Helen Clark

Leaders who bring out the worst in their opposition

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If there's one thing that becoming Leader of the National Party for Simon Bridges has achieved, it's been bringing out the worst in his opposition online. Bridges seems to be, like Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark for Labour, or John Key for National before him, a figure who provokes the very worst out of some very vocal people.

The hot takes on Simon Bridges have oscillated from just plan bad, to completely abhorrent and devoid of any rational thought. Whether it's been people criticising his Westie working class accent - a critique that comes off as little more as snobby elitism - or those mocking his hair style - shall we recall the howls of protest over other politicians being judged on aspects of their physical appearance? - a large portion of the opinions being shared aren't based on any substance about Simon Bridges the politician, but are little more than petty personal attacks against Simon Bridges the person.

Perhaps the worst I've seen since the announcement have been from people who should know a damned sight better, that both Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett aren't Māori enough to claim Māori heritage.

This absurd like of attack seems to draw on two equally as stupid measures: one being what percentage of Māori ancestry they have, and the other being whether they're either fluent in te reo or able to recite a mihi.

What makes these lines of argument absurd, and essentially racist, is that they completely ignore the fact that both Bridges and Bennett's experience of being urban Māori are largely representative of urban Māori in general over the past century. The migration of Māori from rural New Zealand to urban centres over the past century, combined with backwards policies towards Māori culture for much of that time, saw many Māori separated from their cultural identity.

Bridges and Bennett are very much part of this wider issue facing urban Māori, in that their disconnect from their cultural heritage has been created by time, geographic, socio-economics, government policy, and circumstances beyond their immediate control. These same factors have also acted as barriers towards urban Māori who seek to reconnect with their culture. It's one part of the reason why the percentage of Māori who speak fluent te reo has been stuck between 20-25%.

While that is gradually changing, with more and more urban Māori reconnecting with Tikanga Māori, it's also important to acknowledge that it's not always possible or easy for urban Māori to do this. Judging one's command of either te reo or Tikanga Māori as a an artificial measure of their "Māori-ness" is a perspective which simply holds no merit.

Much like the arbitrary standards being demanded by some for knowledge and practicing of te reo and Tikanga Māori, the notion that there's a specific percentage or fraction of ancestry that must be Māori for someone to be able to say they're Māori is an idea I had hoped we had abandoned some 30 or 40 years ago.

As I indicated at the start, the plethora of bad takes based on superficial rather than substantive issues directed at Bridges coming from the Left are eerily similar to those directed at Jacinda Ardern from the Right.

Whether it's people opining on what Ardern is wearing, her relationship with Clarke Gayford, her pregnancy, or her age, or her media appearances (which are fundamentally no different to those done by John Key) the Right has been guilty of exactly the same behaviour throughout Ardern's career, and even more so since she became first Leader of Labour, and then Prime Minister.

Interestingly, Bill English never seemed to attract quite the same level of bizarrely bad or offensive reckons on his personal attributes.

Of course, none of this is anything new. The Right and Left both suffered from what's been termed as Clark/Key-Derangement-Syndrome in the past. Yet as both Clark and Key demonstrate, petty personal attacks against politicians achieve nothing.

Unfortunately I suspect the people who most need to learn that lesson, those who continue to spout this nonsense, are also the ones least likely to ever change their ways.

In part it seems that much of this could be down to social media contributing to an increasingly partisan element to online discussion of politics, and in part giving trolls a platform to spout their nonsense that they've never had before. But it also seems that some leaders tend to polarise opinion about them based on largely on superficial elements rather than substantive issues.

Forget a new Cold War, Great Power rivalry is back instead

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Talk of a new Cold War has been popular in the last few years, primarily pitched as China's rising military, political, and economic might against the dwindling power and influence of the United States. More broadly, it often gets seen as a conflict between the liberal democracy and free market values of the West, and the authoritarian, state controlled economies of the East.

While the end of the Cold War left the United States as the sole superpower, it also led many to search for a new rival to US hegemony. From the early 2000s China has largely been seen to fit this bill.

If you were looking through the lens of economic power alone, China would fill that role well, with its GDP having grown to be the third biggest in the world. While only around 60% of the GDP of the United States, China's economic growth has, up until recently, greatly outstripped US growth.

In the political sphere, China has been assiduously cultivating its influence, using access to its immense domestic market and deep pockets as an incentive to either stifle criticism or garner support across the world. On the military front, China is also accelerating the development of weapon platforms and bases that would allow it to project its military power beyond the South China Sea, as far as Africa and deep into the Pacific.

As a result of China's rise the United States has, over the past decade, been putting more and more emphasis on its Pacific theatre of operations, which in turn has fed the narrative of a new Cold War centred on a Beijing-Washington axis.

However it's readily becoming apparent that a return to a world dominated by two duelling superpowers isn't what's happening.

The recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy sees this new paradigm in terms of China, Russia, and the US competing on the world stage. The new US strategy sees China continuing to grow its influence in Asia, Russia putting more pressure on Europe and NATO, and the United States needing to step back from the Middle East in order to contain its new strategic rivals.

I'd go further than this, and argue that we appear to be entering a new era of Great Power competition that shares more with the period 1871 - 1945 than it does with 1945 to 1991.

Where the Cold War was dominated by the duelling superpowers of the US and USSR, 1871 to 1914 was dominated by multipolar rivalry between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia. Towards the end of that period they were joined by the United States and Japan. Just below that top tier of Great Powers sat Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. While right at the end of that period, China began to show signs that it was starting on the path that would eventually lead it to where it is today.

The situation we find ourselves in today mirrors that of 1871. Whereas the United Kingdom and France had been the primary world powers for nearly two centuries - with Russia lurking in the background with the potential to dwarf them both - first the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 changed that world order. In first asserting its primacy in Central Europe over Austria-Hungary, then breaking up the superpower duopoly by humbling France, Germany's rise saw the world enter an era of Great Power rivalry that would last until 1945.

Fast forward to today and we have the United States' political, military, and economic supremacy being simultaneously challenged by China's rising strength, a militarily resurgent Russia, the growing economic and political influence of India, and the European Union looking more and more like a single federal entity than a loose cooperative of different states (despite the United Kingdom's impending departure) that's set to take its own spot on the world stage.

Just below this top tier of new Great Powers, are countries like Brazil and Indonesia, where it seems a question of when, rather than if, they'll become economic powerhouses in their own right. There's also the question of what role Japan will take as they wrestle with their place in this new world, trapped as they are in the middle of geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington.

For New Zealand, this new Great Power geopolitical environment offers challenges and opportunities. The biggest challenge for us will be staying on side with the three largest economic Great Powers - the United States, China, and the European Union - which isn't always an easy thing to do, as has been illustrated in recent months. For example, Foreign Minister Winston Peters' pet project of a free trade agreement with Russia earned New Zealand a strong rebuke from the EU, offering a cautionary lesson on what's in store for us - pursuing one course of action could lead to other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities being shut to us.

For much of the past 20 years New Zealand has managed to navigate the China/US divide very well. Helen Clark and John Key fostered positive and productive relationships with both Beijing and Washington. The China FTA delivered by Helen Clark was a huge economic win for New Zealand, while the visit of the USS Sampson in 2016 marked a high point in US/NZ political and military relations in the nuclear-free NZ era. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful due to Donald Trump, the Trans-Pacific Partnership also seemed poised to be a big win for New Zealand too in the economic side of our relationship with the US.

To highlight just how careful New Zealand has to be in this new multipolar world, here's just some of the current free trade agreement activities on New Zealand's plate:

  • An upgrade to the China FTA,
  • Getting the finishing touches on the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which will cover Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Viet Nam,
  • Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which covers Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, Australia, China, India, Japan, and Korea,
  • Starting negotiations on a European Union FTA,
  • Finishing up the PACER Plus agreement,
  • Pushing the Golf Cooperation Council FTA towards conclusion, having been stalled for nine years.

Throw in the suspended Russia-Belarus Kazakhstan Customs Union FTA on top of that, and there are a heap of competing geopolitical rivalries that New Zealand somehow has to thread its way through.

The above list is only the economic side of things. We also have defence relationships with Australia, Singapore, and the United States that are generally in New Zealand's interest to keep going (as one day Donald Trump won't be the President of the United States), as well as intelligence relationships through the Five Eyes network that may well prove to be crucial in the coming years in light of growing cyber threats from rival Great Powers.

What I don't see yet on the immediate horizon is this new era of Great Power rivalry descending into widespread armed conflict like we saw during the period of 1871 to 1945. There's always the potential for it further down the track in times of economic and political turmoil, potentially brought on by competition for resources such as rare metals. For the time being though, we're likely to see things play out more like they did in the closing decades of the 19th century, with the new Great Powers jostling for influence throughout the rest of the world, but still being prepared to retreat back from the brink relatively easily.

All that being said, that prediction comes with the caveat that you can never discount the impact rogue actors might have. Just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led Europe to war in 1914, there's always the potential that North Korea, Iran, or some other random event - be it a cyber attack or something else - could light a powder keg that causes the new Great Powers to go from competition, to open conflict.

From sizzle to fizzle? Labour creates sky-high expectations

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"Despite promises of a new dawn in Crown-Māori relations just two years ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's anticipated final visit to Waitangi has been marred by protesters preventing Ardern from making it to Waitangi at all. At the heart of the protesters' grievances is a sense of having been misled and betrayed by the Labour-led government, whose actions, in the protesters' eyes, haven't lived up to the rhetoric Ardern used on her first visit in 2018."

