As one would expect at the outset of the political year, the recent trio of ‘state of the nation’ addresses have been more about impression management than policy detail. Well aware that his government is increasingly seen as being mere tinkerers and sideline observers of political events, Prime Minister John Key’s speech ran through a busy mixture of his achievements to date, his ‘to do’ list for 2013 and his “if only” wishlist for the future: with everything from welfare reform, asset sales, the TPP trade deal, the national convention centre, the infrastructural projects in roading and broadband etc etc rating a mention somewhere on the government’s busy, busy, busy agenda. Above all else though, Key promised, there would be a “a focus” on the economy – as if staring intently at the economy would somehow get it off the sofa and into stretching, growing and creating more jobs.
As mentioned though, the speech was mainly about the politics of image, not policy prescriptions. The only fresh announcement – on apprenticeships – was a belated recognition that the Christchurch rebuild (on which the government has consistently hung its recovery hopes) will require some action by the state to help to provide the skills required. Even so, this new scheme will merely go some way to restoring the apprenticeship numbers that have gone backwards (allegedly, by as much as 20%) on this government’s watch. Details aside, the imagery of the Key speech was about projecting a sense of busy hands-on engagement amid trying global conditions, and in the face of negativism from their political opponents. Near the close for instance, Key roundly castigated the Opposition for (gasp) opposing his policies:
That’s the irony of the New Zealand Opposition in 2013. They criticize the government for being too hands-off; and yet between each of the Opposition parties they oppose every hands-on change we make to encourage investment, growth and jobs…Every piece of legislation or policy we have developed to encourage growth and jobs they have opposed.
If true, this blame-the-negativists approach would be a back-handed compliment to the Opposition’s ability to derail the government’s (unfortunately phantom) agenda for growth. Unfortunately for the credibility of his argument, Key’s stated list of examples of policies to “encourage investment and jobs” – the unaffordable tax changes, the major roading projects of dubious value, the ideologically-driven 90 day trials and RMA changes, the failing oil and gas exploration programme, the craven Hobbit legislation etc etc only served to confirm his reputation as a tinkerer when it comes to the social and economic challenges that confront New Zealand.
All else, Key insisted, was to be treated as the invalid ‘cheque book activism’ of big government. Even his own government’s corporate friends must be starting to wonder whether this may be 1998 all over again – in that their traditional party of choice plainly hasn’t a clue about how to return the economy to the health on which their profit-taking depends. They too, will be focusing on the economy and will be watching it virtually flatline in 2013 – and they could well be considering the options for change.
David Shearer’s speech was similarly thin on specifics, and for similar image–mongering reasons. As Shearer freely conceded, the task for Labour this year is to present itself as a credible government –in-waiting, and to get people used to the idea that he could perhaps lead New Zealand to a better place. To that end, housing policy has proved a useful platform – one that is consistent with the party’s traditions – from which to address the country’s social needs, yet without unduly disturbing the economic fundamentals on which both major parties are largely in agreement. Shearer’s speech is here and here’s a sampling of Labour’s “hands on” prescriptions:
We’ll pay employers the equivalent of the dole to take on apprentices.
We’ll back Kiwi businesses to get their slice of the $30 billion dollars the Government contracts out every year – but we will require them to take on apprentices and trainees in return. We’ll give tax breaks to companies doing world-leading research and development, so the innovations – and the jobs – they create stay right here in New Zealand…we’ll work with councils on projects that support their provinces. Projects like the Gisborne to Napier rail link to boost economic development and create jobs…We’ll make changes to monetary policy so that our job-creating businesses aren’t undermined by our exchange rate.
Finally, the Greens also weighed in with their state of the nation address this weekend. Image played a part here as well. Perennially, the Greens present themselves as a bunch of precocious fifth formers – bright, articulate, preachy and mildly annoying even at the best of times – and this year’s State of the Nation” speech by Greens Co-Leader Metiria Turei was no exception. Certainly, Turei was the only leader to kick off her address with giddy reminiscences about her “picnics and late night frolicking” at the site chosen for her speech. Yet also typically, there was solid content too. After listing some of the ways the Greens held government to account last year, Turei – like Labour – zeroed in on housing need, and on the Greens’ tripartite response:
At Ratana this week, I announced our Home for Life plan to help families achieve the Kiwi dream of owning their own home, and being more secure in a rental home. We have offered to New Zealanders a progressive ownership scheme that will get young families on the ladder to home ownership through a deposit and mortgage free rent to own system – affordable and accessible to young families.
We have offered better tenancy security and a warrant of fitness so that those who rent can stay in their homes longer, have greater certainty over rent increases, and know that the homes they pay good money to live in are warm and dry and won’t make their kids sick.
The Greens’ main priority for 2013 will be to stop the asset sales programme. According to Turei, the final preparations for presenting the circa 300,000 signatures necessary for a referendum on asset sales is on track to be completed by the end of February. All up, the three speeches confirmed that the holidays are over, and that normal political life – along the same, very predictable lines – has resumed.