Speaker by Various Artists


Rewarding competence

by Joshua Drummond

If you were listening to New Zealand’s punditocracy in the days since Labour won the general election with a record-setting outright majority, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Labour had actually lost.

Last time around pundits could barely deal with the fact that the National government had lost its majority, and this time, faced with a left-wing landslide, there’s been a retreat into full-blown fantasy. The sheer depth of the cognitive dissonance on display can be seen in these RNZ snippets from the last few days: 

Analysis - There's only crumbs for the Greens from Labour's table, National's caucus backs Judith Collins but there's anger in the ranks over what went wrong, and the huge swing to Labour indicates there could have been tactical voting on an unprecedented scale.

24 hours earlier, on the same website:

In this week's final Caucus podcast, the team agrees the red tide has flowed, in large part as a nationwide thank you to Ardern and the Labour-led government's handling of Covid-19.

 24 hours before that:

But with the wisdom of the crowd, centre-right voters have seen National's internal problems, looked around for a handbrake on a Labour-Greens transformative government and landed on a fascinating champion – Labour itself.

It’d be hilarious, if it wasn’t so earnest. They really believe that? Bless! 

The problem with these takes is not just that they can all be boiled down to “no matter the appearance of a sweeping left-wing victory, if I conduct a brave, take-no-prisoners interview with my keyboard, it turns out my own personal ideology won, yay!”

Nor is it merely the fundamentally broken pundit heuristic that the truth is probably found at the point of balance between two competing issues. The issue is that these takes ignore Occam’s Razor. The idea that voters are engaged in a complicated game of five-dimensional chess at the ballot box is way too complicated to hold water. 

I could go on, but Joe Nunweek, aka “that politics guy,” the standout Twitter commentator of the election campaign, already beat me to it. In this excellent piece, he advances the bold, controversial notion that people voted for Labour because they liked them. But if I was to write my own hot take, based entirely on the undeniable fact of a left-wing election landslide, post-hoc anecdote and my own keen understanding of “the vibe,” it would run like this: 

Labour won because they demonstrated competence. The end. 

But because hot-take think-pieces apparently have to be longer than 100 words, I should elaborate a bit. 

It’s important to note that a government demonstrating competence is an exception to the rule. Governments are not usually able to demonstrate competence, due to the fact that a.) competence makes for a boring story, and the only way we really find out about the stuff the Government does is through the news media, which does not like boring stories and b.) there’s always incompetence to find. This is true for governments of all political stripes. Very rarely does any government get a pat on the back for doing the right or even just the OK thing.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t expect competence of our government - we absolutely, obviously should - but the miracle of a system that manages to get public health, education, and democracy more or less right gets significantly less airtime than the far more entertaining spectre of some dingus of a Minister making a public tit of themself.  

(In fact, the public service is what does most of the job of actually running the country, and they generally do their job with enough competence that it’s boring and you never hear about it.) 

But Covid-19 upset the usual order of things, and instead of the standard, endless parade of incompetencies great and small (Kiwibuild! Tax reform! Anything to do with New Zealand First!) we were treated to a government that wasn’t fucking it all up. Instead, they were doing a obviously excellent job, visible over time through both our success compared to other countries and admiring write-ups in publications like The Lancet.

This demonstrable competence, and the comms strategy that piloted it (which, non-coincidentally, sidelined the Greens and New Zealand First, Labour’s partners in Government), turned into a great rumbling machine that destroyed anything stupid enough to get in the way. David Clark rode his mountain bike in front of it and got squashed. National Party leaders sniped and criticised and made half-baked suggestions about opening the borders that the electorate hated, and the machine ate two of them in quick succession before destroying the rest of the party at the ballot box. 

That Labour demonstrated competence in their Covid-19 response should really be beyond doubt at this point to all but the most hard-bitten cynics or ideological diehards. But I do think it worth mentioning what fuelled this machine: an evidence-based, big-spending, Big Government intervention into a systemic issue affecting all New Zealanders. 

The parallels with climate change are obvious, and with reports showing that New Zealand’s climate has already warmed remarkably, as well as an abundance of evidence that a large majority of the electorate now considers climate change an urgent concern, Labour – governing either alone or with the Greens – would be incredibly foolish to miss the memo.  

The time for decisive action on big issues like climate change (and attendant top-of-mind concerns like health, housing and transport) is, more than ever, now. That’s the actual mandate delivered by the election landslide - not the milquetoast, do-nothing, business-as-usual approach advocated by the nation’s optics-addled pundits, who are too blinded by the light of their own op-eds to see that the centre has comprehensively shifted. 

Even if they were somehow right, and it turns out the electorate voted tactically en masse to avoid the spectre of the same scary Greens who have been in government for the last three years, they need to learn that there’s no such thing as “lending” a vote, and that people who vote for an left-wing party with explicitly left-wing principles should be rewarded with left-wing policies. 

Voters delivered the Left their election victory based on their rediscovery of the power of government to aid society; and to stay in power, they’ll need to continue wielding it. It will be up to all of us to make sure they do it well. 

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