Gordon Campbell on Labour’s bunker mentality

RNZ spokesperson John Barr says in reply to this column that RNZ’s “live” coverage of the Luxon press conference was carried only on its website, not on its broadcast programme. IMO, this hardly resolves the concerns raised within the column – Gordon Campbell

Littler inageIt seems very odd that RNZ thought it was worth breaking into its normal programming yesterday in order to provide Christopher Luxon with a platform from which to try and explain away his latest outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease. Can we now assume that any time that National wants a media megaphone on the campaign trail next year, state broadcasting will rush to provide Luxon with one by tossing out its normal schedule?

Sometime before the next election, maybe RNZ’s CEO Paul Thompson may care to explain what the policy guidelines and vetting procedures are for this sort of intervention. The only thing that might have justified yesterday’s RNZ gift to National would have been if Luxon was using the occasion to announce his resignation. No such luck. All we got from him yesterday was the same old flannel re-packaged as breaking news. Can anyone recall a similar favour ever being granted to Labour when it was in Opposition?

We do have some clues as to why state broadcasting acted in this fashion.The RNZ article touting the live cross to Luxon carried this commentary, which reads more like a National Party press release:

Luxon has been facing criticism over comments he has made since returning from trips overseas, that the rest of the world has moved on from Covid-19, and New Zealand businesses have become soft.

He has since sought to characterise his remarks as criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, and putting too much red tape and restrictions on businesses… etc etc

Got it. Basically, Luxon had not only dissed this country’s exporters to our trade rivals while travelling abroad. He had also chosen to advocate a “learn to live with Covid” response to the pandemic just as Covid caseloads, hospitalisation and deaths have been rising here again, and just as our already exhausted public health workers have been buckling under the current levels of pressure. So Luxon apparently figured that’s an ideal time to open things up and add to their workloads.

Hmm. In passing, it does seem strange that Luxon had evidently not foreseen that his corporate donors might feel they were not getting bang for the buck from him telling the global competition that our exporters have grown “soft” and reliant on government handouts. Uh oh. The blowback evidently required Luxon to once again “clarify” what he meant to say, even if that involves him saying the virtual opposite today of what he said yesterday.

So far, so usual. What was different this time was that RNZ obligingly broke into its normal schedule to make sure that his “corrections” reached the widest possible audience. Quite an amazing piece of partisanship.

Less of Little

Clearly, it matters a great deal to the media whether Health Minister Andrew Little is willing to concede that a “crisis” exists in public health. I doubt that Little thinks that everything is going just great in the health sector. Yet thanks to an odd quirk of New Zealand politics, “crisis” has become a word that’s fraught with implications of political mis-management.

That’s why John Key denied there was a housing crisis, Jacinda Ardern would not concede there is a cost of living crisis and Little will not admit that there is a public health crisis. At this point, it’s hard to see how the political fallout from uttering the word “crisis” could be any worse than denying the obvious. Anyone can see why frontline health workers are furious at Little for playing with semantics and being cute about how many times in the past year people have asked him the “crisis” question.

To most people, having a whole lot of people shout “fire” over and over again would usually be taken to mean: there’s a fire, send in the fire engines. By doing the opposite, Little seemed to be saying that the health workers struggling to cope with their current conditions are being over-emotional.

If Little can’t bring himself to say the word “crisis” maybe he should announce that the health system is experiencing an emergency, a calamity, a catastrophe, a disaster, a foul-up, a snafu, a rain of frogs, a tribulation, an unholy mess or a cataclysm, and then announce his emergency plan for dealing with it.

But that’s the problem. The crisis over the word “ crisis” is bad enough, but is also symptomatic of a more general problem. What has gone wrong with the Beehive – and its teams of advisers – that they now seem incapable of getting in front of an issue, and setting the terms of the political debate? Time and again – on the cost of living, on public health, on supermarket reform, on law and order issues and the gangs – National is being given acres of room to set the terms of reference, while the government crouches in its bunker and then …Finally… Weeks later, puts out an attempt at damage limitation.

Can this really be the same government that in early 2020 saw the pandemic coming and announced an unprecedented set of measures – lockdowns at the border and across entire communities – and thus limited the carnage and saved thousands of lives while National was left wittering away on the side-lines about the need to open up the borders, whatever the cost?

Early in 2022, it hardly took a genius to see that communities would start feeling pain from rising prices at the supermarket and the petrol pump. Similarly, it should have been clear that opening up to Covid just as the new Omicron variants arrived would put extra strains upon an already exhausted, badly understaffed and chronically underfunded health system just as it was heading into winter.

