Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Left right rhetoric masks almost identical policies

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National and Labour actually agree on about 99% of the way society is run.
Photo / Getty Images
National and Labour actually agree on about 99% of the way society is run. Photo / Getty Images

Political parties are trying to convince us there's a real choice for voters. But just how meaningful is this choice?

In terms of the main election issue, the economy, there appears - at least, superficially - to be a definitive left-right difference on offer.

We're seeing some interesting ideas thrown around: capital gains taxes, partial privatisation of energy companies, compulsory superannuation, GST off some foods, and raising the age of superannuation to 67.

Severe global economic conditions have pulled the rug out from beneath most of the old assumptions about economic policy, leaving parties searching for new tactics.

Parties have an interest in marketing their policies as being different from one another by magnifying their slight differences with partisan rhetoric.

What should be apparent - but is never advertised - is just how much they agree on. An analysis of the policy and manifesto promises of the two major parties shows Labour and National are in virtual agreement on something like 99 per cent of the way society is run.

It's actually only in the margins that they differ.

On the whole, neither a Labour-led nor a National-led Government would take NZ in very different directions.

Both are strongly fixed to the politics of austerity. Sometimes they leapfrog each other on the political spectrum.

For example, Labour now promises to reduce entitlements to national super - raising the age of eligibility to 67 - which effectively moves it to the right of National on the issue. And National is pushing the more "left" line of retaining 65 as the super age.

Added to that, National is now promising to extend kids' free GP visits - which is being heralded by unions and welfare agencies.

Parties and their cheerleaders will emphasise their differences, but not put these in context. Take a supposedly clear policy issue such as National's policy of partial privatisation of the four state-owned energy companies. This one apparent area of difference between Labour and National is exaggerated by a lack of context.

Both parties wish to keep the companies operating as private firms in a totally deregulated energy market in which profit is the only goal, and consumers have had to pay stiff prices.

They differ over the ownership structure - which actually has little effect on the supply of energy - but have no real differences on those bigger questions of energy use and availability.

At the last election in 2008, few voters perceived that there was much difference between the main political parties. A credible University of Auckland survey showed that half of voters (51 per cent) thought there were only "minor differences" between the parties during the campaign, while only 38 per cent thought there were actually major differences between the parties. Not surprisingly, therefore, we had the the second-lowest turnout in a century.

This year, despite claims to the contrary, once again it seems the election will deny voters meaningful choices.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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