Gordon Campbell on trying to pass National on the right

87beee556a424b0db843It may be naïve to expect any politician to be consistent, but Christopher Luxon really is in a class of his own. One day, he’s out there decrying the state bureaucracy and promising to channel the money wasted on pen-pushers and bean counters back into frontline staff.

Next day – i.e, yesterday – he’s promising the virtual opposite. Instead of letting the health system focus on patient care, and letting the education system teach kids, and letting the social development agency get on with the job of meeting glaring social needs… A National government would be asking them to measure and provide in detail all of their inputs and outputs and present them to the Treasury on an annual basis. Seemingly this will be over and above their normal departmental reporting requirements. The costs of these exercises, Luxon says, will be met out of baseline funding i.e. by a reduction in normal services.

That’s not all. Luxon also wants to set all those consultants to work on providing every citizen in the country with a “receipt” stating what taxes they paid and what services and benefits they received from the state, every year.

Leave aside the intrusions on personal privacy. (How else would the state measure each time we paid GST?) Due to ignorance, Luxon seems to be re-inventing the wheel with much of this. In his speech yesterday Luxon alleged it is “impossible” to work out how much money the government spends and where it’s all going. As social media was quick to point out, this is simply not true:

Go to Budget.co.nz & click on Core Crown expense tables, and its literally in a table – you can drill down deeper if you want. Does Luxon not know this?

Evidently not.

Getting Personal

There’s an even wider problem with those personal “receipts” that Luxon is promising. Frankly, how can anyone compute a personal monetary value to the roads we drive down, the tap-water we drink, the state education that our children receive, and the personal value of having access to a good public health system when we need it? You can’t.

All of which BTW, disproves the idea that taxation is theft. Even ACT Party supporters derive (and accept) significant value from the state’s provision of goods and services, in return for the taxes they pay. They just prefer to live in denial about that fact.

Don’t Look Back

After a five second pause, wouldn’t any sane person think it better to use the funds to improve and expand public services, rather than waste the money on measuring and stipulating on a ticket what public services we may have personally used in the recent past? Regardless, Luxon plans on being up at the nation’s checkout, giving us a printout whether we want one or not.

In doing so, National is – literally – treating us like children. You’d think the education system would have shown the folly of doing repeated testing for its own sake, and getting teachers to compile constant reports and individuated evaluations on what they’d been doing and what the visible progress may have been. Doing constant tallies of past performance seriously erodes the time, energy and resources available to do what’s needs to be done in future.

Has Luxon never talked to a schoolteacher about how the toll of constant testing saps the time and the energy available to do the actual teaching? And here we were, thinking National was the party that wanted to get the state bureaucracy off our backs.

Footnote: At least Nicola Willis can see the contradiction involved in Luxon offering voters even more of the bureaucratic make-work that National has been decrying for the past decade or more. To try and square that circle, Willis has said that much of it can be done by AI.

Yep, let the machines look after the plebs. Shrink democracy down to a print-out. As for National’s ability to actually govern the country…. more than ever the claim looks like a case of garbage in, garbage out.

Footnote Two: Just for a moment though, let’s take National’s barmy suggestion at face value. Wouldn’t it be even more useful if every New Zealander was given a list of the public services and income support they could and should be getting – but which they are not, apparently, receiving.

In reality, many welfare entitlements are not taken up because the intended recipients don’t even know the entitlements exist. Chat GPT could tell them personally what welfare services and income supports that they (given their income level and tax code) seem to be missing out on. Do you support using AI for that purpose, Ms Willis?

Passing, on the right

With a few sprinklings of conservative blue policies can Labour transform itself from scary red to a fetching shade of purple in the eyes of swing voters?

The belief that Labour can pass National on the right – by spending lavishly on Defence, by boosting Police numbers, by rejecting new taxes of any kind – is not a new idea. Such beliefs have been haunting the Labour Party ever since the early days of the Clark government.

Bill Clinton once described this strategy as “triangulation.” It enabled him to adopt the positions held by the Republican majority in Congress. By doing so, Clinton won the political centre ground, even though he moved the centre substantially to the right in the process, especially on welfare policy.

Here, of course, Labour is under no illusion that it can convert the sort of hard core National voters who think it’s treason to ask farmers to clean up their act. Such voters are a lost cause. Instead, the strategic aim is to woo and win centrist voters to the idea that only Labour can deliver a steady and stable government that’s good for business, and which poses no threat whatsoever to the cautious burghers of Middle New Zealand.

Labour’s offer of policy moderation in all things is aimed at the kind of people who were reliably blue voters until David Seymour came along and ate National’s lunch. To cap it off, a series of dorky leaders – Simon Bridges, Todd Muller, Judith Collins, Christopher Luxon – have left many former National voters feeling depressed and homeless. At best, they’ll vote for National this year in spite of Luxon, not because of him.

Labour is intent on offering itself as a viable option. It is telling former National supporters to vote for Labour with their heads, if not their hearts. In that cause, Labour’s conservative pitches on Defence, security and law and order are the flipside of the Hipkins crusade to rid Labour of any policies – Three Waters, co-governance, a meaningful capital gains tax – that might make Labour look threatening to the status quo.

Yet an inbuilt problem remains. When Labour-led governments spend billions on the armed forces and rescue the NZDF from the junkyard equipment left behind by National, they still win very few votes for doing so. Why is that the case? Because try as it might, Labour can’t dispel the perception that political correctness will dog the ways in which those new NZDF/Police resources are likely to be used.

Unfortunately for Labour, many in the moderate centre still think that Labour’s foreign policy is shaped by America-hating peaceniks, and that perception persists no matter how much modern war-making machinery that Labour bestows on our fine men and women in uniform.

NZDF may get lots of very expensive new gear, but – or so the conservative sceptics suspect – they won’t be allowed to use it in the way they’d like. Under Labour, the armed forces seem more likely to be doing humanitarian disaster relief work, and/or will be carting suitcases around quarantine facilities again, during the next pandemic.

Reportedly, that’s not what the NZDF’s uniformed staff signed up for. National will always look more likely to allow the armed forces to do what they clearly pine to do i.e. shoot people, blow things up, and play war games with our allies. All the fun stuff.

Ditto with policing. Police numbers and tough rhetoric mean very little (politically speaking ) if the public still thinks that thanks to Labour, the allegedly “woke” Police force and the allegedly lily-livered courts won’t be able to freely beat up on criminals and lock them up for life. When it comes to law and order, Labour can never look quite as convincing as their square-jawed, knuckle dragging opponents on the centre-right.

Faking it

Nice enough guy, but Andrew Little has never seemed the sharpest political operative in the Labour toolbox. Yet with this recent tweet Little has done his best to get on board with the Hipkins core message: that Labour can be just as conservative as National, and is more able to manage the social consequences. On some days that’s the extent of Labour’s ambition: to be the best available middle manager of the neo-liberal agenda.

The numbers that Little cited on the digital billboard about Defence spending are revealing. But again, they probably won’t convince moderates – or anyone else – that Labour is a more reliable bet when it comes to the defence of the homeland, or the containment of China.

As for the template, National will be flattered by the imitation. Clearly, someone in Labour thought it would be a good idea to imitate the blue/red and iwi/kiwi format of National’s notorious advertising campaign from the 2002 election. That’s really sticking it to the man, right? Or not. It looks more Labour reverting (however ironically) to some of National’s oldest and least successful ideas. At a time when concessions to Maori remain a hot topic, resurrecting this template may not be a good idea.

All of that aside, Little’s tweet will piss off Labour activists, the peace movement, and all the other centre-left voters who comprise the bulk of Labour’s voter base. These are the people who come out and do the door knocking, leaflet drops and phone tree calling for the Labour cause during its election campaigns. Little’s effort can only sap their motivation to do so.

What Labour could have done was to outsmart National by identifying the actual threats here at home, and to our overseas interests. That done, Labour could have explained why reducing Defence spending in the absence of a credible threat would be sensible budgeting, while being proportionate to the actual risk. It would also have demonstrated that our Defence policy is not being driven by a desire to placate our Australian and US allies, both of whom seem to be planning for war with China during the next decade.

Currently though, we’re not having any public debate at all about the wisdom of this drift into a shooting war against our major trading partner. Instead, Little is bragging about how much Labour-led governments are spending on Defence. He’s also proudly citing an example of lavish Labour spending at a time when the centre -right is castigating Labour for spending up large on just about everything.

Footnote: As mentioned, Labour’s pride in its spending on Defence could end up deterring its election volunteers. Hey, maybe the two major parties really are virtually interchangeable when it comes to kitting out the military for war, and/or cracking down hard on the underclass. Andrew Little makes a good case for thinking so.

Wes Anderson Strikes Again

The soundtrack for the new Wes Anderson movie Asteroid City happens to revive one of the 1950s most potent ear-worms: “ Last Train to San Fernando” by Johnny Duncan. Biddy biddy bom bom to San Fernando. Once heard, never forgotten:

The original song had been written in the 1940s by a Trinidadian calypso singer called Mighty Spitfire, though another calypsonian called Mighty Dictator also lays some claim to it. So the story goes, the wife of Johnny Duncan’s producer was from the Caribbean and she may have learned the song from a US-based calypso singer called the Duke of Iron.

Whatever… The train in question wasn’t running from downtown Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley. It was going between Port au Spain in Trinidad, to the city of San Fernando. Here’s the Duke of Iron’s calypso version, set to some footage of the actual very last train to run the route to San Fernando: