Two extraordinary things happened yesterday at 2pm: a right-wing government increased benefits, and a television company killed off a popular current affairs show. The two events were surprisingly connected.
A budget that focused on child poverty had come about as a result of pressure for the problem to be taken seriously and broadcaster John Campbell, more than anyone else in New Zealand, had put the problem on the political agenda.
This was eloquently captured in a tweet by Newstalk ZB journalist Frances Cook (@FrancesCook): 'It's quite sad to be talking about #Budget2015 focusing on child poverty, when the man who made it a national talking point has been fired'. For more tweets of anger and sadness, see my blog post: Top tweets about the death of Campbell Live
Labour and left thwarted
Tweets about the Budget were also fascinating - see: Top tweets about the 2015 Budget. Much of the twittersphere was grappling with the fact that the National Government had actually delivered something substantial on child poverty, and had in some ways "out-lefted" the Labour and Greens. On the right, Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) expressed his (mock?) shock: "Oh my f**king god. A so-called @NZNationalParty govt has introduced a new border tax and raised benefits. #communismbystealth". Less dramatically, he also said " I think @Budget2015 will be seen as the most historic since '86, because both ended an era & massively re-orientated the political spectrum".
Ideologically, there was something strange going on. Political scientist Geoffrey Miller (@GeoffMillerNZ) expressed it like this: "It's a weird world when National is increasing benefits and Labour advisers like @rsalmond are complaining about failure to make surplus".
The politicians of the left were effectively snookered, once again, by a highly pragmatic (and cynical?) government who could now pose as the party dealing with child poverty under the guise of "compassionate conservatism" - see my commentary in the Otago Daily Times: National thwarts Left.
As Duncan Garner explained, such an "astute" manoeuvre in "putting people at the bottom ahead of a meaningless surplus number" was a "masterstroke" and would leave "the opposition scrambling" - see: National pushes Labour off the cliff.
Garner elaborates in another very good column: Budget hits and misses. In this, he concludes: "English and co would rather look caring and compassionate than pursue a surplus at any cost. This is crafty politics. National has elbowed Labour and the Greens in the face and moved in on their territory. Slick stuff. It may be an F for fiscal failure but it's a B for beneficiaries. Overall they deserve an A for audacious politics".
The response of the left parties was a ridiculous mess according to Danyl Mclauchlan, expressing his Thoughts on budget 2015. Mclauchlan says the opposition can take heart that many of the key measures contained in the Budget originate from their own campaigns, but "On the other hand, the opposition looked like clueless losers yesterday" - especially in their bizarre responses to the new measures. In particular, Mclauchlan laments that "Labour's bought into National's rhetoric about the cosmic importance of getting back to surplus". The Budget, according to Mclauchlan, is also some sort of final sign that National's adherence to neoliberal ideology is long gone.
Many on the right lamented National's apparent shift to the left. David Farrar even declared he wouldn't support the Budget - see: Budget 2015. Nonetheless, Farrar still enjoyed the fact that the Labour-lite Budget put the left in a difficult situation: "It will be almost impossible for Labour and Greens to credibly attack this Budget, because it looks a lot like the sort of Budget they would deliver.... It is very cunning budget politically. It is delivering the very thing the left have been demanding - an increase in benefit rates. It will be a fascinating test of which child poverty lobby groups are actually principled, and which are just anti-National shrills. Because the child poverty groups should all be praising the Budget for doing what no Labour Government has done in 43 years - give more money to those on benefits".
Furthermore, Farrar declared: "This is a Budget that should be praised on The Standard and The Daily Blog. John Key and Bill English have delivered more to families on benefits than Norman Kirk, Bob Tizard, David Lange, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen ever have". Such pragmatic "trickiness" has therefore earned the Government praise and criticism - see Patrick Gower's Bill English's tricky Budget.
But is the Budget really a poverty buster?
Hardly, says Gordon Campbell, writing what is possibly the strongest leftwing criticism of yesterday's Budget - see: On Budget 2015. In his lengthy and detailed blog post, Campbell argues "the boost to benefits will occur in the absence of any structural change to the policies generating poverty. The minimal increases will do little to make poverty bearable, and some of the fish-hooks will make life worse for some households. The chief purpose has been an entirely political one : by raising core benefits, the National-led government has managed to trump Labour on its own social policy ground!"
Other reports have highlighted the fact that the welfare increases come with a catch. Stacey Kirk says, "some of those on income-related rents will see their rents rise slightly. Their rent is set at 25 per cent of their income, so with a $25-per-week boost their rent will rise by $6.25 a week" - see: The poorest families to benefit the most from Budget package.
This article also quotes Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills welcoming the benefit increases but pointing to their limitations: "But let's be clear, a one-off increase is not a plan for child poverty. A plan would set out exactly how we are going to do better for our children and how we're going to get there. This Budget is not that." Similarly, Victoria University's Jonathan Boston is cited as saying the changes would have a "marginal impact" on child poverty.
Brent Edwards also makes some interesting points about this in his article 'It looks like good politics'. He says that beneficiaries face some other hurdles: "First, they will have to wait nearly a year before they start getting the extra money, and it will be offset by cuts in accommodation support. But, in total, the Government still expects most beneficiaries with children to be about $23 a week better off.
The other catch is that the work obligations placed on sole parents will be tightened".
Could the 2015 Budget be a precursor to future shifts to the right?
Commentators of various backgrounds are putting forward the argument that National has cleverly tacked to the left in order to eventually introduce more traditional rightwing budgetary measures in the future. This is not simply a leftwing conspiracy theory - National blogger David Farrar actually puts the argument himself, suggesting that the Government has been crafty: "However having delivered a significant increase in welfare and family support in 2015, it will mean that the political environment should be more palatable for tax cuts in 2017, which will benefit all families. So this Budget is part of a three-year plan, very focused on winning National a fourth term and marginalising Labour as irrelevant. It's a cunning strategy" - see: English delivers Dr Cullen's tenth Budget.
The argument is put better by Tracy Watkins, who not only stresses the more punitive welfare measures of the Budget, but argues that benefit increases could be a necessary precursor to tax cuts: "But it is also a measure of the importance the Key government places on retaining the crucial female vote and a necessary prerequisite to cutting taxes in two years' time, which Thursday's Budget reiterates as a priority ahead of seeking a fourth term. Tax cuts disproportionately benefiting the better off would have been politically unsellable after Key went into the last election promising to make child poverty and hardship his priority" - see: National makes some concessions but also gets tough.
Finally, returning to the fate of John Campbell, there are plenty of must-read items. See, for example, Russell Brown's Mediaworks: The only horizon they see, Carla Penman's Campbell Live: the end of an era, John Drinnan's Could Paul Henry replace John Campbell?, Toby Manhire's Campbell's style irreplaceable, Paul Casserly's Campbell Live: 'You maniacs, you blew it up!', Martyn Bradbury's And then they came for Campbell Live - the end of political journalism on NZ television, Stuff's Hilary Barry thanks viewers for support after tears for John Campbell, and the Herald's The highs and lows of Campbell Live.
But in terms of the Government's poverty-orientated Budget, it's Jane Bowron's column that is most interesting. She says: "the writing was on the wall as the show was rumoured to be too pink in its persuasion by friends of John Key, high up in the echelons of MediaWorks" - see: The Sad end of John Campbell. It could well be that by putting so many social policy issues onto the political agenda, even ones that were picked up by the National Government in yesterday's Budget, John Campbell sealed his own fate.