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Chris Trotter takes a look at the lack of policy on offer from the two main political parties as the September 19 election rapidly approaches

Chris Trotter takes a look at the lack of policy on offer from the two main political parties as the September 19 election rapidly approaches
Jacinda Ardern fights Covid-19. Cartoon by Ross Payne.

By Chris Trotter*

Minorities – intelligent or otherwise – have very little to do with living democracies. They do, however, have a great deal to do with dead ones, and with elections that are light on policy.

19 September 2020 may go down in history as the “Policy-Lite Election”. Certainly, both of the major parties are offering a pretty skinny profile for their opponents to aim at. In Labour’s case this is a deliberate strategy. With National it looks to be a case of: “Oh My God! – We forgot to do the policy!”

The Prime Minister’s pledge to go on governing right up until election day – and, presumably beyond – plays directly to her so far extremely successful Politics-In-A-Time-Of-Covid schtick.

And why not? Very few people are clamouring for anything more than a steady hand on the tiller as the nation navigates the treacherous waters of a global pandemic. That New Zealand is currently basking in international acclaim for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis suggests to most voters that the only “election policy” that makes any real sense is the one in which Jacinda Ardern promises to keep on doing what she has been doing since the virus struck.

The metaphor Labour’s strategists are offering to voters casts Ardern as a tight-rope walker. With New Zealand’s future strapped to her back, the Prime Minister is concentrating all her energy and skill on simply making it across to the other side. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders are willing her on. All the attention they have to spare is focused on the high-wire act taking place above them. Very few are paying the slightest heed to National’s hapless jugglers on the ground.

As political metaphors go, it’s a good one – made even stronger by the steadily worsening international weather. Across the Tasman the virus is cutting a swathe through the state of Victoria. Further afield the picture is even worse. The United States seems incapable of pulling itself together. The United Kingdom is a mess. While lightning flashes and thunder rolls and rain beats down upon the roof, Kiwis thank their lucky stars for the weather-tightness of their far-flung island home.

National’s only hope – though it absolutely must not express it – is that the community transmission of Covid-19 will resume. If that were to happen, and if responsibility for the renewed outbreak could be plausibly sheeted home to the Government, then the resulting public outcry would change the electoral calculus dramatically. In terms of Labour’s metaphor, the Prime Minister would be in danger of falling off her tight-rope.

Recent statements from both the health Minister, Chris Hipkins, and the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, suggest that this worst-case scenario – along with its dire electoral implications – has already prompted the Government to begin preparing the population for what is increasingly presented as the inevitable resumption of community transmission. Metaphorically speaking, Labour is hurriedly erecting a safety net under Jacinda’s tight-rope.

These preparations have not gone unnoticed by Gerry Brownlee. In a media statement on Wednesday, National’s campaign chairperson called upon the Government to “come clean”:

“We have had three-months of no community transmission,” thundered the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, “then inexplicably, the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield tells the nation today that a second wave was a likely prospect. As well, Health Minister Chris Hipkins tells the House in Question Time that tomorrow [6 August] he will tell Kiwis the conditions in which they will be expected to wear masks in the event of the country moving back into Level Two. It doesn’t add up. Why announce this now when there are few cases? What do these guys know that they are not telling us?”

No recent statement from the Opposition better captures the frustration, bordering on despair, currently being experienced by the National Party. Unable to seize the initiative, the party’s leaders can only rail against an opponent in possession of all the cards that matter. National is reduced to responding to events which it can neither accurately predict nor, in any meaningful sense, control. And, as any political campaigner will tell you, responding (like explaining) is losing.

There is only one way out of the Opposition’s predicament. Unfortunately, it is via a path the National Party is singularly ill-equipped to follow: the release of policies strong enough to re-direct the narrative away from the Prime Minister’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

What National needs is the equivalent of the Beveridge Report. Released by Britain’s coalition government in the midst of World War II, this report reviewed the official response to the Great Depression, found it wanting, and called for the creation of what would later be known as the Welfare State.

Though the report’s author, William Beveridge, was a Liberal, it was the British Labour Party which seized the policy initiative. It’s leader, Clement Attlee, swung his party in behind Beveridge’s proposition that: “[A] revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” In sharp contrast, Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, warned against imposing the burden of “great new expenditure on the State without any relation to the circumstances which might prevail at the time”. Crucially, Churchill’s Conservative Party refused to endorse Beveridge’s proposal for a national health service.

