Monday, April 30, 2007

Strategic emptiness

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.


How could anyone who follows politics not know National planned to privatise/open up to competition ACC if they'd got the numbers in the 2005 election?

It wasn't trumpetted in the advertising, but why would it be? I don't recall "nationalise ACC" being on Labour's '99 pledge card, either.

And while " "tough on crime", "one law for all", "political correctness gone mad" " may all be slogans they're not all empty ones. One law for all had some very specific policies - abolition of race-based electoral seats and an end to positive discrimination in education, and getting rid of bits in planning legislation that allow for taniwha objections, for example. You might have disagreed with the policies, but there were definitely policies behind the "one law for all" slogan.

Similarly, there were policies behind the "tough on crime" slogan - not least the abolition of parole for repeat and violent offenders. It was an appalling idea (though backed at least in part by the Law Commission) but it was a real policy.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 4/30/2007 01:57:00 AM

Oh come on. Read some political strategy. Dick Morris on Clinton is particularly good. Any serious opposition cannot lay out all its wares early. The government will simply adopt the popular ones and then use its incumbency to maintain power. It is democracy at work.

An effective opposition will offer sufficient indication of policy to get elected without giving away all its ideas so early they can be used against them

Posted by Anonymous : 4/30/2007 08:48:00 AM

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".

Ahem... When Agenda gets round to posting the transcript of the segment in which Jeni Mcmannus made that claim, I think you'll find the contaxt rather disturbing. Apparently, nobody was willing to make this claim on the record - talking about threats to democracy, how do citizens actually make good decisions in a democracy when the media routinely decide we're not fit to judge for ourselves the credibility and agendas of people who are only willing to enter political discourse under cover of anonymity?

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 4/30/2007 09:46:00 AM

I'm glad you've realised that democratic politics is all about creating "winners and losers."

Posted by Samuel Konkin : 4/30/2007 11:13:00 AM

National announces they are looking at refocusing NZ aid money more towards our neighbours.

Idiot's reation is this is all a conspiracy to hide their real agenda. Which is to refocus aid towards our neighbours. Spooky. It's the Hager approach to politics - there's always secret agendas that only those with x-ray vision can see.

Graig, "apparently" is such a usefull word. Apparently it's often used to suggest something is true when there is no evidence.

come on Idiot, why not comment on what National is saying about aid.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/30/2007 11:14:00 AM

Neil - I/S did.

His post is here:

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 4/30/2007 11:22:00 AM

National does appear to lack a "big picture" a coherent set of ideas that we would buy" in a election. The concern is that maybe they don't have a coherent plan. I heard key say on radio somthing alon the lines of "I would be concerned if any party had a coherent plan this far out from the election - because it means they have not done the ground work" can anyone spot the 2 problems with that statement?

Labour on the other hand gives a tired and sometimes obnoxious impression BUT since they are in governemnt one doesn't have to hear what they want to do - it can be seen.


Posted by Anonymous : 4/30/2007 02:43:00 PM

thanks, Graeme. Looks suspiciously like "policy".

Idiot should be careful not to become part of National's plot to appear to have no agenda by releasing policy.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/30/2007 03:28:00 PM