Gordon Campbell on child poverty, and David Shearer’s latest outburst

The politicisation of (a) the public service and (b) the operations of the Official Information Act have been highlighted by the policy advice package on child poverty that RNZ’s resolute political editor Brent Edwards has finally prised out of the Ministry of Social Development. Not only was the MSD advice on how to alleviate child poverty tailored to fit the political needs and desires of the government, but the release of it to RNZ – which had been seeking the information since May 2013 – was held back until after the election.

According to the MSD officials, more money would help the poor, but this wouldn’t fit the government’s political preferences. Therefore, MSD advised against allocating more funds, suggesting instead that – at most – the existing funds should be shifted between categories of the needy. Peter could be robbed to pay Paul, MSD suggested, by reducing the money paid out in family tax credits to poor families with older children, and giving it instead to poor families with younger children. The government’s policy focus on employment as the only route out of poverty would therefore remain – even though insufficient jobs exist and tend to be available only to the best educated/most skilled/most presentable members of the underclass.

In other words, the current policy settings cynically condemn thousands of children to poverty, and to the diseases of poverty. Plainly, the Key government’s approach isn’t succeeding. As Edwards points out, half the children in poverty are still there seven years later. Child poverty rates in 2011, he also points out, were double what they were in the 1980s. It is also a generational crime: our child poverty rates are currently running at two to three times the rate of poverty among the over 65s.

The evidence already exists that direct government action on child poverty actually works – and arguably, is the only thing that does work. Child poverty rates reduced in the early to mid 2000s with the introduction of Working for Families, but there has been no improvement since 2007. Reportedly, the MSD papers cite the cost of alleviating child poverty as being a barrier, and put that cost at close to $1 billion – which is considerably less than what the government paid out to relieve the pain of investors in South Canterbury Finance. So the solution does exist, and only the political will is lacking. MSD officials – and their recently departed Minister, Paula Bennett – should be ashamed of themselves. Officials are supposed to point out the long-term consequences of decisions, not to tailor their advice to fit the ideological straitjacket of the government of the day.

The delay in releasing this information until after the election underlines how the campaign was virtually carried out under false pretences. During the election campaign, we were told of the government’s plans to invest in state housing – only to discover after the election, that National’s housing policy is more about selling state housing. During the campaign, child poverty was the subject of a march on Queen St, and the Anglican Church called for action. At the time, Prime Minister John Key said that the government was committed to lifting children out of poverty…”And I’m confident my government has done everything it practically can.” Yeah, right.

Could someone tell David Shearer that his public campaign for utu against David Cunliffe has lost any pretence of being…you know, for the good of the party? In an interview with the NZ Herald yesterday Shearer argued for Cunliffe leaving Parliament altogether, while lamenting Cunliffe’s decision not to remain in the leadership contest until defeated, so that a public line could be drawn under his ambitions for evermore…. with all of this being offered in the name of fostering caucus unity, of course.

What would a reality check look like? For starters, Shearer needs to be taken aside and reminded that
(a) He was parachuted into the top job by his mates in the Labour parliamentary caucus, only after their first choice, David Parker, had pulled out. Shearer was installed against the wishes of most of the party membership and union affiliates who had been invited by caucus to express their preference for leader, only to have those preferences ignored when they favoured some-one [i.e., Cunliffe] unacceptable to the caucus majority.

(b) It was Shearer’s dismal legacy that the high point of his tenure as Leader of the Opposition came from stomping one of his own colleagues [Cunliffe at the 2012 party conference] rather than from confronting John Key and his government. Putting your own kind to the sword may look great on Game of Thrones, but in real life it does create a certain tension in the ranks.

(c) Shearer’s leadership wasn’t ‘white-anted’ as he claims. It self-destructed due to (i) his lack of a valid mandate from the party rank and file he purported to lead (ii) his lack of the necessary leadership and communication skills and (iii) his inability/reluctance to control rogue members of his caucus such as Shane Jones, who was allowed to run amuck through the portfolio areas of his colleagues, and to launch wild attacks on the one coalition partner that Labour desperately needs – then and now – in order to govern.

(d) Blaming his failure on Cunliffe is not only an attempt to rewrite history, it looks like a last ditch effort by the Anyone But Cunliffe faction to deny their nemesis a meaningful role on any future Labour front bench headed by the person who now seems to be the frontrunner for the leadership, Andrew Little.

Think about it. For all of Cunliffe’s very obvious flaws, he remains a better speaker/debater in Parliament than either Shearer or Little. Yet if Shearer and his ilk have their way, Labour dare not utilise Cunliffe’s skills and experience in future, lest that be seen by the likes of Patrick Gower as endangering the delicate flowers who will comprise Labour’s next leadership team. If taken seriously, Shearer wail of anguish would actually make the situation worse, and turn Cunliffe into a figure who dare not say anything at all, lest he outshine the modest talents on his side of the House.

Plainly, that won’t do. Whatever Little’s strengths may be in bargaining or as a strategic thinker – and lets give him the benefit of the doubt on both those fronts – he is a somewhat dour speaker who would tend to double down on many of the same presentational flaws that sank Shearer. Let’s hope that if Little does eventually win the leadership – and there’s a long way to go yet – he will be confident enough to give full rein to everyone in his caucus, including Cunliffe.

One external facet of the job that Little-as-leader could be quite good at managing would be Labour’s campaign relationship with the Greens, come 2017. When Little talks about whether (a) the capital gains tax and (b) the change in the age of superannuation entitlement really belong in Labour’s policy portfolio, he is talking less about whether they’re good and necessary – but is merely pointing out Labour’s inability to explain why such policies are essential and desirable. In future, the polarising issues to the left of centre should be assigned to the Greens to promote. That flak-catching role is, after all, a big part of what smaller MMP partners are for – and that’s before even considering the fact that several of the policies in question were borrowed from the Greens in the first place. Labour could then focus Cunliffe and Parker on the bigger job of formulating a credible alternative to the prevailing neo-liberal economic settings.

If Labour’s chances of ever being in government in future depend on the electability of a centre-left bloc, then the politics of the bloc need better management than they got this year under Cunliffe. Given his union background, Little knows how to manage those sort of alliances – although supposedly, so did Matt McCarten.

Always Be Closing
If Labour can’t get Alec Baldwin as its next leader, its parliamentary caucus still needs to have the equivalent of this speech directed its way…