The rest, as they say, is history. Churchill went into the general election of 1945 confident that the British people would reward him – and his party – for the inspirational leadership he had demonstrated during his country’s “finest hour” and throughout the war. Attlee went into the same election promising to slay the five “giants” which, according to Beveridge, stood athwart the road to reconstruction: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Labour won the election by a landslide.

The New Zealand National Party’s problem in 2020 is that it not only possesses no William Beveridge within its ranks, but that it is also bereft of inspirational (or even interesting) policy of any kind. For reasons no one has yet adequately explained, National’s website offers virtually no guidance as to how the alternative government proposes to tackle the challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis. A party in which all roads lead to, well, roads, is not taking its political responsibilities seriously.

Why are the nation’s two largest political parties no longer up to the task of fulfilling one of their principal functions? It was once an axiom of representative government that the primary responsibility for contributing the ideas and programmes advanced by political parties rested with their members. The larger the parties, the more comprehensive and unconstrained its policy debates, the more likely it was that their respective manifestoes would accurately reflect the aspirations of society’s key sectional interests.

A fuller description of the elimination of the most robust democratic features of our political parties must wait for another occasion. Suffice to say that the professionalisation of the policy-making process and the ascendancy of public relations considerations over the often contentious and embarrassing displays associated with passionate political debate have undermined the critical constitutional functions of the mass political party.

What began in a Labour Party traumatised by the rancorous divisions opened up by Rogernomics, was completed by a National Party traumatised by the crushing defeat of 2002. Neither of our major parties are any longer willing to leave the creation of policy to amateurs. The days when a local schoolteacher and a local parson could meet at the home of the local doctor, and over his dining-room table draft the plan that would eventually become the New Zealand welfare state, are long gone.

It was the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, who, in 1928, wrote: “Democracy is administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses.” It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. Minorities – intelligent or otherwise – have very little to do with living democracies. They do, however, have a great deal to do with dead ones, and with elections that are light on policy.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for His work may also be found at

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New Zealand people are actually an awesome bunch, unlike the ones in the US who are under-educated but loud and confident, and anti-intellectual, which has been displayed vividly during the response to the COVID19.

Both parties should feel extremely grateful about NZ's people, and lead this competent bunch with even more competence!

But the political system is unable to produce competent parties and politicians no more.


Still if one eat normal food and stop the spread early rather than hassling the doctors who discovered it, we wouldn't be in this situation..

If the COVID19 were first discovered AND REPORTED in any other countries other than China, the situation would have been much worse.


That's a quite incredible statement. While I don't necessarily think other countries would have done better (this is a particularly difficult disease to contain due to the asymptomatic spread), it's hard to imagine how the situation could have been worse than the disease spreading to virtually every country in the world.

According to CCP less than 4,000 have died in China through Covid 19 yet 10,000 Urns were delivered to one of 49 Crematoria in Wuhan. If other crematoria were also delivered such numbers of URNs and the satellite pictures of grave plots created relevant and confirmed by pollution measurements showing gases formed by Cremating bodies then the death count is probably nearer 500,000. It beats me why China CCP continually tells lies on such a scale, admittedly accurate figures are unlikely globally due to the issues of communication but I don't believe that the source of the Virus has not infected China on a similar scale to the rest of the world.

To liars, repetitive lies become their own grotesque truth. Reminds me of one Adolf Hitler, who actually possessed a sense of humour in the sardonic sense, responding to complaints about his deputy’s compulsive lies. “ even Goering doesn’t know when Goering is lying.”

Yay! The Tigger to Emperor Xi's Pooh, is back! We wondered if you had been De-Bounced......

Kung Fu Panda, more likely. As in, what Kung Fu that brick?


We deserve to know the demands extracted by those underwriting party funding before election day.

The best democracy money can buy is no longer tenable.


"the release of policies strong enough to re-direct the narrative away from the Prime Minister’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis."

Maybe policy should be weighted more on 'what is best of the country' rather than 'will this sweep me into power regardless of whether it's actually doable or deliverable?' Or are we just accepting that as the norm so we don't have to talk about the swindle that was the 2017 Labour manifesto? Golly, how quickly we abandon the idea of honesty and transparency when it's us in the firing line, eh?


building roads and tunnels, letting in students and selling houses to rich people is not going to do it
so whats plan B

You seem to have me confused for a member of the National Party. I have no clue what their plan B is but I hope it's a damn sight better more than Plan A. You have to be in pretty bad shape to not make a dent on a Government that has failed on almost every key policy except the watered down version of the Foreign Buyer Ban they promised.

National were leading the polling up until start up wuflu crisis. Labour have benefited from normal external crisis (eg wars) surge that incumbents get, such surges generally take a year or so to abate.