While imagining a possible Waitangi Day visit for Ardern going poorly in 2020 is purely a work of speculative fiction, it's not without precedent. In 2002 Helen Clark was widely hailed for a successful visit to Waitangi which received not dissimilar plaudits to Jacinda Ardern's just completed visit.

Clark had had a difficult relationship with Waitangi Day up to that point. Reduced to tears in 1998 and then refused permission to speak in 1999, Clark avoided Waitangi for the first two years of her Government. When she returned in 2002, the tone of reports was largely similar to what we've read over the past week. Clark's visit was seen as a turning point in Crown-Māori relations, and the beginning of a new, more productive relationship between Labour and Māori.

All that goodwill, all that talk of turning a corner in the relationship was gone by 2004. Off the back of the controversial foreshore and seabed proposals, Clark was abused and her group physically jostled by protesters. Despite a last minute decision to visit Waitangi in 2005, Labour would go on to lose four of the seven Māori electorate seats in the 2005 election.

Watching and reading the coverage of Jacinda Ardern's visit to Waitangi, I'm struck with the similarities between 2002 and 2018. Both Helen Clark being escorted by Titewhai Harawira and Jacinda Ardern's BBQ were touted as turning points.

The reality is though, for all the sizzling of the BBQ and the accompanying coverage of what was a fantastic PR event, Jacinda Ardern has set expectations for the relationship between the Crown and Māori at sky high levels. If the Labour-led Government fails to meet them, we could well see a re-run of 2004 in 2020.

In many respects the past week of Waitangi coverage highlights a bigger problem for the Government going forward. In the next 10 years the Government has promised to halve the rate of child poverty, build 100,000 houses, and (between the private sector and Government) plant 1 billion trees. They're all very ambitious targets, and other than the Government's families package, they're yet to make substantive progress on any of them.

Not that there's anything wrong with ambitious targets. It's good to see the Government continuing to challenge itself just as the previous National-led Government did with its Better Public Service targets. Even if Labour falls short on those targets, so long as it's not wildly short, they'll still be able to claim a measure of success.

The problem for Labour is that through all their hype and ambitious targets, they're creating an expectation that they're going to solve all of New Zealand's problems, even if they haven't specifically stated so. One of the best, and most subtle pieces of commentary on this was ventured by RNZ's and Pundit's Tim Watkin.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy also hit the nail on the head too, pointing out that much of the coverage had descended into gushing praise.

There's nothing wrong with people being excited about what was a very successful visit to Waitangi for Ardern's Government. The problem is that we've been here before, and there seems to have been little acknowledgement of the massive weight of expectation that the Government has created for itself, or the pitfalls, especially for the Crown-Māori relationship, if reality falls short of those expectations.

Part of the problem will also be that I can't think of when New Zealand last had a new Government that had stoked expectations and hype to such high levels. When John Key and National came to power in 2008 there were expectations, but they were always tempered by the reality that things were going to get worse before they got better, by virtue of the country being in the middle of one of our deepest and longest ever recessions since the Great Depression, and the Global Financial Crisis still raging. Even in 1999, with the 1998 recession and 1997 Asian Financial Crisis still fresh in people's minds, and the final term of the Fourth National Government being something of a political mess, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen carefully managed expectations throughout that first year until it was clear the economy was roaring back to life.

In that respect, the Government doesn't live up to those expectations, the moment Jacinda Ardern's BBQ ran out of bacon at Waitangi may end up being a metaphor for how this term is office is viewed - started off with plenty of sizzling, ended up just fizzling.

Jacinda rattled and panics on income tax increases

It looks like Jacinda Ardern is rattled and has panicked following National's attacks over Labour's ever-increasing list of new taxes, with Jacinda today ruling out introducing a new, higher income tax bracket, increasing the top tax rate, or even referring the issue to Labour's proposed Tax Working Group post-election.

What's more, Jacinda appears to have only recently made this decision, possibly even just today, indicating that it may well be a captain's call, leaving her two MPs who have publicly endorsed income tax increases - Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford out on a limb and at odds with their party leader.

It really suggests two things, one is that Labour is getting messages that there's a potential backlash to all of these taxes that Labour has proposed in the past two weeks. There's been the regional fuel tax in Auckland, a capital gains tax, higher income taxes, the water tax, a tourist tax, a land value tax, and an unspecified asset tax, as well as reversing National's $2 billion families package from Budget 2017.

What's worth keeping in mind is that in 1999 Helen Clark and Labour did take an increase to the top tax rate to the polls in 1999, and comfortably won that election. From memory, I think Labour confirmed what the increase would be some two or three weeks out from the election, a window that Jacinda and the current Labour Party was currently still in to clarify what their proposed rates would be.

