We voted for change, as Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon told us on election night. But why wasn’t Labour the party of change? With an absolute majority in Parliament, why didn’t it do more?
We know what happened. The Government was battered by Covid and inflation, it was timid on tax and benefit reform and didn’t understand the demands of our changing demographics. The support base was soft, the leadership weak and it did not know how to respond to fears about co-governance. But why?
The need to build back better should have been an opportunity, not a burden. The astonishing Covid successes – in health and the economy – could have locked in public support for a decade.
And co-governance? We live in a liberal democracy that embraces cultural diversity. It’s generally accepted that we’re “on a journey” to establish meaningful relationships between Māori and Pākehā. It’s also well known that the state of our drinking water poses a risk to public health that most local councils do not have the resources to fix.
So how did the plans for water reform go so awry? The Crown offered to take on the financial burden and somehow there was outrage.
Managing change will be an issue for the new Government, just as it became one for the old. Because one of the big lessons of the past six years is that delivering reforms is far harder than it looks.
Some critics blame a lack of competence. They say Labour was just out of its depth.
I don’t buy that. It’s easy to point to the much-publicised failures of a few, but Labour’s senior ranks included many skilful politicians. Grant Robertson, Carmel Sepuloni, David Parker, Megan Woods, Andrew Little and Damien O’Connor formed a capable front bench.
Kelvin Davis went where almost every other politician has feared to tread, as a courageous and compassionate Minister of Corrections. Michael Wood made a real hash of things, but not all things: His workplace relations reforms were weighty.
Among the newer ministers, Ayesha Verrall, Kieran McAnulty and Barbara Edmonds all seemed reassuringly competent. As for Ginny Anderson, for seven eventful months she displayed the makings of the best minister of police we’ve had in a very long time.
Besides, why think the National lineup will be any better? Some of them were wobbly when they were in power and most of the others are entirely unproven.
Other critics say Labour focused on the wrong issues. That it was preoccupied with identity politics and climate change and abandoned its working-class base.
This argument is popular among some old socialists and it’s crazy wrong.
For starters, it panders to the far right by promoting their obsessions. Also, the complaint about identity politics belittles the hopes of many vulnerable people. Standing with rainbow communities in no way precludes Labour from bettering the lives of working people and beneficiaries.
As for the climate being a distraction, here’s a question: What would Karl Marx do?
He’d have a podcast called Der Klimawandel, that’s what, calling on the workers of the world to unite against the corporates and governments that are destroying the planet.
Despite the slow progress on many fronts, it’s not true that Labour was too timid to do anything at all. It initiated many large-scale reforms.
The “wellbeing budget” approach didn’t change the way we see the economy, but it has a profound potential to do that over time. Water, public health, justice and corrections, provincial economies, road safety, urban density and public housing, resource management, school curriculums and assessments, the climate regulation framework, industrial relations, public transport, agricultural emissions, polytechnics, local government, property regulations, marine ecology, energy, treaty relations … all were subject to significant progressive reform.
The trouble was, in most of those areas, change came only slowly. And sometimes, the slowness was a choice.
The decision to put light rail into tunnels guaranteed there would be nothing to show for all the money spent – for years. Which meant, given National’s consistent opposition, that it wouldn’t happen at all. So why did Labour waste everyone’s time? And money?
Which brings us to the question of strategy. After the 2020 triumph, did Labour ask itself what it could achieve in the next three years? Did it grasp that it would need to campaign on those achievements in this election? Did it draw up a plan to make sure it achieved them?
There is no evidence the party did any of these things.
Labour could have settled teachers’ and nurses’ pay disputes much earlier, enacted the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, begun the free dental care rollout. Made public transport – the services we already have – as efficient, cheap, reliable and frequent as they need to be.
You can make your own list of things like this. The thing is, long-term reform is important, but it’s pointless if you don’t also treat today’s operational demands as a priority.
Yes, provide those wraparound social services for troubled children and their whānau, but it will mean little to most people if you don’t also ensure that shopkeepers are safe.
It’s been said the 2023 election was unwinnable for Labour. But that’s not true. The party was loved in the election of 2020. With proper attention paid to the here and now, there’s no reason it couldn’t have kept on winning.
Would a four-year parliamentary term make a difference? I don’t buy that either. A Government committed to change can do it from the get-go. A timid Government will remain timid, however much time it has.
So, again, why did Labour get so little done? One possible answer: The public service wouldn’t let it.
There’s good evidence for this. The Ministry of Health seems convinced it knows best about everything health-related. Waka Kotahi is clearly addicted to tunnels and motorways. The culture of punishing beneficiaries still seems to linger in ACC and parts of Work and Income.
The ministers are responsible, but the mandarins are powerful people.
The lesson for National, the new party of change, is to move fast and be determined. But the changes also have to be worthwhile. Just undoing progress for its own sake, as it currently proposes in resource management, public health, property law, climate action and elsewhere, will not be good enough.
There is one more reason Labour made such little headway with its reforms, and it’s a biggie. Like centre-left Governments everywhere, it knew what would happen.
In the United States in 2016, the conservative Democratic Party machine went to great lengths to stop Bernie Sanders becoming its presidential candidate. In Britain in 2017, £1 billion ($2.1 billion) in donations helped the Conservative Party keep Jeremy Corbyn out of power.
The same thing happened here, especially after 2019, when Michael Cullen’s Tax Working Group recommended a capital gains tax. While the debate about a CGT, wealth and other asset taxes has become mainstream, large donations to the parties of the centre-right have risen to unprecedented heights.
Since 2021, National and its allies have banked $13.5 million in donations of $20,000 or more. That’s over five times as much as Labour and its allies. Labour alone received just $1.1 million, while National pocketed $8.2 million.
This money funded, among other things, a sustained barrage of advertising across all media, prior to the official campaign period when spending is controlled. That didn’t begin until July 14.
Why didn’t Labour do more? Perhaps it’s because Labour leaders know – have always known – that if they do too much, their ability to remain in office will be bought from under them.
But it happened anyway, so they might as well have just barged on.
Campaign funding, eh. Another reform that never got done.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.