strategy. I'd like to see some cross-party consensus on the ageing population, for example. But we should be very, very wary of any 'we know best' long-term strategy, if for no other reason that we've been there before with the Business Roundtable, and look where that got us!

by stuart munro on January 19, 2011
stuart munro

When you have a consistently underperforming economy,one thing to look for is broadly based change. An incremental increase of 1-2% across the board will make a bigger difference than,say, a 7% improvement in dairy productivity. A combination of laissez faire policies and failure to promote local development hasled to a hollowing out of NZ's local capacities and in particular the manufacturing sector.

Local industry is vital for at least two reasons, balance of payments, and because it sets a limit on price fixing by importers - price being determined by the production costs of the second lowest producer. The sector has been neglected, and a measure of the credibility (sorry Magoo) of NZ inc is that it has not pursued local vertical integration as it would certainly have had it indeed been a corporate running NZ for profit. Moxham's observation runs just as true for economies as for corporations.

As for this government not having a strategy Magoo - pish and tosh - they just don't have a strategy that will benefit New Zealand. And they would prefer not to talk about just who it will benefit.

by Claire Browning on January 19, 2011
Claire Browning

Gee, Tim ... I really hope you're not dismissing the NZ Institute for being superficial, naive and patronising, based on a report on Stuff?

This might help, even if only a little.

I am mystified about where you get the concept of "some elite ... deciding what's best". All I suggested was that Labour's emergent policy platform looked not quite random, to me. You know - the one they will take to the general electorate. And get voted in on, eventually.  

But that's actually beside the point, for the NZ Institute's purposes - who I naively thought were only wanting to debate how, collectively, we might establish a more visionary policy culture, where the baby doesn't get thrown out with the bathwater every nine years or so.

by william blake on January 19, 2011
william blake

Is that 'coz New Zealanders are rilly, rilly bad spelers?

nah mate uts coz thus site has no spel chek

by william blake on January 19, 2011
william blake

..or edit facility.

by Andrew Geddis on January 19, 2011
Andrew Geddis

William,

Blame Tim and his constant efficiency drives ...

by Tim Watkin on January 20, 2011
Tim Watkin

Claire, I don't disagree about Labour's cohesion or the influence of the likes of the NZ Institute. Which is interesting, given the talk about union influence over the party. There aren't exactly a million think tanks in our dear country to be inspired by, even fewer than aren't solidly of the right, so it's not surprising that the NZ Inst is such an influence. But interesting that ideas are coming from other than the unions...

But my wider point about the Institute's recommendations had nothing to do with Labour per se... Perhaps I took too much from Stuff, but the ten ideas as listed, I assumed, were the Institute's words and they worried me.

As I said, I like much of their work... have enjoyed meeting Rick Boven several times... But I wanted to think out loud re my concerns about vague ideas and clever people talking about getting around elections.

by HIlary Stace on January 21, 2011
HIlary Stace

I think that those ideas about inequality, as expressed in the Spirit Level, are going to gain political traction this year, in addition those more traditional economic issues.

by HIlary Stace on January 23, 2011
HIlary Stace

NZ's growing inequality featured in  SST today      http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/4571384/Wealth-gap-divides-nation. I think the political parties that make the most of this growing concern wil benefit. Annette King's announcements on reducing child poverty are a good start.

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