Friday, September 19, 2008

Minor parties as policy innovators

In his column in the National Business Review, Ben Thomas asks and answers an interesting question:

But where are the government’s new ideas coming from to continue the dream of moderate social democracy it has been working on for nine years?

At least as far as its key area of employment relations is concerned, the answer is probably – the Greens. To a large extent the Labour government has outsourced its industrial relations policy-making to the Greens over the last three years.

While the government has tinkered round the edges, over the past parliamentary term it is the Greens which have led the way on employment relations policy, passing bills abolishing youth rates and requiring greater flexibility from employers towards parents and caregivers. And while they've recently advanced some serious legislation of their own, around mandatory breaks and infant feeding, and introduced a bill to strengthen the rights of contract workers in "three party" employment arrangements, both of these are also Green policy.

Which raises a further interesting question: with both parties hugging the centre under MMP, does this make the minor parties the major sources of policy innovation? Quite possibly, and particularly for those with a strong ideological niche. "Wing parties" such as the Greens are free from the necessity to care about what the majority of the population think. They thus have a free hand to explore the policy space at their end (or corner, because its not really 2-D) of the political spectrum. They are, in short, free to dream, to ask the question "what would we do if we had the power to change the world".

Not all of those dreams will be good ideas. But some will be, and will be worth adopting or backing by their corresponding major party as an adjunct to its more centrist policy. And thus the policy space is enriched...

Obviously, as a leftie, this is great when the Greens pull it off. But the worry in the next Parliament is that ACT may end up filling a similar role for National, regardless of whether they're formally in the government or not (and remember, the Greens aren't). You have been warned.