National has missed so many opportunities to set the year’s political agenda. The only policy proposals from the centre-right are from its coalition partner-in-waiting, ACT

Opinion: During a summer of storms, Cyclone Hipkins struck unexpectedly over the past few weeks. But it is not yet clear whether this is a brief, bracing whirlwind, or whether it will have more lasting impacts.

Its destructive side has been swift and obvious – so many pet projects and smelly rats taken off the table – but, as with all cyclones, the post-event reconstruction will be what counts, and the form of that is far from clear.

Hipkins has so far done the easy bit – but that will not be enough to restore the Government’s momentum. He must now back up his “clearing the decks so we can deal with the cost-of-living” mantra with specific action. That will be much more challenging.

Christopher Luxon absent as Chris Hipkins steps into the floodlights
Luxon is not yet the direct threat Labour is painting him as
* Christopher Luxon absent as Chris Hipkins steps into the floodlights

Parliament’s planned resumption this week was intended to enable Hipkins to spell out more fully how he will achieve his hitherto well-meaning, but still vague, agenda. However, Cyclone Gabrielle and its devastation have put paid to that for now.

At the same time, National is coming under increased scrutiny. Much of that has been about Chris Luxon’s leadership, but that is too simplistic. Luxon and his key spokespeople have all been in summer hibernation. They have completely missed so many opportunities to fill the policy vacuum and set the year’s political agenda.

Yet there has been no shortage of issues over the summer break that National could have got its teeth into had it been of a mind to do so. It would have also been the time for National’s key spokespeople to start to embed themselves in the public mind as alternative ministers, ready for government. 

On the economic front was the news that prices have risen the most sharply in 30 years, with business confidence at near all-time lows. Workforce shortages in the hospitality sector have raised questions about the flexibility of the immigration system, which was already under criticism for an unreasonably rigid approach to family reunification issues.

The impact on supply chains of the current uneven approach to workforce supply and demand has left the door open for a strong critique from National, and some bold new policy initiatives. But National has been silent, letting an important opportunity to put the Government on the economic back foot, and thus set the political agenda early in election year, go begging.

Luxon has repeatedly stated his intention to lead a government that ‘gets things done’. But he has consistently missed the opportunities to spell out in detail what that platitude means.

It is the same with Three Waters. Everyone knows the Government’s plans are contentious and unsatisfactory as they stand. National keeps repeating its opposition to what is on the table, but that is not enough. When the Government started to admit late last year that aspects of Three Waters needed to be looked at again, there was a golden opportunity for National to have set out the details of what it would do. But again, where opportunity beckoned, silence prevailed.

Now, the advantage has gone back to Labour with the new Minister of Local Government being asked to prepare amendments for Cabinet to consider. Had National reacted with more alacrity, the debate would now have been on its terms. But instead, it will be on Labour’s forthcoming amendments, with National left once more playing catch-up.

Labour’s Te Whatu Ora/Health New Zealand monolith grinds ever slowly on, with no evidence it is having any positive impact on reducing surgery waiting times or delivering improved health services overall. But National’s criticism so far has been narrowly focused on the Te Akai Whai Ora, the stand-alone Māori Health Authority, rather than the delivery of improved public health services to the whole country. Even Labour appears dissatisfied with Te Whatu Ora’s progress to date, leading Hipkins to move aside the previous Minister of Health in his reshuffle. But we still have no idea of how National would do things differently. It is another missed opportunity.

In fact, the only policy proposals emerging on the centre-right side of politics at present are from National’s coalition partner-in-waiting, ACT. This compounds the problem of National’s somnolence in two ways. At one level, it creates the impression that only ACT has ideas it is prepared to put up for public debate, although much of what ACT is saying makes middle New Zealand uncomfortable. And, in the absence of any clear policy statements from National, that leaves the awkward impression ACT’s agenda would dominate any future National/ACT government. Consequently, moderate voters are left worrying if they can afford that risk, which is to National’s detriment.

At the same time, Labour faces a similar problem with the Greens, but is so far managing it better. Any future Labour-led government will almost certainly have to include the Greens as full coalition partners. The price of that would be including much more of the Green’s left-wing socio-economic agenda in the government’s policy. But, unlike National, Labour can keep a lid on that discussion for the time being, because Hipkins has seized the initiative. And, given public anxieties about ACT’s likely influence on National, it cannot credibly warn about the Greens’ influence on a future Labour/Greens government.

Yet for all that, National still has time to present a dazzling raft of alternative policies that capture the public mind and justify its baffling silence of the past two months. Luxon has repeatedly stated his intention to lead a government that “gets things done”. But he has consistently missed the opportunities to spell out in detail what that platitude means. His time to do so is beginning to run short. In that respect, the recent summer break was truly a time of missed opportunity.

Now, with Parliament about to resume, there will be fresh opportunities for National. But Labour under Hipkins has become far more aggressive in seizing control of the political agenda. No longer can National sit back and wait for things to go wrong. But even if Luxon and National do wake up, Cyclone Hipkins still looks set to leave National playing catch-up and ruing its recent summer of silence.

Leave a comment