By John Pagani*
In 1987 I was a member of Labour's policy council. What a totally pointless exercise that was: the council couldn't feasibly discuss policy because the party membership was fundamentally on a different page to the Government.
Consequently the manifesto was released after the 1987 election.
Funny, except look how that ended up.
Now the election is only just over two months away and the National party still hasn't released policy for the next three years.
So far the government has announced, as far as I can tell, three firm commitments:
1. Asset sales.
2. Reforming welfare for 16 and 17 year olds by giving them smart cards.
3. Today's re-announcement that the retirement age will remain fixed at 65.
There is a policy page on the National website, but with the exception of Canterbury it is out of date - a rehash of 2008.
By contrast, Labour is today announcing its Christchurch package. Last week we had education, yesterday there was an announcement on pay equity. And of course we have seen big announcements on tax.
We haven't seen a tax policy from National. No one even seems to have asked them when a manifesto will be released.
Could they increase GST again? With an NZ$18 billion deficit, will they cut tax for the wealthy again? Will they increase tax? What about "cap not cut" in the public sector? What about a provision for free pre-school education? With the costs of prisons rising steadily as sentences get ever longer, do we have any firm commitments not to slash sentences to get budgets under control?
You get my drift.
National are avoiding policy pledges because they want the election to be about the past, not the future.
They want the election to be a referendum asking 'what do you think of the job John Key has done for the last three years?' If they release policy, attention will focus instead on their plans for the future, which are either dismal or unpopular. Or vague and ethereal.
Normally you would say the past is some sort of guide to the future, but we still don't really know what John Key believes or what his National Party stands for.
The absence of policy is a vulnerability for a Government that demonstrably hasn't been able to articulate any plan or vision.
They're drifting into tomorrow, yet they're still to spell out any strategy to lift incomes or improve living standards. It's one short term management tactic after another, combined with a few ideas that aren't popular and don't fix the big problems, like increasing GST and selling assets.
The worst possible result would be a rush of policy in the last fourteen or twenty-one days before the election. With a firehouse release of policy, no one gets a chance to scrutinise the policy, and tear vulnerabilities to pieces. That's bad for New Zealand because scutiny helps to fix probelms and makes for better policy. Look at the forensic examination of Labour's CGT. When do we get to inspect National's tax plans with the same microscope?
Or do we have one rule for the Opposition and another for the Government?
* John Pagani is an independent political consultant and writer who has worked as an adviser to Labour Leader Phil Goff. He writes his own blog at Posterous.