Kung flu, my son, kung flu...

That is a very out of date website.
Seems to have been written while we were in lock down, and not updated since.

No it's not an out of date website at all! Did you bother to look? They're constantly writing articles citing the latest peer reviewed scientific literature, and the latest was written a few days ago.

The picture the website paints is bleak. The government has made a huge strategic mistake in attempting to eradicate the virus. Every single dollar spent on quarantine is wasted. IMHO New Zealand didnt have a great economy before but we're really going down the rabbit hole thanks to the governments coronavirus response.

I kinda saddened by the level of propaganda / moral indignation / ad hominem in the NZ discourse which prevents objective reasoning. There's an unquestionable narrative that the PM made the right decision. It seems to be sacrosanct even for the Herald. Look at the cartoon for this article. It would actually be more accurate to depict the PM stabbing the economy which is now falling off a cliff.

At some point you just have to accept that’s what the hoi polloi want and you often won’t get the satisfaction on an I told you so as like RP they just ghost the site.

Thing is - we aren't attempting to eradicate the virus, we have eradicated it - for the time being. There isn't a single person I know overseas that would rather be living with this virus than without it in their communities.

Kate you’re quite analytical. Don’t you see that if.. “if” NZ’s eradication attempt fails, which is highly likely, then more-or-less every dollar spent on quarantine would have been wasted. Govt debt 19->53 % of GDP with nothing to show, no extra ICU beds, and the only thing we would have bought is time, but even then, we’d be behind the rest of the world in our recovery. The world data, particularly from Sweden, shows a spike followed by a rapid decline in deaths. New serology data shows that T-cell response hangs around way longer than the IGG antibody response, and it all shows that exposure was greater than previously thought (ie. The virus is less dangerous).

last year NZ’s International tourism (exports) amounted to 17 billion, while Kiwi’s overseas holidays (imports) were only 10 billion. How long can the balance of trade take a negative 7 billion dollar per year hit? It's worse though because that’s not even taking into account the loss of foreign students.

All of Europe spiked and then declined once they figured out how to better manage rest home facilities and critically ill patients.

Point is though, Sweden are still getting on average 300-400 new cases daily. The number of new deaths are low, but yesterday. for example, there were another 5 with 68,263 still active cases.

I'd far rather be here.

But you just said it... The number of deaths are low and that's the only thing that matters. I'm living in Germany. I've had COVID19, my girlfriend's had it. Most of her work colleagues had it. Admittedly, I was a little scared at the time, but it wasn't a big deal.

I can imagine how scary it might be. I had pleurisy once - scary indeed. Glad everyone you know has recovered.

Have you checked your lungs? How is your MAX VO2 doing before and after? no big deal, it might have been a big deal if you were over the age of 60 and you died? but if your young you can look forward to another virus some time in the future. Id say buy good PPE , you might find you need it. And from the lastest german press articles the problem of summer tourism return infections is now alarming local governments who are now with no testing plan in place at air ports. Im afraid MMT is the only answer to global force majeure.

Covid Plan B is a group that goes against medical and scientific consensus on how best to handle Covid. If they had their way our borders would have stayed open and we'd be like Sweden, or at best Australia, and the consequences both human and economic would be much, much worse. They have been discredited in their approach.

The approach is very similar to that of the National party prior to and during the early days of lockdown, and follows libertarian commonalities. They haven't just sprung up out of nowhere, and I suspect they have some strong backing from the somewhere on the Right, my opinion only.

As for rabbit hole - what does that even mean? Are you also saying you want hundreds, maybe thousands more NZers to die for the sake of....what exactly?

And really, where is this propaganda? I see it in the housing market, I see it in big business, oh and look - there's John Key again. So when you're talking about covid - what propaganda exactly? And you know what? The overwhelming majority of countries around the world, scientific bodies and medical bodies have all praised New Zealand's approach - you seem to be in the same minority as the Covid plan b team.

I would have thought national would have sat down and done a comprehensive plan on how to expand quarantine at the border using user pays for students and others that are not citizens, to open up a little.
it can not be that hard, they just need to hotel company. medical practice, security company, transport company to sign up and draw up a plan.
my guess though it would cost the person at least 7K - 10K to come in

If people are worried about the integrity of the system, put the military in oversight of those new providers too.

Everybody seems to be ignoring that there have been more escapes since the military guy took over.

It's a classic hospital pass. This poor sap has been handed the responsibility but not the authority. He will be the scapegoat that saves Princess Jacinda's face.

I wonder what COVID 19's plan B is? Morph into COVID 20?

