Economist Brian Easton asks: Just where in the economic spectrum does the current National Party stand?

Economist Brian Easton asks: Just where in the economic spectrum does the current National Party stand?

This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.


In government, a political party is so busy it rarely has time to have a political ideology (neoliberals and communists excepted). Most policy is driven by necessity, instinct (which, I suppose, is a kind of ideology) and responses to vested interests.

An opposition has the luxury of time to think – it is not always used. We saw turmoil during Labour’s years in opposition in 2008-2017, as they swayed back and forward. National is exhibiting the same now.

So where in the political spectrum does the current National Party stand? I start with the right-to-left (or more precisely extreme-right-to-centre-right) economic spectrum and include the social dimension later.

John Key repeatedly distanced his party from the extreme right, treating Don Brash almost cruelly in order to maintain the distance. He was not of the centre-right either. His allegiance was (mainly) to the Auckland Business Community (which abandoned neoliberalism about twenty years ago in favour of a more active government support). His style was mañana: never do anything today which can be left to tomorrow.

This posed quite a problem for the incoming Labour government, compounded by it being the least prepared new government in my memory. (They were expecting another three years in opposition.) National’s solution to the economic difficulties had been to squeeze the public sector financially, so it was unprepared for the more forward-looking challenges that the Ardern-Peters Government placed on them (not that the politicians have been always clear on what those challenges were).

My impression is that National under Bill English was inching to the centre-right, although he was not in power long enough to be sure. My guess is that, aside from his personal predilections, English smelt the shift going on in the electorate.

Simon Bridges continued the inching when he became Leader of the Opposition. Perhaps not surprisingly, given he is a Westie – his father was a Baptist minister – as was his deputy, Paula Bennett. I don't know whether their Maori descent was that relevant.

I found his presentational whine unsettling, but his message was that National would do the same as Labour but do it better. He cited the performance of the Key-English Government although he would not have the big economic three of Key, English and Steven Joyce. I was not particularly looking forward to more mañana. Sure, it is the quiet life today, but problems pile up for the future.

After a while though, his leadership seemed to be moving back to the middle of the right. I am not sure why. Perhaps he wanted to differentiate himself from the Labour-led Government, perhaps that is where the politics of his caucus lay; almost certainly there were funding incentives from the right which is both wealthy and aggressively vocal.

Bridges and Bennett were dumped in a panic as their party’s support fell during the Covid Crisis. (Deal with a national crisis half-decently and the public will support the leadership, as the resurrection of Scott Morrison across the ditch shows.) National’s caucus were not willing to wait to find out whether the outcome would be as disastrous on election day.

Todd Muller seemed to be moving the party back towards the centre-right. What would have happened if he had stayed we can only speculate, but his pronouncements up to the time of his retirement suggest he was presenting a pale-blue version of the Labour-led Government’s approach.

So we get to Judith Collins, about whom it is difficult to be dispassionate. One recalls Robert Muldoon; he was proudly a counterpuncher. Writing to Cameron Slater (Whale Oil) about some National Party infighting, Collins added ‘personally I would be out for total destruction, but then I’ve learned to give is better than to receive’.

On the non-economic dimension, Collins is a personal liberal wanting to free up individuals’ choices. However, once they transgress the law she is uncompromisingly ‘law and order’. It is not an unusual combination on the right which gives little credit for social conditions generating criminal behaviour. (In contrast, British Labour PM Tony Blair, was ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.)

Where Collins stands on economic issues is more difficult to ascertain. She has never held a major economic portfolio (hers clustered around her law background) but appears to be a poster-girl for neoliberals. In her 2020 budget speech she expressed concern for small business, which was standard party policy. The only substantive economic comment in her 2002 maiden speech was about small business.

Clearly social policy is not high on her agenda. Her maiden speech finished with ‘there is a form of poverty in this country, but it has little to do with poverty in a monetary sense. The poverty of which I speak is a poverty of responsibility, a poverty of courage, a poverty of truth, a poverty of love, and a poverty of faith. ... I stand for the dignity of the individual. I believe in God, and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil.’

My guess is that, like Key, she aligns with the Auckland Business Community, although perhaps on his right side.

Instructively, the National caucus chose Gerry Brownlee ahead of Paul Goldsmith as her running mate. Were they nervous of Goldsmith’s alignment with neoliberals, especially Don Brash, whose biography he wrote? Can we rule out the Brash strategy, which was to win power (Brash almost did) on a social-conservative program and then impose neoliberal policies? To be clear, I would not accuse Collins of a racism strategy given her partner is part-Samoan (as is Bill English’s).

