Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: March 19

Labour leader David Shearer during his breakfast speech at the Wellesley Hotel.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour leader David Shearer during his breakfast speech at the Wellesley Hotel. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The lack of meat in David Shearer's political positioning speech last Thursday has not stopped commentators picking over the bones in the last few days. A tentative but definite move to the centre seems clear to nearly all observers. For the left, the big questions seem to be 1) Can Shearer successfully go head-to-head with John Key and win over swinging voters? 2) Is the move smart MMP politics that will ensure centre-left governments? Or 3) Does it concede a further acceptance of neo-liberal policies that pushes the whole political spectrum to the right?

Tracy Watkins has a good analysis (see: Rookie Shearer hedges his bets), comparing Shearer's task with that facing another rookie Opposition leader - John Key in 2006. Watkins concludes that Shearer lacks Key's natural political gifts and has more work to do in uniting his caucus and grassroots activists behind him. They do have one factor in common - the political tide shifting against the incumbent government.

Watkins accepts that it is counterproductive for Labour to win votes back off the Greens and that, just as Key's 2008 campaign platform was characterised as 'Labour-lite', Shearer's strategy looks likely to be 'National-lite' in 2014. The blurring of the policy differences means, of course, that the next election will be reduced to a contest of leadership. It is by no means certain that Shearer can come out on top in that contest, although Paul Holmes says that Shearer's presentation has dramatically improved over the summer and that he and other panelists on Q+A were impressed with Shearer's fluency and wiliness on camera - see: Hesitant Shearer is now Mr Fluent.

At the weekend, Matt McCarten argued that the shift to the right is smart politics for Labour, and that it actually reflects the political reality in any case - see: Centrist Shearer a let-down for lefties? No way. McCarten says that National and Labour 'long ago gave up pretending they had different routes to get there. The economic model they both follow is free-market, neo-liberal dogma'. He sees Shearer's move as opening up space on the left, particularly for the Greens and Mana, and ensuring those parties can grow.

Chris Trotter sees danger in that strategy and disagrees with McCarten's position. He says a more rightwing Labour Party will reinforce the right's overall ideological dominance, that the Greens are more likely to shadow Labour's drift than risk becoming labeled as a radical left party and that Mana is unlikely to be able to mobilise disillusioned voters on the left - see: Saying "No" To Labour's Right-Turn: A Reply To Matt McCarten.

Brian Edwards' response is interesting, as his disappointment with the new direction may be evidence that the strategy will work. Edwards is happy to describe himself as 'a socialist' and says he is considering shifting his support to the Greens. If losing the votes of self-proclaimed socialists like Edwards to the Greens can be offset by gains in the centre it will be reasonably straightforward to make up the few percentage points needed to wrest power from National. I find myself wondering....

As a number of commentators, including McCarten and Danyl Mclauchlan (see: The paranoid style in left-wing New Zealand politics) point out, repositioning Labour's image in the centre is more about style than substance as, in reality, Labour has occupied the centre of the New Zealand political spectrum for a long time.

All the clever political strategising and justifications won't stop debate on the left about the rights and wrongs of the policies themselves. Tapu Misa argues against Labour's ditching of extending Working for Families to beneficiaries, pointing out that many low-paid workers receive almost as much in state support as those on a benefit - see: Shearer has to remember children of beneficiaries).

Scott Yorke finds some darker inferences in Shearer's speech and sends a warning to the Greens about their dress sense (see: Shearer's Move To The Far Right), while Steve Braunius looks at the Labour leader's big week in a very funny and perceptive Secret Diary Of David Shearer.

Ongoing reaction to Key's announcement of a super ministry and public sector targets has also been mixed. Fran O'Sullivan says Key scored points by giving measurable goals, but she criticises Key for ignoring some big issues - particularly youth unemployment and a 'gaping structural hole in the government finances because of an obvious lack of tax revenue' - see: Super Thursday scorecard: both can do a lot better).

Key realistically shouldn't expect his desired third term to eventuate, according to Matthew Hooton, as the refusal to reinstate interest on student loans on political grounds displays an unwillingness on the part of National to back themselves to sell policies. Hooton describes a new 'super-bureaucracy' as coming from 1970s Poland and cites Tony Blair's experience in the UK during the 1990s as demonstrating that setting targets without fundamental restructuring in the public sector is doomed - see: Key follows failed Blairite formula.

Dave Armstrong is not particularly impressed with either leader. David Shearer has failed to transform himself into 'Action Man' with a lack of detail. He hopes 'Mr Shearer's charter schools will be slightly more caring than Banksie's'. Meanwhile John Key is described as having 'all the vision of a retired Hastings motelier'. Armstrong concludes that soon we will have to choose between an action man with little vision and a vision man with little action - see: Stop being 'Mr Wiffly-Woffly' Mr Shearer.

Finally, the ACC privacy leak saga has taken a dramatic twist with ACC referring Bronwyn Pullar, the recipient of the emailed file and an ACC client herself, to the police for alleged blackmail - see: ACC refers whistleblower to police. The involvement of ex-National Party President Michelle Boag and her presence at a crucial meeting has heightened interest, with Cameron Slater releasing correspondence relating to Pullar who is also an ex-National Party official - see: Boag involved in ACC privacy standover.

In light of recent leaks from ACC and the Ports of Auckland, Sean Plunket asks How much privacy can we expect? and wonders if we are in danger of being too precious in a world where so much privacy has already been given up.

In other articles of interest, Ports of Auckland chairperson Richard Pearson sat down with Michele Hewitson for an interview that obviously had a few tense moments (see Michele Hewitson interview: Richard Pearson), and the ODT reports on a study that shows a Grim picture painted of young Maori health with poor quality housing clearly identified as a major contributor.

Finally, Morgan Godfery slams iwi leaders over putting profit before principles in their fisheries businesses: 'If iwi leaders fail to move on this issue, then they're morally bankrupt. They are, in other words, complicit in slavery. If this was Maori getting, say, raped at sea you can bet that iwi leaders would be encouraging Maori to blow up Parliament' - see: Iwi back slavery on our seas.

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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