Spare a brief thought for the National Party. If being the Leader of the Opposition is the worst job in politics, then being the party of Opposition is the worst state to be in. No matter how inept the government in office, the Opposition is always on the back foot, reacting all the while to whatever the government is doing, while at the same time being expected to promote constructive, well thought-out, affordable alternatives. And, even if the Opposition is able to develop some bold, new and attractive policy, then there is always the chance the government will act to nullify it, or simply steal it and implement it as its own.
Moreover, the government has the resources of the entire government bureaucracy behind it, whereas the Opposition has but a small handful of taxpayer-funded researchers and policy advisers at its disposal to match them. It is always a very uneven contest, but the public nevertheless expects the Opposition to be able to fight the government on more or less equal terms. After all, in politics, even proportional representation politics, there are no prizes for coming second. While MMP may well mean Parliament has become more representative, and put an end to the elected dictatorship that sometimes characterised single party majority governments under First Past the Post, our system of government is still a case of “winner take all” for those parties coming together to form governments today.
There is no doubt that as a liberal/conservative party National prospered under First Past the Post. In the 47 years from 1949 to advent of MMP in 1996, National was in power for 35 of them. Its combination of urban liberals and the provincial and rural sectors enabled it to tack skilfully between the two as far as policy was concerned, so establishing the popular impression that, unlike Labour with its union and intellectual base, National spoke for the New Zealand as a whole.
MMP and the advent of new political parties has disrupted that balance to some extent. While National has been relatively successful in running multi-party governments under MMP (and governing for just over half the time), it has struggled to recapture the formula that made it so dominant in earlier years. Although current polling shows it remains the most popular party in New Zealand – a position it has enjoyed now for over a decade – it would find it difficult to put together a majority government, were an election to be held today.
That is where the question of policy becomes both important and difficult for National. It is important because it is both a mark of where the Party stands, and the key vehicle to attract the support of the uncommitted voters it will need if it is to lead the next government. But it is also difficult because, in the current electoral circumstances, it has to appeal more strongly to those more conservative voters that drifted to New Zealand First at the last election, while not alienating its more liberal supporters in the cities.
National’s just released social services policy discussion paper lays out these tensions very clearly. On the one hand, there are the hard-line measures about gangs and beneficiaries aimed at the bigot vote of New Zealand First, while on the other hand are more progressive and innovative measures like the social investment strategy promoted by former Prime Minister Bill English; the focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life; and, the introduction of a new money management system for vulnerable young people. And by stating some measures as firm policy, while others are more in the realm of ideas the Party wants feedback on, National will be hoping that not too much of it could be filched by the government if it were of a mind to do so. By releasing it during a normally quiet Parliamentary recess week, it will be hoping that the plan attracts good media coverage, so buying a little more protection from the “where’s your policy?” charge usually levelled at Oppositions a year out from an election. Above all, it will be hoping that one or two of the ideas it has announced so capture the public imagination to build up a good head of steam in the lead-up to the election, although that very remains very much to be seen.
One thing National will be conscious of is not falling into the trap the current government did by talking big in Opposition about its plans for housing, Auckland transport and mental health, amongst other things, but then, so obviously, not having a coherent plan to deal with any of them upon coming to office. It will know that wide-eyed enthusiasm without anything to back it up is not what voters are seeking.
So, National’s ongoing policy development is likely to be cautious and safe. If it errs on the side of being a little predictable it will be because the Party understands well the tram lines within which it is operating. Labour’s grandiose talk and delivery failures means the electorate is likely to be a little more cynical about bold election promises next year. Therefore, National’s policies primarily need to keep its traditional constituencies intact, while doing whatever it takes to haul back those who have strayed in the past. It understands that if it can do that, it will be in a strong position to lead the next government.
National knows its previous formula has been a winning one. Why would it deviate from it now?