Opinion: Labour is now a reactionary policy fizzer. National is making the policy running but we desperately need resurgent genuine radicalism from the left

Opinion: Labour is now a reactionary policy fizzer. National is making the policy running but we desperately need resurgent genuine radicalism from the left

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.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


This is what I postesd to the thread on the alarming rise in the Italian bond rate this morning. I'm happy to post it here as well.

The overarching problem is that most of the economies in Europe can’t sustain the size of their governments'

And there is a strong, urgent lesson in that for New Zealand as it considers the upcoming election and the promises of various parties. The size of European governments is frankly due to their bloated cradle to the grave welfare. Debt funded welfare that political parties and individual politicians cynically exploit as election bribes to grasp power is the ultimate mug’s game for any nation that tries it. And look at where this European largesse has ended up? On the cusp of the Great Depression II.  

What can we learn from that here in New Zealand given that we are in exactly the same position as the Europeans? Be very wary of any political party that promises more and more and more debt funded election-bribing welfare.  And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which party in New Zealand, either in this election of historically, that is the chief culprit of that here. The Labour party. As far as I am concerned it is that that makes Labour toxic. I only hope that the Greens go from strength to strength and end up as the new opposition party on the left and Labour fades into oblivion where it belongs. At least the Greens have a sense of responsibility.

.... 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.  

We can't wait three years and National's latest ideas (I struggle to even call them that) won't make one iota of difference!!!!!

The present system of targeted benefits is a nightmare - and all National is proposing in terms of "reform" is more intrusive policing of the plethora of targets. 

Get rid of the lot of this ridiculous, bloated bureaucracy of tax dodges and targeted welfare transfers and give everyone an unconditional minimum income and a flat rate of income tax - and let them make their own decisions about where they live, who they live with, how and where they invest and how they live.

It's called the Big Kahuna, Steven, and there is to my mind no other true reform proposal in the public sphere presently.

Well, Kate, you know waht to do. Set yourself up as a new political party (with Morgan and others) and champion the big kahuna as your core plank. And let the people decide.

Actually David I have never, ever had even the slightest inclination to become politically active.... but things really are going to hell in a hand basket globally and that's going to mean something radical and fresh will be needed.  And yes, if they'll have me, whatever movement adopts the Kahuna in full, no compromises will get my time, energy and monetary support. 

We cannot ignore the fact that NZ will need to collect more tax and reduce government spending - and its going to need to happen more quickly than I think anyone expects.

We can already see that the "austerity" measures as promoted by TPTB only serve to further crucify the already indebted middle class.  This destruction of the middle class is heading our way whether we like it or not.

I can only see the next three years of government, no matter whether it is Labour or National, borrowing more to fund tax shortfalls and rising expenses.  Why?  Because they are both working on the bogus notion of "growth". 

Well I can understand your sentiments about not wanting to become a politician, I've no ambition that way myself. I mean how could one possibly indulge one's licentious inclinations at 2 a.m. if one had to get up and explain it all before the house?! But with an idea like the Big Kahuna, unless you can get some traction with one of the existing political parties which to me seems unlikely as things currently stand, I don’t think you’re left with any other choice if you want to move the concept away from being an idea into something that people can actually vote for.

I'm not so sure - as everyone else has baggage and a group of existing party members which they have to pander to.  Of the current lot - none seem to be that interested in freedom of choice for the individual - whether that individual is working in paid or unpaid activities.

No need for the left to get in Govt or strengthen Opposition. They have infiltrated every Govt department, University, Polytechnic, NZQA, TEC, and quasi-enviro groups rolling out their doctrine of mediocrity, and PC policy.

For anybody who still believes that Libertarianism is friendly towards Democracy here is what the Cato institute themselves think about the foundations of the American political system.

Here’s Steve H. Hanke, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, writing in a 2011 editorial: “Contrary to what propaganda has led the public to believe, America’s Founding Fathers were skeptical and anxious about democracy. They were aware of the evils that accompany a tyranny of the majority. The Framers of the Constitution went to great lengths to ensure that the federal government was not based on the will of the majority and was not, therefore, democratic.”

Unsurprisingly the Libertarian party in NZ has prepared a constitution, heavily based on the US constitution, which they would foister onto the country.

We need a Tony Blair in Labour to reform the schools that are producing our dreadful tail of illiterates.

I suspect the Slog would disagree:

I watched Tony Blair today talking about the European Union. He spoke at length, but he reminded me that – of all the dissemblers of the last two decades – he remains the only one whose words could all be poured into a gigantic sack of sh*t, and the sack would weigh exactly the same beforehand as afterwards….and smell just as bad. How he keeps up this look of being serious about his empty utterances remains a mystery to me.