Collins’ ‘Think Big’ $31 billion infrastructure plan is not particularly hers. It was probably first developed under Bridges and was being refined under Muller. Collins would have grabbed it to make a splash early in her tenure.

National’s fundamental tenet is low taxes which means squeezing the public sector. It was so adamant about this that when the Canterbury Earthquakes provided the perfect opportunity to raise taxes, it failed to impose a special earthquake levy. Not only did the earthquake recovery suffer, but so did the public sector, to the detriment of its service to the public. The current government is still trying to recover the mess.

Interestingly, Muller added that National would not cut benefits. Did he plan for them to cut general government spending and reduce benefit accessibility as the Key-English Government did? Presumably National are not going to run the huge fiscal deficit that their infrastructure plan foreshadows? The answer may be mañana.

Addendum: This column was drafted before the events involving Andrew Falloon and Iain Lees-Galloway. It has not been rewritten.. However, I must add this. The column tries hard to be fair towards Judith Collins; after all it is really about wider issues than her. But the way she dealt with the Lees-Galloway allegations was inappropriate. She was right to pass her knowledge on to Jacinda Ardern, as the prime minister had done to her over Falloon. She was wrong to announce she had done so (on morning radio) before the Prime Minister had publicly dealt with the information. In contrast Ardern waited until Collins had made her Falloon announcement before explaining her involvement. Collins’ timing has the hallmarks of a Whale Oil counterpuncher. It does not promise a clean election.


Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.

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32 Comments

this would have been written before the latest poll that shows collins is now standing on the trapdoor.who do we have left on the reserve bench?apart from whatsisname and thingy.

I assume you are referring to Jason Gunn. No doubt thingy could get a higher polling than Collins even with his eye falling out.

Apparently Collins is throwing a bit of a Trump wobbler over the latest poll figures. The National Party has fallen to a low of 25.1 per cent in the first public poll since Collins took over as leader from Todd Muller on July 14. The party was on 30.6 per cent the last time the poll was conducted in May, a number that effectively ended Simon Bridges' tenure as leader.

Herald article: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12351077

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‘there is a form of poverty in this country, but it has little to do with poverty in a monetary sense. The poverty of which I speak is a poverty of responsibility, a poverty of courage, a poverty of truth, a poverty of love, and a poverty of faith. ... I stand for the dignity of the individual. I believe in God, and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil.’ also suggests that she is out of touch with the marginalised fringes (which I suggest is today, much larger than it was in the 70s and 80s) and does not understand that there is a poverty of opportunity, that results in a lack of money/wealth, and she also does not see that the Government has a role in creating an environment for a society to flourish, but rather puts is down to individual responsibility.

Yes, I found that statement really interesting from an ethical point of view. The idea of 'free will' is closest to deontological thinking, or Kantian ethics;

“People 'act out of respect for the moral law' when they act in some way because they have a duty to do so. So, the only thing that is truly good in itself is a good will, and a good will is only good when the willer chooses to do something because it is that person's duty, i.e. out of "respect" for the law.” - Immanuel Kant, 1785

But does she strive to have a "good will" or a "free will" - the latter being her wrong-headed interpretation of that particular moral philosophy. She seems to be an anything-goes from a moral perspective, so long as the end justifies the means (consequentialism; a teleological ethical perspective).

My take - Judith doesn't understand, or is unwilling to admit to herself what her moral basis is.

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A person born a with silver spoon rarely empathises or sympathises with a person born with no spoon.

It appears she simply doesn't understand economics, not only does she not have an awareness of the cost of consumer goods that the proles have to purchase, but she doesn't know why things cost money: https://mobile.twitter.com/JudithCollinsMP/status/1148718723764670464?s=20

**gasp** Collins tweet takes my breath away.

Neo liberal finance minister and a Right wing there are no victims PM. A real crowd pleaser

For those who don't speak Spanish ( this is one of the few words I know, and n case they think its a Maori saying , https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ma%C3%B1ana

I had to look it up. My first thought was yes, that exactly encapsulates my thoughts in one word on the Key years.

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National are failing to win support because everyone knows that they're corrupt and simply do not have the welfare of the NZ people in their minds. All National cares about is the free enterprise of lining their own pockets via corrupt methods, such as weakening laws to allow money laundering and allowing NZ to be sold off and controlled by a foreign dictatorship. Hence why they've dropped dismally in the polls.

And replace "free will" with "free enterprise" in Judith's maiden speech quote and you get a much better idea about her ethics/morality.

