A blueprint for opposition politics

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 22 December 2017

Watching the first weeks of the new Parliament, it is difficult not to get confused. On the one hand, we see a government that stumbles its way through the parliamentary machinery. On the other hand, there is an opposition whose combined executive experience makes the government’s job a nightmare.

The opposition embarrassed the government over the election of the Speaker, tormented it with thousands of written questions and set traps for newbie ministers.

Understandably, the opposition frontbench members enjoy poking holes in the government’s plans. They try to show Labour over-promised in opposition and underdelivers in government. National also aims to vindicate its fiscal hole claim from the election campaign and will gleefully point out house-building and tree-planting deficits.

As far as the business of opposition is concerned, National does an excellent job. The problem is that National’s preferred mode is not opposition.

To become a promising alternative government again, National must present itself as such. And that means more than just pointing out that it was a good government once. Opposition parties do not win elections based on their past performance in government. They need an attractive proposition for the future.

New Zealand’s parliamentary terms are short. Perhaps three years are not long enough to both mourn the loss of office and refresh one’s thinking. But if National wants to stand a fighting chance in 2020, it must quickly get over the former and move on to the latter.

A good starting point for National’s introspection would be to understand why it lost power in 2017. It’s true the party did well for a third-term government. It’s also true, on most indicators, it left New Zealand in good shape. So why did it not win a comfortable majority?

The superficial reason lies in the personality of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her communications style allowed her to present herself as a fresh face.

But Ms Ardern’s real appeal to the electorate went deeper. Her core message was that New Zealand was not doing well enough. She promised a country not completely different from the one National had competently managed. But Ms Ardern’s promised land was a better country with swimmable rivers, affordable houses and no children in poverty.

For National to become an equally appealing proposition in three years’ time, it needs a big vision. Visions are more than wish lists or action plans. They are condensed ambitions.

After a long time in office, it is difficult for any party to formulate such visions. Any lofty goals are also an admission of not having reached them earlier. But that should not be an excuse for not formulating a bold agenda.

Let’s take the example of education policy. When still in government, National was proud to celebrate that education achievement rates are going up. Judged by NCEA attainment, we have indeed seen an improvement in formal education results.

However, if we are honest with ourselves we must take these positive developments with a grain of salt. There are good reasons to question whether the developments have been as positive as they seem.

For a start, our performance in international rankings has deteriorated over the same time that domestic performance measures have improved. There have also been studies demonstrating that a significant share of school leavers with NCEA certificates are still functionally illiterate.

Clearly, a world-class education system does not look like that.

National must be bold enough to acknowledge this failure of our education system. Yes, it may well include a mea culpa because this problem has not been fixed over the previous nine years.

More important though, National needs to have a plan to take education policy forward. Pointing out the problems is not enough. There needs to be a bold and credible agenda on how to make New Zealand’s education system truly world class. And then National must campaign on it.

So there is a challenge for National. It is to get over being kicked out of the Beehive and Bowen House. As the opposition, it must now focus as much on the new government’s failings.

But as the government-in-waiting, National needs to develop its own unique platform for making New Zealand a better country. And, though it would be tempting to just continue their plans from the time they were in government, that on its own will not sway undecided voters.

There are more areas for National to think again. Its previous dealings with local governments left much to be desired. It could think more creatively about preparing the country for demographic change. It might want to come up with a better idea of integrating New Zealand into global value chains.

If National accepts the challenge to be a creative opposition, the next three years will be a contest for the best ideas rather than a war of attrition. And that would be good: for National, for Labour – and for New Zealand.

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