Last week, National's foreign affairs spokesperson Murray McCully called for New Zealand to focus its aid spending more strongly on the Pacific. However, he caveated his call in a significant way:
Mr McCully said he was not announcing National Party policy, because it was "much too early" for that
This is one example; a second was mentioned yesterday morning on Agenda: National is apparently still telling business leaders "you elect us, then we'll tell you what we're going to do". And this is not a new phenomena, but part of a long-term trend. Since losing power in 1999, they seem to have adopted a deliberate strategy of emptiness - of refusing to put up policy and say what they stand for, and of being deliberately vague when forced to (see for example their 2005 election policies, which are charitably described as "thin"). Instead, National prefers to fight on empty slogans - "tough on crime", "one law for all", "political correctness gone mad" - rather than talking about what it is going to do if it regains power.
In The Hollow Men, Nicky Hager suggests two reasons for this. The first is the obvious one: a deliberate attempt to hide what they want to do if they gain power, because they know that the public will not like it. This was evident in the 2005 election campaign, when for example National agreed with its donors to keep its highly unpopular, and highly profitable (for the donors) policy of ACC privatisation secret from the public. Or when it kept its policy of borrowing for tax cuts secret until the last minute (and then had the gall to complain when people took the vague promises they initially made at their word). Or when they desperately tried to avoid talking about Iraq, nuclear ships, and their relationship with the US.
The second reason is more interesting: vagueness on policy avoids the need for National to confront the differences between its radical and conservative wings. Having policy means having an argument within caucus (or at least the dominant clique), creating winners and losers and bad feelings of the sort which led to tension and departures in the 90's. Not having policy - or having only the vaguest generalities - means all of that can be avoided, and the party can instead focus on winning elections. The problem is that the differences have to be confronted at one stage or another - you can get away with emptiness in opposition, but not in government - and this simply delays the inevitable while worsening the consequences.
But regardless of the reason, this is not how democracy is supposed to work. Our democratic system is based on the idea of the public choosing between competing political parties (or coalitions of parties) to determine which will hold power. Implicit in this is that the public at least has the opportunity to know what the choices actually are. But rather than fronting up, National is deliberately trying to keep the public in the dark as much as possible - even on something as simple and uncontroversial as aid spending. This simply isn't good enough, and the public deserves better.