In which John Key plays the part of the scarecrow and David Shearer the cowardly lion
If New Zealand was Oz, I'd be sending our two political leaders off along the yellow brick road to see the Wizard. Having watched twice both John Key and David Shearer on Q+A this morning and read the transcripts, I'm struck by what they're lacking. (Hey, I critique, it's what I do).
The Prime Minister needs an idea and the Leader of the Opposition needs conviction.
These are two likable, intelligent, not dissimilar men (in truth, perhaps too similar for Labour's liking). Neither have particularly strong political philosophies, which often means they end up using similar language and taking similar, centrist stances on many issues.
That's not to say they wouldn't preside over very different governments. OK, 'very different' maybe be too strong, but 'rather different' at least. Because Goff did much of the hard work but failed to sell the arguments, I don't think many people appreciate the changes to the Reserve Bank Act and tax reform, the different approach to welfare and the environment, for example.
Labour is offering change. But it's the same change it's offered for a while now and if it hasn't won over voters yet, maybe they need a new song. Or maybe simply waiting for National to lose an election is sufficient. We'll see.
National, in contrast, is singing the same old song and voters are still humming along, so there's no interest in change or intervention.
John Key is an astute observer of global economics and his brows are a little more furrowed these days. Of course it's always in his interests to emphasise that 'things are bad over there' because it shifts any voter blame away from his government. 'Don't blame us, blame the Greeks,' he cries, relying on people's sense that 'it could be worse'. It's a voter intuition that won him the 2011 election -- and will probably get Obama home in the US -- so why try anything new?
Thing is, he answers that question himself. He's now saying that Asia "is certainly slowing down" and "the big worrying factor, if there is one, is Australia". Well, you don't even say that unless you are worried about Australia. Yet there's no political will for more government intervention.
"The answer to New Zealand is not necessarily coming up with a make-work scheme funded off tax-payers. It comes off New Zealand having a competitive industry".
So Key said today. And in doing so he confirmed that his political boundaries have narrowed and are now as conservative as his finance minister's. Translation: Governments should get 'the business environment' right and get out of the way. It's hands-off.
That's a change. Back in 2009 the new National government got involved and did some things. I was critical at the time they it was commandeering Labour's stimulus as its own and too focused on tax cuts. But it held the Job Summit, created Community Max and the nine-day fortnight, bought into the insulation scheme, propped up 'iconic companies' such as Fisher & Paykel. The now seemingly forgotten idea of becoming a financial services hub was even touted.
Why? Because of huge global uncertainty, other countries offering stimulus, and an immediate risk of job losses. But doesn't that sound like what's happening now?
Let's see: Asia slowing; China, South Korea and Australia all still intervening to spark their economies; unemployment up. So yes. Yet asked what he can do here and now, Key replies:
We can do the things we have been doing.
So it's hands-off and no new ideas, then. Just RMA reform and a new innovation centre to save us all. Maybe that'll be enough to be better off than most, but it's not "ambitious for New Zealand".
But Shearer also needs a trip to the Wizard. The man seems to lack the courage of his convictions. Perhaps he's too worried about offending folk, maybe he's getting contradictory advice, or he could just be not spending the time to figure out a position on the issues of the day. Whatever the reason, he's not expressing himself with clarity and conviction.
His education speech was a clear example. He insisted that Labour was the party of education, but then offered little that was significantly different to what National's doing. Food for a few hundred more low decile schools? An ERO report card on schools? Well fine, but it's not going to change the way anyone perceives his party or casts their vote.
Of course that's too much to expect from one speech. But it's not too much to expect from nine months. The honeymoon's over and few voters would have even felt as if they'd had a peck on the cheek from Shearer, let a alone a night of passion.
And if you're going to dump your promise to abolish national standards, don't then use the same language as National has, such as "the tail" in education, or "plain English reports". There's no point of difference.
Shearer is not without hope. He can take a look at Britain, where the once similarly pilloried Ed Miliband is now ahead in the polls. But then in an interview published this weekend, Miliband talked about "living in a crisis of capitalism" and wanting to harness capitalism to more "humane" ends. It's woolly, true, but it's big, important stuff that matters.
Labour here can't seem to commit.
So it's off down the yellow brick road. Maybe National will get caught in the field of poppies or attacked by flying monkeys, but if it doesn't Labour is going to have to get to the Wizard first and sort themselves out if it's going to prove a worthy contestant in 2014.