By Stephen Franks*
Labour lit its sparklers as it opened this campaign. They earned respect. Despite jibes that they were making a virtue out of necessity in vowing to campaign on policy, not personality, they lead with a couple of genuinely courageous announcements (capital gains tax and increasing the superannuation age).
But since then despite John Key's prominence, National has been the genuine policy campaigner. Their welfare, RMA and employment announcements are solid claims for a reform mandate in the event of a National victory.
In contrast, Labour's policy descriptions are baffling fizzers, catherine wheels on the lawn, spurting sparks in fits and starts but perhaps no longer alight.
Their welfare policy (borrow more to reduce incentives to work, abandon all Michael Cullen strove for with Working for Families), on top of their reactionary employment law promises (kick more kids out of jobs and onto welfare, reverse the probationary period encouragement to employers, back to national awards), and their criminal justice policy (end three strikes) and education (capitulate to teacher union hostility to measurable standards), are memorable mainly for the narrowness of the classes they might appeal to.
This is sad for New Zealand, because we desperately need more 'ideas leadership' from the left. We need New Zealand versions of Hawke, Keating, Mark Latham. We need a Tony Blair in Labour to reform the schools that are producing our dreadful tail of illiterates. Labour needs a Frank Field, or at least the recognition of the validity of a left and right faction debate as in Australia.
It seems the clean-out after this election might be needed to liberate that kind of open-mindedness in Labour. Or perhaps it will be an interparty debate, between Labour and an energised, environmentally focussed less-red Green Party.
It is not that the right does not know what needs to be done in Education and Welfare. It is just that it is much harder for Tories to reform in the social sectors, and more costly for the country - their efforts immediately trigger "class war" or "culture war". The opposition left parties can become the focus of implacable resistance, and a damaging mythology of noble defence.
Serious reform is best done by the party which the sector would usually expect to defend their special interests, as Roger Douglas did in dismantling import licensing and other restrictions that were the result of an alliance between unions and favoured businessmen. The defensive sector will pick itself up best when it knows it is futile to expect rescue.
That problem means that Tories may be more successful than the left in dealing with major failures in business law, or taxation or defence or economic policy.
It took Clinton in the US to reach across party lines to adopt Republican policy on welfare and crime, to then preside over their astonishing and sustained turn-around in crime and welfare dependency rates. Healthcare is a business matter, so it is not surprising that Obama has bogged down.
So the dreariness of Labour's policy "fireworks" so far is depressing, but perhaps it provides a silver lining for some, like John Pagani, who may see it as helpful for Labour to at least have another three years out of the limelight in which to work out how they will genuinely reform the welfare monster.
None with any knowledge of Labour movement history would think that Peter Fraser or any other of the early heroes would defend what it has become.
There is still time for this campaign to become a contest of ideas more than personality, but it is getting very hard to see much contest with the party (National) putting up the challenge to the reactionaries (Labour).
* Stephen Franks is a commercial and public lawyer who represented the ACT Party in Parliament from 1999 to 2005 as its justice and commerce spokesman. He also stood for the National Party in the 2008 election as its Wellington Central candidate.
He writes his own blog at stephenfranks.co.nz.