Hard News by Russell Brown


Some Lines for Labour

The public lamentation of the Labour Party's current political and communications strategies has become so popular in the local blog-and-Twittersphere that it seems likely to qualify as an Olympic sport. This chatter also tends to be repetitive and self-perpetuating. It gets dull. Much like many Olympic sports, I suppose you could say.

Nonetheless, I felt obliged to join the chorus earlier in the week when, on the day that John Key and his Finance minister had been obliged to signal the largest fiscal deficit in the country's history, Labour turned Question Time into a series of questions for Key that, as John Armstrong noted the next day, the Prime Minister simply batted away. Or, rather, he returned each serve with spin.

I tweeted thus in my frustration:

Dear Labour. Say this: "The deficit is way over projections because National has buggered the economy." Not the "rich prick" trivia. 'Kay?

Labour governed for three terms on a promise of stewardship, and it might actually be worth trying again. It could hardly be worse than whatever it was about ministerial BMWs. As if to nail the point, the Green Party's press statement the next day said essentially what Labour should have said:

John Key has today signalled that middle and lower-income New Zealanders will be shouldering a disproportionate cost of the Government’s poor economic management, said Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman today.

“John Key has signalled budget cuts to Kiwisaver, Working for Families, and the student loan scheme which will disproportionately require those on low and middle incomes to bear the cost of the Government’s fiscal mismanagement,” said Dr Russel Norman.

Just as I was about to abandon hope, I noticed a sign of life. Labour's finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, has been soliciting questions via Facebook and publishing the answers on the Labour MPs' blog, Red Alert. The first included this:

Q:  Has NZ’s debt really climbed from $300 m per week to $380 m per week?  Why?

A:  The difference between $300 m and $380 m is the fact that NZDMO is in the market issuing more debt securities than it needs beacuse demand is good and prices low. In other words it is bringing forward next years borrowing, and that is all.  Of the $300m about half is rollover of existing debt.  So next year it can say it reduced the borrowing, because it will have pre-borrowed some of what it needs already.

And this:

Q:  Is it true that Dr Cullen’s books in 2008 showed a fiscal surplus in 2008?

A:  Yes   Dr Cullen’s 2008 books showed a net debt (incl NZSF assets) to GDP ratio surplus of 7.6%. In other words we were in positive CREDIT, though the GFC meant a forecast net deficit up to around 2% of GDP.    Gross debt to GDP is now 34% and climbing under National.  It is hard to believe that National still gripes and tries to shift blame.   Time they manned up and took some responsibility for their own choices – like $23 Billion of tax cuts over 4 years in Budgets 2009 and 2010.

The next one pointed to a tidy (if selective) rebuttal of the Prime Minister's claims about Labour's economic management that concludes with this:

5. Key says: “since the end of 2004, GDP per person have fallen by an average of 0.1 per cent a year – the weakest period since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Fact: Again, Key is using the recession and his own poor economic record and trying to attribute the blame to Labour. In reality, GDP per person grew 16.8% in the first 8 years under Labour. Since the recession, GDP per person has fallen 5%. National has made no progress on growth, with GDP per capita falling for 6 of its 8 quarters in government so far.

The third Cunliffe FAQ deals with the Kiwisaver changes, framing them -- and citing other commentators to underline its case -- as a policy u-turn that will undermine confidence in the scheme at the very time we need to drive up private saving. Some people thought Goff or Cunliffe should have immediately undertaken to reverse the changes, but that would have simply cut off the options for fresh savings policy. An Opposition party that simply declares it will return every government policy to its previous default will struggle to convince anyone that it is looking forward.

I suppose there must still be some effort to politically undermine Key, to depict him as cosseted, indulgent and out of touch (although as Scott Yorke says, doing so is largely fighting the last war) if only because that's a story that will find its way to the headlines more easily than something complex about economic policy. (Example: Patrick Gower's stout series of reports revealing that cars owned by the taxpayer actually use petrol.)

But a sense of measure and of intellectual heft, the presentation of Labour as -- whatever the odds -- a government in waiting rather than a yapping dog: these things are important too. Certainly, Cunliffe spouting numbers and acronyms in his blog isn't going to win over the heartland in itself, and the apparent inability of Goff to convincingly deliver a line of any kind is increasingly problematic. But here's a line anyway:

"The deficit has blown out way beyond the projections when National took office because National has buggered the economy. They simply don’t know how to foster a recovery — only how to make things worse.

"National is torching the economy and our cultural and environmental heritage because they simply don’t know how to manage. They can’t pass laws in a conventional, accountable way, and they’re screwing up broadband, earthquake recovery, everything. And their solution is to do more of the same, only harder."

The truth of such claims is, naturally, a matter of political argument. But they address serious matters in serious times, and they require the government to justify its own performance. To actually have the argument. That not only makes political sense, it is actually what a loyal Opposition should be doing anyway.

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