Future NZ: Election 2014 - The five hottest issues

By Richard Shaw

Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / David White
Labour leader David Cunliffe. Photo / David White

1. Leadership: All modern election campaigns are, to some extent, about leadership, but next year's one will be especially so. In part that has to do with Labour's selection of a new leader in September 2013, and with the manner in which that choice was made.The party's new process aroused considerable public interest in the leadership question (and not just amongst Labour supporters), generated a good deal of media coverage, and ensured that the election will pit a new leader against one who has already won two elections and who remains one of his party's chief electoral assets.

Labour's campaign rhetoric will emphasise David Cunliffe's mix of ministerial experience and (relatively) youthful energy; the government will take every opportunity to remind people of the value of John Key's six years in the top job. But this will be Key's third campaign as leader of the National Party, and the mileage on the prime ministerial clock is starting to show.

Recent polls indicate that Cunliffe is off to a good start. He has reconnected with organised labour, taken the attack to the Government, and is re-establishing Labour as the official Opposition. He is also slowly shifting the terms of the debate between the two major parties, emphasising policies that not only distinguish Cunliffe's Labour from earlier versions, but also clearly delineates Labour's positions on fundamental issues from those of the National-led government. Add to Cunliffe's confident performance the ructions with Peter Dunne and John Banks, and an election that until recently was looking close to a foregone conclusion has morphed into a genuine contest.

2. Inequality: As a nation we are fond of telling ourselves that we treat people decently and fairly, and that we provide a great place for kids to grow up. But the material circumstances in which many New Zealanders now live reveal these myths for what they are. The Ministry of Social Development's 2013 Household Incomes Report demonstrates that as many as 25 per cent of New Zealand children live in poverty. The increase in income inequality in this country between 1985 and the late 2000s was the largest among all OECD countries except Sweden.

Today, the average income of the top 10 per cent of income earners is nearly nine times higher than that of the bottom 10 per cent. Some weeks ago we got a glimpse of what all this means. After 19 years of cleaning the office of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jaine Ikurere earns just $14.60 an hour (before tax). Data from the Remuneration Authority indicates that during that period of time the salary of the Prime Minister has increased from $168,000 to $419,000.

Clearly, like is not being compared with like, but the point remains: the increasingly unequal distribution of income will be a battleground in the 2014 campaign. National's story - that people are largely responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves - will be pitted against Labour's narrative - that we should be doing a better job of caring for those amongst us who, for reasons often not of their making, are suffering.

Hence Cunliffe's stoking of the fires under arguments about a living wage, and his commitment to the abolition of youth rates, increases in the minimum wage, and enhanced paid parental leave entitlements.

The outcome of the election may well hinge on which of the two stories proves the more compelling and, even more crucially, on how many of those suffering can be mobilised to vote.

3. The cost of housing: Home ownership is central to the narrative of the self-sufficient New Zealander and housing costs are the single most significant item on most people's budgets. The Reserve Bank's decision to restrict banks' lending to prospective house buyers with limited equity was made back in August 2013, but its knock-on effects are only now starting to be felt fully. This is also an issue where the ideological lines are clearly drawn. In order to build 100,000 affordable homes for first homebuyers, Labour has promised "the largest public building programme in over 50 years".

In government, National has adopted a different tack, seeking to ease the way for private sector housing construction, and offering first home buyers (or rather, those who earn less than $53,000 a year or $80,000 per household) the chance to buy an ex-state house, providing said house is not in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch.

There are really two issues in play here. One concerns the fundamentally different roles for the state reflected in each party's approach; the other has to do with people's abilities to distinguish the decisions of an independent central bank from the preferences of the government-of-the-day. Just where voters fall on those two matters will have a significant bearing on who holds the Treasury benches after the election.

4. The price of electricity: The differences between the parties on housing policy are, if anything, even more starkly drawn in the case of electricity. Again, there are really two things bundled up here. One concerns the disposal of state assets; the other, increases in the price of electricity. The major parties' preferences on the first, and views about how best to tackle the second, are grounded in opposing ideological positions.

National, which has made partial asset sales a central element of its second term policy agenda, has turned to the market to resolve matters by partially privatising Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy. Labour, on the other hand, has promised to establish a new state agency which would act as a single buyer of wholesale electricity, and also have the authority to set power prices. The first strategy reduces the reach of the state; the second expands it. It is difficult to look at these distinct approaches and glibly suggest that the two parties are indistinguishable.

And while state asset sales (in part or whole) may not resonate in quite the way they did in the 1980s and 1990s, the fact that there has been sufficient public support to trigger a Citizens Initiated Referendum on the partial sale of energy companies (and of Air New Zealand) illustrates the depth of feeling about both asset sales and electricity prices. The referendum, which will be held via postal ballot between 22 November and 13 December, will give the government the opportunity to make (once more) the case for reducing the state's involvement in markets. On the other hand, it will also give the opposition parties the perfect platform from which to launch into the election campaign.

5. M­aori and the state: One way or another, 'race relations' almost always feature in election campaigns. They resonate, people hold strong views about them, and they can have a powerful bearing on the tone and tenor of public debate. However, while Don Brash's Orewa speeches and the political noise generated by the Foreshore and Seabed legislation still echo faintly, something is different this time round because 2014 signals the end of the historical Treaty settlements process.

How the mainstream political parties position themselves for the new post-settlement environment will perhaps be critical to the outcome of the election. Given that one or other of them will form the backbone of the next Government, the major parties in particular will be looking to renegotiate their relationships with the M?ori political community (in their own caucuses, in the Maori and Mana parties, and more broadly).

Look for a change in rhetoric during the campaign away from the language of settling grievances to a discourse of boosting Maori economic and social development. The conversation will focus not on divisions (real or perceived) but on how the 'Maori economy' and Maori aspirations for development can be harnessed for the collective good. The party best equipped to capture this historic shift - and to engage with the more confident, assertive Maori body politic that is emerging - may well steal a march on the laggards.

Richard Shaw is Associate Professor of Massey University's Politics programme.

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