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

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Food in Schools - victory and defeat

File  Photo / NZ Herald
File Photo / NZ Herald

The new food in schools programme can be seen as a significant victory or defeat for both the left and right - depending on how you look at it.

Much of the political commentary has been uncertain about who exactly are the political victors in the debate and who is actually responsible for making the policy happen. Probably the best commentary regarding this so far is Claire Trevett's Many flavours in Key's porridge. She outlines many of the different views in the debate and how many of the participants - like Goldilocks with her porridge - are unhappy with the policy outcome.

Those on the left have been particularly uncertain about whether to see the policy as a successful outcome, and whether or not to congratulate the Government. See for example, No Right Turn's ambivalent blogpost, Winning the argument on food in schools. Also, Colin Espiner ponders what the ideological thinking is behind the scheme in School breakfasts the right call, whatever the reason.

Most obviously, the newly bolstered KickStart breakfast programme can be seen as a victory for the left and a defeat for the right because it amounts to an extension of the welfare state. The fact that National is introducing any sort of new welfare measure is in some senses an ideological reversal for the party. It suggests that the left has won the debate, and National has yielded to public pressure and is uncomfortably surrendering. The Government appears to have been forced to implement the demands of leftwing anti-poverty campaigners. This shows just how much the debate has shifted in recent years, with the emergence of issues of poverty and inequality onto the public agenda.

Hence, on the right, much of the commentary is around how National has capitulated to the left on the issue - see for example, Rob Hosking's Govt toes Harawira's kiddie kai line. And for an example of how uncomfortable the right is with the scheme, see Mike Hosking's Specific solutions needed for food in schools. And further to the right, libertarian Peter Cresswell characterises the food policy as the thin edge of the wedge, and illustrates this with a history of other welfare programmes that have morphed into welfare monsters - see: As milestones become entitlements... the "feed the children" edition. John Banks, too, strongly opposes the initiative - see Newswire's Harawira, Banks both slam food in schools.

Alternatively, the new programme can be seen as a victory for the Government and a defeat for the political left. National has managed to produce a popular programme for a pittance. And as with the recent Budget, it therefore manages to increase the perception that this government is concerned for the poor and implementing policies to alleviate poverty. It has very easily blunted the Opposition's increasing success campaigning on inequality. So, arguably the Food in Schools announcement reiterates just how electorally smart this Government is. Rather than losing the debate, National has simply co-opted the issue, and has managed to come up with a package that ideologically suits itself and will be very popular. And, of course, it's done it on a shoestring.

What's more, National has been able to introduce a welfare entitlement on its own terms - the KickStart breakfasts is a very ideologically 'Third Way' programme - less statist and more community and private sector orientated. Like many of the other controversial Government initiatives such as the SkyCity Convention Centre, housing policy utilising NGO social housing providers, and the private sector sponsorship of DOC, this is straight out of the Tony Blair 'Third Way' approach of joining forces with the community and private sector to produce social goods. This method is enthusiastically approved of in editorials such as the Herald's Locals know school food needs best.

The new scheme has even been couched in language that will appeal to National's core supporters. As Matthew Dallas points out in the Manawatu Standard, 'Key was quick to stress the scheme does not mitigate the responsibility of parents to look after their children - he even opened the announcement with it. No doubt he was keen to allay any fears among the National base supporters that the Government has gone soft on welfare, but by emphasising this and ignoring why kids aren't being fed the Prime Minister gave the impression the problem was less about poverty and more about poor parenting' - see: Let's not forget poverty concerns.

In this sense, the political left has suffered a big defeat. The idea of a more comprehensive welfare initiative is now off the agenda. This is why Hone Harawira is so offended by this welfare initiative. His own, more comprehensive, feed the kids bill is very unlikely to pass now, especially with the Maori Party signaling a likely reversal of support for it - see Claire Trevett's Harawira will seek talks with the Maori Party. This article shows just how bitter and distant the relationship between the two Maori parties is. Harawira has, however, managed to get almost as much publicity out of the policy as if it went to a select committee and it has at a good time with the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection about to heat up.

John Armstrong is strikingly critical of the new KickStart programme, and argues strongly that the left shouldn't embrace it: 'It is a "feelgood" initiative. Opposition parties should be rubbishing this particular ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Key says the scheme is all about the state intervening to help children from poor homes. It is closer to being an abdication of responsibility by the state because it raises serious questions about the adequacy of state assistance at the top of the cliff. It is thus a scheme that parties of the centre-left should be wary of' - see: National's KickStart contribution a 'feelgood' move. He calls Key's announcement 'brazen' and 'audicious', and says the amount being spent is 'peanuts'.

For the left - and for alleviating poverty - there are much bigger issues than food in schools. Armstrong says that the Government is ignoring these. Brian Rudman seems to agree, and focuses on the current legal campaign by the Child Poverty Action Group to get the Government to extend the Working for Families tax credits to beneficiaries - see: Free breakfast as poverty solution? It's a joke. The policy, introduced by the last government, but excluding those on benefits, was according to John Minto 'one of the nastiest, cruellest policies ever devised by Labour and its appalling effects have resonated for hungry kids every day for many years now' - see: Parnell Parents and memories of Alamein Kopu.

The upshot is that in terms of the Government's food in schools initiative, there is general support, even from some of the left, who begrudge it being so small, and even from the right, who are happy that it is so small. But curiously, the strongest critical controversy about the policy now seems to be about how newspapers have covered the issue in their satirical cartoons. You can see my own blogpost, Images of the Food in Schools debate for examples of these cartoons. For a critique of these, see Morgan Godfery's Your daily dose of racism, and for a comprehensive response, see Joelle Dally's 'Racist' cartoon slammed.

And for more satire on the food in schools issue, see The Civilian's Government partners with Uncle Tobys to provide hungry children with Le Snak and Scott Yorke's National's Hunger Plan.

- NZ Herald

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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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