Key was an iron fist in a velvet glove. Judith is an iron fist in a gold glove.

Key took politics and thePMship as a game to be played, win and then leave for other more interesting/rewarding games. He did all that, by making the rules of the game as he went along.

Judith on the other hand is deeply invested in politics/PMship and will be more rule bound in her game play.
Except that she is also capable of some grand sleight of hand. Watch out.

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But that's what National still don't get. The public is not in the mood for game-playing or pettiness.
I think that's one reason why JA is so popular. She doesn't make an ass of herself by trying to always get the last word in, or with 'witty' put-downs.
National make it really easy by playing the old game, of bluster and banter in the Chamber, that gets chortles from their colleagues but no one in the real world gives a **** about. It makes them look really out of touch.

Key was a middle manager and just wanted to be liked. Hence "communism by stealth" became an increase in WFF - trapping workers in a dependent, low income, hamster wheel. Labour wants trapped and big state dependent voters, and National are too busy trying to be liked to stop this immoral rort.

"When Sue* got a promotion and $16,000 pay-rise, she thought she would be able to start saving and eventually take her three children on holiday.

Instead, tax credits and subsidies decreased for the solo mother, leaving her only about $50 a week better off despite moving into full-time work."
https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/104490079/when-a-16k-payrise-only-gives...

Highly qualified lawyer, with the quick thinking and retort of a barrister. Muldoon was a bit more than a counter puncher. He could lay a half decent trap too, think Moyle. Collins is in the league of both Muldoon & Lange verbally. Imagine her strategy was to relieve Muller during rather than before the next parliamentary term. You would think she has then negotiated some sort of guarantee she will be in place as leader for the next three years. She is capable of landing quite seriously heavy body blows but likely there will be too, a fair number of swings and misses. That persona was certainly to the fore with the timing and media interaction resulting in the exit of the Labour minister. But as Peter Dunne mused here a week or so ago National have hoisted themselves on their own petard somewhat lately.

Foxglove,I tuned into her first parliamentary question time as leader and I would have to disagree,she wasn't a patch on either Muldoon or Lange and I have heard a few times with the 'Hosk' in the mornings,she has sounded tired and slightly lost,like she has finally got what she wants,but doesn't know what to do now she's got there.

Was that the question time where she kept.............pausing............between........words...........to............give...........her............index.........finger........time...........catch...........up?

Thats the one dan

OK, conceded. In truth this lot of politicians today posturing puerile puffery compared to the cut and thrust of old. Recall recently reading a hansard of Muldoon vs the Kirk government, dumping of dairy product in the UK, devastating and destructive but at the same time he had the facts, the figures, the argument and counter arguments considered, prepared and convincing. It was around this time that sarcastically he sung out “Oh what a friend we have in cheeses.” Love him or hate him there was undoubtedly energy, entertainment and efficiency on hand when he was debating.

In the question time we were just talking about Jacinda had the facts, the figures and the counter arguments prepared. Whether you like her or not (i'm not a big fan myself), she did walk all over Collins.

Quoting a 2002 maiden speech for an article to support a view in 2020 seems a little desperate for justification.

If there's one person to keep JA on her toes, it's Judith. This is already interesting.

Nah. That's what the media want to think. More readership/listenership if it's a close race.

Actually, it is anything BUT close, the reason being the trend of the societal narrative. National lurched backwards, but the train is going the other way. Ironically, the space ahead is not fully occupied - but it will never be occupied by Collins. She belongs in the history-books.

All I see is Judith Collins wanting a scrap for scraps sake. National appear weak on policy so her only way forward is to get under labour's skin. Can't say I find that anything but disappointing rather than interesting.

But where are the policies from each party that are more than pushing around borrowed money for 'infrastructure'? Where will true growth come from?

Wrong question.

You cannot have unlimited growth withing a bounded system (I've lost track of the number of times I've written that truth on this site). It was already impossible to pay back the existing debt before the virus, totally so now. We are too near the top of the Limits to Growth graph, too late.

So the question is: Which Party is going to be brave enough to face de-growth?

Surely that's a question once in power, not on the path to? Whilst I think that voters are not in the mood for party point-scoring, I'm not sure that such a bold move at this point in the election trajectory would be well understood or rewarded...

Copernicus did some work refuting the bounded system hypothesis about 500 years ago.

Oddly enough, he lived on the same planet we do.

Whaddya know?

Rhetorical question, in this instance

Looks like Collins is just going to concentrate on dishing out dirt. She would do well to remember certain stuff splatters.