Polity by Rob Salmond


Protesting too much: responses to Labour's new tertiary policy

As readers know, Labour leader Andrew Little has announced a policy for three free years of post-school education. As a person who helped a little with preparing for that launch, my own views on the policy won’t be a surprise. It’s the right thing to do because the ability to retrain will be crucial in years ahead. It’s smart politics as well, because it’s Labour setting the agenda from opposition.

In this post, I want to look at the reaction that came from National and ACT. That reaction is very revealing about their election strategy for 2017.

The critique was as shrill as it was immediate. Stephen Joyce decided that the government subsidy of tuition costs would “achieve absolutely nothing,” whereas of course every dollar he spends on a lower level of exactly the same subsidy is highly effective. It was the emptiest of empty critiques.

David Seymour had Chicken Little declarations about course quality – saying any and all controls and checks would go out the window with this policy, and that anyone who could write “Ewe gots a qualafakashun” on a cocktail napkin would automatically get a government cheque for $15,000. It’s as if Labour had accidentally also scrapped NZQA.

And David Farrar intoned darkly about opportunity costs, as if doing something about access to post-school education necessarily rules out doing something for pre-school kids. On that score, I personally am 100% for extending free ECE to kids of a lower age, and extending the subsidy even further for vulnerable kids. But let’s see just how deeply David Farrar cares about the tradeoffs for toddlers when National announces its tax cuts…

The real reason National is so upset with this policy is that it means National itself will need to tack more left in order to keep winning.

David Farrar’s blog title “Labour goes even further left” could just as easily have been “National has to go even further left.” And Bill English talked explicitly to Politik’s Richard Harman [paywall] about this strategy last week. Talking about National’s social investment strategy, English said:

… it aligns with our politics because the left is fully engaged with us. A lot them like it. One said to me the other day I’ve got to stop talking to you guys because you are messing with my political head. At the very least the left is not attacking us. And they are not advocating for Labour’s supposed strong suite and that’s its social policy.

So that’s National’s plan – hope to copy just enough of Labour’s social policy to stop left activists being angry with them. It’s an acknowledgement that Labour is better than National at thinking about social policy.

So the more strong social policy Labour rolls out, the more National has to copy.

I expect you’ll see more from Labour on social policy during the year, as it builds both its platform and its corps of volunteers in advance of the 2017 campaign. I expect you’ll see real boldness from Labour in those areas. In other areas, I expect you’ll see a bit more caution, though. Labour’s ability to deliver a bold social programme relies on broad public acceptance of Labour’s credibility on the economy, on personal security, and so on.

From this weekend, National knows that policies to increase the availability of advanced education are popular across the board. They’re especially popular among parents and grandparents who can see education is even more important for their mokopuna than for any previous generation.

For National that means they’ll need another “me, too” response before next year’s election. They’ll offer a partial version of Labour’s policy, in a bid to mollify the middle-ground.

In one sense, I’m quite pleased about that. Even when Labour’s out of office, it sill makes the running in social policy in New Zealand. Setting the direction; identifying the priorities.

But the problem is that when National plays “me, too,” it only takes half-measures. When a problem calls for bold action, this government isn’t equipped to do what’s needed. The head-shakingly laughable climate change “fast follower” proposal is the classic example.

All in all, National’s reaction shows it really is concerned about the impact of Labour’s policy. When its perfunctory attempts to discredit it fail, they’ll move pretty swiftly to copy it instead.

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