What could Little have done? He could have done what the government did in early 2020. ie. he could have spotlighted the looming emergency and called together all the major players – the frontline health worker sector leaders, the Immigration Service, the specialist health groups, the business sector, Maori and Pasifika community leaders etc etc. He could have acted in ways that made everyone – but especially the frontline health workers – feel supported, and that everything possible was being done to send extra resources into the fray. As one normally does in an emergency.

Instead and on every front, the government has looked sheepishly re-active, not proactive. On issue after issue, it has been waiting weeks to respond to an agenda that it is allowing the Opposition to set, virtually unhindered. In the process, it is giving one of the least impressive National leaders in living memory all the breathing space he needs to regroup from his own mistakes. It is obvious by now that Luxon can’t adlib credibly to save himself, or counter punch effectively once he has run through his limited repertoire of slogans and talking points.

In short… Luxon is terrible once he’s put on the back foot. So why is Labour allowing him so much room to front foot almost every issue that is of genuine concern to the public?

Similarly, Labour rarely uses its parliamentary majority to highlight and advance a recognisably centre-left socio-economic agenda. By contrast, a new centre-right government would have no qualms about turning back the clock and enacting tax cuts and cutbacks to social services; it is already promising to bring back 90 day employment trials, to de-centralise wage bargaining, and to impose welfare cuts, in line with its familiar raft of 40 year old policies.

The rest of the world has moved on from such policies, because they inflicted needless social damage. Within this country as well, the free market agenda decimated the jobs on which the livelihoods of entire communities had depended, thereby creating a vacuum that the gangs (and meth) have filled. It seems folly to think that harsher policing and even more of the same economic policies can somehow turn that tide. But on gangs, Labour is being jerked into dancing to National’s tune.

In the meantime, chuckling about Luxon’s inanities and citing achievements that remain largely invisible to the general public will not be enough to get the centre-left re-elected next year. Labour has to use the powers of incumbency to get in front of the issues of public concern. After all, one of the prime attack lines being used against Labour is that it is a bunch of elitists who are detached from the survival struggles of ordinary New Zealanders.

That Luxon and the National Party (!) are being given so much headroom to present themselves as the people’s champions is astonishing. It is indicative of the failures of nerve, imagination and tactical ability that seem to have become entrenched ever since Labour won the 2020 election.

How is it that a Labour/Greens bloc that won an unprecedented MMP mandate, now has to be dragged out of its bunker to respond with a policy Band-aid for issues being raised by its opponents? At this point, the one thing that Labour strategists seem to have in common with frontline health workers is a pervasive sense of exhaustion.

Footnote: Here’s one example of the political latitude National is being given. Yesterday, Luxon was able to trot out the usual nonsense about government red tape and regulation impeding business – even while the Wall St Journal is continuing to rank New Zealand as the easiest/best place in the world to do business. Because of its relative lack of regulation and red tape.

Footnote Two: Talking of red tape and regulation, Germany’s era of unlimited speed and freedom on its fabled autobahn network (celebrated with Teutonic irony by Kraftwerk in their 1975 hit “Autobahn”) has been coming under sustained political fire in recent weeks.

Since more speed = more petrol use = greater reliance on cheap Russian fossil fuels, one way to help Ukraine and cease lining Putin’s pockets would be to lower the speed limit, right? To that end, there have been calls for a 100km an hour speed limit on the autobahns, for a trial period of two years.

Not only is the new German coalition government refusing to lower the speed limit, it also seems committed to adding to the autobahn network. This is despite a 2021 report (called Disaster by the Dozen: Twelve Autobahns No-One Needs) published by the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND).

That report had called for a halt to Germany’s 2030 federal transport agenda. The centrepiece of the government’s plans is a multi-billion euro road building programme that will deliver another 850 kilometres of highway construction –even though transport is already creating 20% of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is one of only two sectors failing to meet the country’s emissions reduction targets.

As the Federation’s report pointed out:

Around 80% of a planned autobahn, the A20, along the northwest coast of Germany will cut through moors and marshlands that sequester 450 million tons of CO2, the report notes. Rare animal species and local flora will also be destroyed, according to BUND. And it will cost at least €6 billion ($6.3 billion) — three times the estimate in 2016. Meanwhile, Germany’s scarce remnants of ancient forests are also being cleared to add more highways to what is already the densest road network in Europe.

So… Feel guilty as you gear up for another ride with Kraftwerk’s motorik classic: