GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – What do you know about politics if politics is all you know?
Last year I started publishing a new blog (in addition to Second opinion of Otaihangaon health systems and policies) called Policy bytes. The intention was to provide left-wing commentary on politics. To say the least, the post was very, very, very, very, very, very infrequent. My goal in 2022 is to reduce the number of very.
Bomber Bradbury (publisher of The daily blog) has just published a short relevant article on the question of whether National and ACT could form a government after the 2023 general election in New Zealand. Despite some doubts, he expects a Labour-Green government to be the most likely; an opinion that successive polls reinforce. .
The wisdom of Cyril James
However, I have a different view which is aided by the wisdom of CLR (Cyril) James (1901-89), a Trinidadian socialist intellectual and highly regarded international cricket commentator. James has published extensively on politics and cricket, his most famous book being arguably the Black Jacobins (1938) on the Haitian revolution leading to the first abolition of slavery.
What do they know about cricket if cricket is all they know.
The two intellectuals James most admired were the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the famous Barbados West Indian cricketer Clyde Walcott. Incidentally, Trotsky was highly critical of cricket despite James’s plea; an error of judgment by the former.
James was known for his skillful turn of phrase. One was what do you know about cricket if cricket is all you know. Few expressions have inscribed themselves more in my consciousness than this. It also helps me better understand the likely outcome of the 2023 election. It could come down to what you know about politics if politics is all you know.
Politics and pandemic
Labor beat National in the 2020 election and maintained that lead in the polls for some time, with the latter in a perpetual leadership crisis. But it must be remembered that from the time Jacinda Ardern became prime minister of a Labor-led government in October 2017 until the deadly attack on the Christchurch mosque in March 2019, National was leading the polls.
That changed in response to Ardern’s impressive compassionate handling of the attack response. But, on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, Simon Bridges-led National had regained the lead, albeit slightly.
But then came Covid-19. The government has been astute enough to follow the advice of experts, including those in epidemiology and infectious disease, and its political leadership has been top-notch. Meanwhile, while the premier excelled, National’s leadership imploded.
Excelled in pandemic leadership.
The work had intensified. Ardern referred to the October 2020 election as the “Covid election” and was rewarded with the first majority government since proportional representation began in 1996.
Labor maintained its strong lead in the polls for several months after the election while National’s position was dire. But, despite this, I felt it was enough for a competent national leader to emerge to be a potential gamebreaker.
Skilled enough to change the game?
New National Chief Christopher Luxon
Even before the election of Christopher Luxon as leader of the National, the gap between Labour-Greens and the National-ACT began to narrow slightly, even more so after November 30, when Luxon took office. Nonetheless, as Bradbury noted, Labor and the Greens could still comfortably form a coalition government.
Not good for implementation
Unfortunately, either because things were poorly thought out to begin with or because they were sloppy, Ardern’s government is no good at putting things into action. Even though he has several competent ministers, he is beginning to appear incompetent, the only one capable of doing well in a crisis.
His “Three Waters” public infrastructure program (drinking, rainwater and sewage) to centralize water supply and sanitation was an excellent aspiration. I have a lot of sympathy for that.
But implementation has been sloppy due to failure to engage effectively and meaningfully with local government primarily on the core issue of governance. His approach was too dogmatic and rigid to start by forcing the local government to distrust his motives.
In opposition, Labor had convinced many people that New Zealand had a housing crisis. It was just to do it. But we have not succeeded in making sufficient progress with the construction of social housing, the most effective way out of the crisis. Certainly Labor in government is doing better than when National was. But this is well below what is needed and everyone can see that the crisis is getting worse.
In July, the Labor Party abolished the District Health Boards (DHBs) it had created in 2001 to be responsible for providing community and hospital care to geographically defined populations with no idea what would replace them. It does so without any electoral mandate.
Moreover, demonstrating the height of incompetence, he does so in the midst of a pandemic. By international standards, New Zealand has successfully rolled out the Covid vaccine. DHBs have been essential to this success.
So where does this leave us? A government that has done well in crises but not elsewhere. A government whose only knowledge of politics is politics to fit James. There is competence and achievements within this government.
Ayesha Verrall, as Associate Minister of Health, impressed as a high achiever with important decisions around smoking, in particular, but also fluoridation and folate levels in bread. But these take time to manifest as they become publicly noticeable.
But being a poor performer is a tough label to break once you have it. If the Labor Party lets Omicron get away before most children aged 5 to 11 are vaccinated and many more adults have their boosters, because it fails to extend the closed border and drastically reduce number of people seeking to enter the country, it will be in big trouble (just like New Zealanders).
There is no reason to believe that Luxon, even though he is politically inexperienced, will not be a competent leader of National. He doesn’t seem to have any luggage either (although his treatment of provincial New Zealand when heading to Air New Zealand might come back to haunt him a bit; I say that as a resident of Kapiti Coast).
My take is ‘even-Stevens’. This expression does not seem to be used as much as before. It may come from Jonathan Swift at least in part. Swift was an Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet and Anglican cleric in the late 17and and 18and centuries, but best known for his novel best known for Gulliver’s Travels.
It basically means going one way or the other; or fifty-fifty. Since proportional representation generally leads to coalitions and produces election results that are closer than people often realize, even-Stevens is my choice for 2023