Is the new government serious about tackling pressing social issues?

by Bevan Rapson / 13 March, 2018

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with former leader Andrew Little, who has outlined a bold vision for criminal justice reform.

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Only a few politicians have what it takes to see through sweeping institutional change.

It’s kind of understandable that the National Party’s recent leadership race seemed to be dominated by talk about image.

With National having secured a solid 44% in the election and all five candidates having been cabinet ministers under Bill English, the contenders were hardly likely to go out on a limb for major reform. Instead, questions of presentation – window-dressing, if you like – loomed larger than ever.

Who would represent “generational change”? Was there something wrong with Simon Bridges’ accent? Which combination of leader and deputy would look most electable against Jacinda Ardern?

Only dead-duck candidate Judith Collins seemed to promise any kind of different thinking when she claimed the party had drifted too far to the left and needed to “straighten up”, though this line and her dissatisfaction with how the Māori Party had influenced changes to the Resource Management Act could also be regarded as light on detail and intended merely as a little image-burnishing for the benefit of the party base.

Bridges’ eventual victory, with Paula Bennett retained as deputy, set off more image-related chatter. Along with full analysis of them both being “Westies” of Māori descent, the new leader’s possible use of hair product also somehow remained a topic of discussion.

Presentability and likeability can go a long way towards electability, of course. And does anyone really expect that a National government under Bridges – or, if it ever came to it, Collins – would do much more than nudge the policy-settings tiller of the Key years just a tad here and there? National is our conservative party, after all. Even those MPs who might favour a more ideologically pure course know that MMP and the likely need to placate a junior partner are a formidable barrier to such aspirations.

National’s focus in Opposition will be lambasting Labour’s schemes. And when next in government, they will almost certainly set about dismantling as many of them as political expedience will allow.

Key, you’ll recall, wasn’t much of a change agent himself, diverting only marginally from the course set by Helen Clark. She, too, was a prime minister consumed with not frightening the horses. The success of them both is typically expressed in elections won (three each) and years in the country’s top job (Clark nine, Key eight) rather than in far-sighted policy reform.

For any prime minister, re-election tends to be the ultimate KPI. That’s why taking on the challenge of leading contentious major policy shifts often falls to a hard-nosed (and often less electorally appealing) lieutenant.

Looking back a few decades, Rob Muldoon’s personal stamp marked all of his government’s major works, certainly, but in the sweeping changes of the 1980s and 90s, it was cabinet ministers such as Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, and Bill Birch who rammed through economic and structural changes that really made a difference to the way our society runs – for better or worse.

The prime ministers? David Lange happily tooted the hooter on his colleagues’ policy train before belatedly attempting to derail it; Bolger sold the prospect of a “Decent Society” before Ruth Richardson let fly with her Mother of All Budgets, and Birch set about overhauling the labour laws – so the so-called “Great Helmsman” owes much of his legislative legacy to the determination of others.

The MMP era hasn’t offered the same levels of excitement, though Michael Cullen’s creation of KiwiSaver and the New Zealand Superannuation Fund, and Jim Anderton’s success with KiwiBank are further examples of how committed ministers can have a greater long-term impact than the prime ministers they serve under.

Due to the largely incremental approach of the Clark and Key governments, Labour under Ardern has arrived in office facing a pent-up demand in some quarters for institutional change. As in 1972 and 1984, Labour has to meet – or at least manage – high expectations that it will deliver meaningful reform across a wide range of portfolios.

Is there a modern-day Prebble or Birch, ready to make their mark?

Former leader Andrew Little is one minister who seems up for a challenge, recently presenting a bold vision for criminal justice reform completely at odds with populist “tough on crime” rhetoric.

Little told the New Zealand Herald that “so-called law and order policies” have been a 30-year failure, and “New Zealand needs to completely change the way criminal justice works”. He advocated a therapeutic approach to issues behind offending, and flagged possible changes to parole and bail laws that have been blamed for crowding more inmates into prisons.

With an obvious view to selling his ideas to the public, he plans a criminal justice “summit”, which would canvas a range of views and presumably provide a platform to the academic experts in the field who were quick to support his stance. The idea was compared to Key’s jobs summit early in his term but also smacked a little of the “consultation” so favoured by the Rogergnomes before they stormed another regulatory bastion.

If taking expert advice necessarily equated to effective politics, our criminal justice system would never have ended up in its current state, which has largely been shaped by lowest-common-denominator public opinion, and the politicians and talkback hosts who pander to it.

It doesn’t take too much reflection to see Little and the experts could make an excellent case, however: the non-therapeutic lock-’em-up approach isn’t working. Taking our lead from more successful European models makes a lot of sense.

Yet the relish with which Collins leapt into the debate – claiming Labour was “willing to let violent offenders out on bail” – was a reminder of just how tough a task Little has set himself.

Does he have the wiliness and steel he’ll need to see it through? We’ll see. Hanging onto the Labour leadership was beyond him, but perhaps that experience will have given him an added dose of determination to do what he believes is right, whatever public outrage might rain down upon him as a result.

Little has also asked the Law Commission to update abortion law, including a look at decriminalisation, so it seems unlikely he’ll go short of public “feedback” in the near future.

Maybe, if he and Labour are serious about tackling pressing social issues, this might also be the time to investigate the drug laws that cost so much to enforce and, on the evidence, have proven so ineffective.
Judging by international experience, decriminalising marijuana use and regarding drug abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal problem – yes, being “soft” on drugs – would be another sensible step entirely in keeping with the notion of generational change.

The risk for Little and his colleagues is that getting too far ahead of public opinion could consign them to defeat after just one term. But bold steps in the right direction could also leave Bridges, Bennett and Collins stuck on the wrong side of history. All the presentational sheen and hair product in the world won’t help National’s new leader if he and his colleagues end up sounding like talkback callers of yesteryear.

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of North & South.
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