What I think is the issue here is that not only has Labour backtracked on its earlier pledge under the Budget Responsibility Rules it signed with the Greens to not introduce new taxes in its first term, but seek a mandate for them during a second term (an approach that worked well for National on partial asset sales in the 2008 and 2011 elections), but also the sheer number of potential new or increased taxes that they're proposed.

Essentially Labour has shot itself in its foot in two ways here. The earlier pledge not to introduce new taxes in a first term under the Budget Responsibility Rules was always going to cause tensions with how Labour would fund their election pledges. The second is that, with all these various taxes they've announced that they want, the Tax Working Group is starting to look more and more like it would just be something that would rubber stamp whatever Labour wanted.

Labour has effectively asked voters to agree to pay a tax bill that they don't have any idea what it might be, and that's a difficult pill for voters to swallow. If you're going to propose tax increases, voters want to know how much those increases might be for them, and what they're going to be funding with that extra money they're taking.

Labour has certainly got the second part of that equation wrapped up with some fairly significant spending promises in the pipeline, but that's making people nervous about how big these mysterious tax increases will be.

The question is now whether Jacinda's backtrack on tax will damage her brand in the same way that Theresa May's Dementia Tax backtrack hurt her.

Will Labour's water tax cost them the election?

Despite Labour and Jacinda Ardern's spectacular rise in the polls over the past week, National and Bill English don't need to panic. Other than National continuing to focus on New Zealand's economic success, Jacinda's announcement of a water tax on commercial water users might just, in combination with the threat the Green Party poses to regional infrastructure projects, cost Labour their chance of forming the next government.

On the surface Jacinda Ardern's announcement that Labour will introduce a commercial water tax seems like a sensible one. People generally didn't seem thrilled about overseas bottling companies paying next to nothing to bottle up water and ship it offshore. Had the tax been targeted at them, it mightn't have ticked all the boxes for environmental groups, but it would have effectively scratched an itch that was bothering New Zealand.

The problem was Labour not only want to extend the tax to all commercial water users, including farmers who they've hit with a double whammy of plans to introduce new restrictions on farming methods without lifting the prohibitions on technology (like genetically modified organisms) that could help achieve this.

What Labour also assumed was a sensible policy move of saying that they won't commit to a tax figure on water until after the election when they meet with stakeholders, has turned out to be a terrible political move. It's already being seen by our primary sector as a disingenuous ploy to avoid a hard conversation about it on the campaign trail. It stinks of being both a policy that has been poorly thought out and of leaving the door open for this to become a massive tax on agricultural activity.

Labour has left the door open for National severely punish them not only in provincial New Zealand, but also in the mortgage beltway. To illustrate this, just look at how in just a few hours after the announcement, Labour had already lost control of the framing of the announcement:

Notice a theme? Water tax, water tax, water tax. Labour's "royalty" is already framed as a not only a tax, but a tax that will decimate our farmers and provincial economies, as well as hitting mortgage belt Middle New Zealand in the pocket with higher prices for dairy and produce.

In my mind, National there are three things National needs to do from this:

  1. Make a commitment to provincial New Zealand that National won't tax the agricultural sector for water use and promote the hell out of it before Winston Peters and New Zealand First can get in.
  2. Run a campaign targeting those provincial electorates pointing out the threat to their livelihoods if Labour won and did introduce the water tax combined with the threat the Greens could also pose if they forced a Labour government to cancel crucial irrigation and regional infrastructure projects.
  3. Target the Middle New Zealand mortgage belt with a campaign pointing out the potential and significant price rises to everyday (and healthy!) foodstuffs that the combination of Labour's water tax and other policies could have.

If you doubt this approach will work, take a look at the Mediscare campaign that the Australian Labor Party ran in their 2016 election. Despite some pretty dubious claims made and methods used by the ALP, it's widely credited with helping bring Bill Shorten within a whisker of an unprecedented victory. The advantage National has in this regard is that, unlike the ALP, Jacinda and Labour have made the commitment that water will be taxed, and left the door wide open for speculation about the potential impact of that.

This is where social media can play an important role in turning around this type of policy attack content very quickly so that you're capitalising on the issue being fresh in people's minds. Already National's Nathan Guy has enjoyed amazing success by posting a video of his fantastic speech to the House from Wednesday's General Debate to Facebook. In less than 24 hours the video has already been watched by 43,000 people, shared 412 times, and has resonated hugely well with those involved in the primary sector.

Given that National doesn't want to make the mistake that Labour and Helen Clark did in 2008 of going after the personality and popularity of the opposition leader, this type of wedge issue not only ties in perfectly with their overall narrative. National want's to tell people that they're the party that's delivering economic success for New Zealand, so something like this will really hits home for many peopl;e about the danger that a Labour/Green government would pose to that success. It's a policy based attack, Labour's made a key mistake in launching an incomplete policy and losing control of its farming, and National has a really good chance to turn this into an issue that could cost Labour badly.