John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Party's courage setting agenda

Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Phil Goff. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Is Labour exhibiting genuine political courage with its sudden willingness to tackle sacred cows such as the age of eligibility for super?

Or is this just an electoral ploy to outflank National on the question of which party is willing to act in the country's best interests rather than just out of self-interest? Probably a bit of both.

If nothing else, Labour's bold venture into the no-go areas of New Zealand politics has the party setting the agenda in the early stages of the election campaign. But then it is hard to ignore someone trying to impress an audience by juggling sticks of dynamite.

When it comes to matters like a capital gains tax and superannuation entitlements, the normal rule is to put the matches away and not light the blue touch paper, but still stand well clear.

Labour may have won plaudits of tax experts and economists by promoting a capital gains tax. But it did not win the party any votes. Indeed, the tax might have cost it votes.

Will the same fate await its excursion into the political minefield of retirement policy?

Perhaps not. People might tell pollsters they would support a capital gains tax, but privately think otherwise - especially if they think it might apply to them some day.

The warnings over the future affordability of state-funded superannuation have been repeated so often and for so long that the electorate is probably resigned to the inevitability of compulsory super contributions and a hike in the retirement age, especially if that preserves the state pension at current levels.

Labour has effectively shattered the fragile consensus surrounding retirement policy. But then someone was going to do so sooner or later.

Doing so puts Labour on the right side of the argument when it comes to the country's best interests. Its savings policy also puts it on the right side of the economic argument in terms of speeding investment in local enterprises.

Labour has also cleverly boxed in the Prime Minister, whose promise not to touch current super entitlements is the proverbial millstone around his neck.

That did not stop him homing in on Labour with a quip that people would have to work an extra two years to pay for Labour's exorbitant spending promises.

Labour's willingness to be bold ought to shake National out of any preconceptions about how the campaign will unfold.

Labour has everything to gain. If being seen to tackle sacred cows works electorally, it will have been worth the gamble.

But it is still a gamble. Labour still has a lot to lose.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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