Right now all most voters care about is keeping the coronavirus out of NZ having seen the economic chaos and devastation it's inflicted around the world. National has already stated in their policies that they want to increase immigration in the name of free enterprise and open up our boards asap. They also want to do away with a lot of regulations that help to keep NZ safe from corruption so they can line their own pockets again.

So I agree with this Chris's quote: "Very few people are clamouring for anything more than a steady hand on the tiller as the nation navigates the treacherous waters of a global pandemic. That New Zealand is currently basking in international acclaim for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis."

That steady tiller will be going in circles without a vision for growth

Part of what frustrates me is that the "contest of ideas" isn't happening. "Navigating through the crisis" requires policies. Otherwise you're drifting through the crisis. It's almost like Labour has decided to stop being a nanny for a while and not intervene while National is the one trying to be interventionist. It looks that way until you realise that closing the border to all but non-residents/citizens is actually a massive intervention.
I for one find the argument that National wants to open the border and kill us all so incredibly frustrating.
Why hasn't the opposition said "let's open the border, keep quarantine, and all but New Zealand citizens must pay for their own quarantine. Let immigration begin again but make employers pay the full quarantine costs". Let there be private providers but their operations will be overseen by the military to make sure they don't stuff it up and hammer them if they do."
It's better than hunkering down and hiding behind the border hoping that it will all go away. That's what having no policies means.

In my opinion , Nationals only chance was a blue green partner. Maybe Nikki Kaye will come back to lead it next election . but the Greens will be thankful that National could not come up with one. As will NZ First they don't have a decent Conservative / Christian partner.

their turn will be 2026 or 2029..

National do have a BlueGreen group within them:

But they don't really do anything other than show up at the odd planting day for a photo and say what heroes farmers are.

Yes no policy.
No running on past achievements
No running on powerful cv of the team members

Difficulty this is for many is, is this is how bad engagements, bad relationships are formed.
These are the red flags of terrible IT projects, terrible management consulting engagements, terrible service delivery arrangements.
Failed service delivery, massive costs and misuse of money.

Its a great shame the Government has selected this approach because this approach mirrors the actions of the swindler, mimics the con artist, follows the path of the fraudster, and for no good reason.

Failed service delivery, massive costs and misuse of money better describes the blue lot's 9 years in power.

Agreed Labour needs to up it's game immensely. They have been poor, but no country in the world has emerged unscathed from Covid. Massive costs? Happened around the world.

Paul Goldsmith has demonstrated in a Stuff article today exactly why we should not vote for the National Party. His lack of understanding about how the governments finances operate is quite disappointing. He should go and have a word with Jim Bolger who now seems to have developed a more accurate idea about economics from what I have heard of him saying recently.

Yep stopping contributions to the super fund is just plain stupid. We already have a big bow wave of unfunded superannuation heading our way.

This is a very good development for future elections. Instead of coming to govern the country based on false promises and unrealistic policies, it is nice to elect people on their potential, record and your estimate of their capabilities for giving an honest, empathatic and sensible government.

They can always work out the policies and procedures in consultation with the departments and their directors and officials. Not going to be any different than the usual suspects like Infrastrcuture, Social Development, Increasing jobs (not wages, please note), Women empowerment, Poverty alleviation, Childrens Welfare,etc...We have heard enough on them and been disappointed.

Surely politicians can’t be expected to come up with policy and maintain/manage their vast array of properties.

They are only human, people. Give them a break.

I personally think 3 years of no new policy would be terrific!

We have a reasonably well rounded legislature (barring tax and the environment), let it run for a while.

What does National want to do ? as far as I can see its build a lot of roads, spend less - Im not sure were they plan not to spend. Let people use their kiwisaver trying start a small business - hello Rob Muldoon again - if we had kept the super scheme labour introduced decades ago NZ would be a very wealthy country. Ive no problem helping people to try and start a business but don't use use long term infrastructure investment funds. The fact is 90% + of the new starts will fail. Forget about improving water quality etc. Its really uninspiring, pseudo science, proven wrong stuff and has no forward looking aims or goals. I'm not saying Labour is inspiring but the concept of trying to bring all of NZ along is a bit more appealing than the leaving it to the business elite, their rich US friends buying house here and farmers - makes me feel like a serf being put in my place. I have many very wealthy kiwi friends and the 2 big concerns they have is 1. Inequality 2. Environmental degradation - these people would normally vote for Attila the Hun but I'm amazed at their outlook as they have aged. If the Greens stuck to just environmental stuff I think they would be surprised what they would get in a vote. Their wild economic policy cuts many off at the pass.