Comment

A Government of dashed hopes

The hope invested in this Government is not being repaid with action - on housing, climate change and now Ihumātao - and it's starting to look no different from its predecessors, writes Peter Dunne.

Hope is probably the most powerful human emotion. So much of our lives is built around hope – for ourselves, our families, our opportunities, our futures. We live to see our hopes and those of the ones nearest and dearest to us fulfilled. Our bitterness and sadness are deepest when those hopes are dashed; our enjoyment greatest when they are achieved.

Politicians understand well the power of hope. So often, their success is related to the sense of hope they can inspire in the people they seek to serve. Their failure comes when they betray or do not satisfactorily met the level of hope voters have vested in them.

Therefore, politics is often an uneasy tension between inspiring hope and then managing the level of expectation that derives from it. The art of political success is maintaining the balance between giving people something to hope for, while achieving enough to give confidence they are at least on the road to having their hopes attained.

Dashed hopes often lead to dashed political careers. Those who encourage what cannot be achieved are quickly found out and despatched by the electorate.

Jacinda Ardern’s election campaign was high on hope (remember relentless positivity?); hope for the homeless, hope for decisive action on climate change (“my generation’s nuclear-free moment”, she described it at her campaign launch); and hope for a new sense of coming together as a modern, progressive and compassionate nation. Upon coming to office, it was accompanied by a strong expression of energy and enthusiasm which persuaded New Zealanders that new times were indeed upon us.

There have been some stunning highs and many lows since those heady days. Sadly, the Prime Minister’s greatest high came in reaction to one of our country’s greatest tragedies – the Christchurch Mosques massacre – where her response was superb, both capturing the mood of the nation and inspiring devastated people at the same time, justifiably winning plaudits at home and abroad for her efforts. Horror at what happened, honest compassion for the bereaved and suffering, and defiant hope and determination for the future, all struck a chord with a country totally shocked that such barbarism had taken place on our shores.

KiwiBuild is an abysmal joke that has dashed the hopes of many and virtually destroyed the credibility of the Minister responsible...

But there have been other (and more) times when the response has not been nearly as impressive, or sure-footed, and where the level of hope invested is not being repaid in Government actions.

Housing would be the obvious example. The hope was created that an incoming Labour-led Government would deal to New Zealand’s deep-seated housing problem with a decisiveness, clarity and vigour not possessed by any of its predecessors. KiwiBuild would see thousands more affordable homes for young New Zealand families; public housing waiting lists would be slashed by the government not selling state houses and building more; the homeless would be housed and the awful spectacle of people sleeping rough in doorways, or under bridges, would be brought to an end.

However, the reality is vastly different.

KiwiBuild is an abysmal joke that has dashed the hopes of many and virtually destroyed the credibility of the Minister responsible, while housing very few.

Public housing waiting lists are soaring, and the number of homeless people has been rising steadily and is likely to continue do so, despite the latest highly targeted cash injection announced this week. In short, housing has become an even more intractable problem during the term of the current Government. So much so, that they have now even dropped the story from their own songsheet.

As for the “nuclear-free moment” of climate change, the gap between the hope created by the rhetoric and the level of actual achievement is nearly as wide.

At the same time as the Prime Minister was announcing a $150 million package to help Pacific nations fight the impact of climate change in the Pacific, others were noting that  her Government was still approving coal mining licence applications, and that  New Zealand’s own greenhouses gas emissions are continuing to rise, especially in the road transport and fossil-fuel generated electricity production areas. Moreover, the actions taken so far to reduce emissions have been well short of what is required to meet the international targets we have signed up to. What initiatives have been taken during the life of this Government have been largely at the behest of the Green Party, with the impression of often less than wholehearted Labour support.  

On a smaller scale, is the brewing Ihumātao situation. The Prime Minister was very quick to step in, on  the eve of her departure on one of her recent overseas trips, on what is essentially a dispute between iwi and Fletchers, to give reassurance that there would be no building on the site until and unless Ministers had been able to broker a mutually satisfactory deal between the parties.

Yet, that initial activist enthusiasm has waned considerably, much to the chagrin of the occupation organisers, who clearly and reasonably assumed that a Prime Ministerial intervention actually meant something.

Disappointment has now turned to anger with the Prime Minister’s comments that the issue is not really one for the Government, and that, despite invitations, she will not be visiting the site, or holding direct discussions with the occupiers in the immediate future.

..  excuses that the problem was bigger than first imagined and that good things take time to achieve have a certain naïve credibility about them at first, which steadily descends to cynicism, and ... finally to absolute mockery.

Suggestions being made that this indifference parallels the Clark Government’s foreshore and seabed moment which led to the formation of the Maori Party at Labour’s expense are perhaps a little extreme at present, but the depth of feeling of betrayal they belie, should not be under-estimated, or ignored.

Through all these examples a consistent picture emerges of a Government that has shown much energy in building up public hopes about what changes can and should be made in key policy areas, but then has failed regularly to match the energy of that rhetoric with solid achievement.

The frequently proffered excuses that the problem was bigger than first imagined and that good things take time to achieve have a certain naïve credibility about them at first, which steadily descends to cynicism, and, as was seen with KiwiBuild, finally to absolute mockery, with a consequent dent in the government’s credibility.

And, all the while, hope, the thing people cling to longest, diminishes.

Voters are prepared to give a Government space and time to implement its policies, if they have a confidence the Government knows what it is doing. But that tolerance goes quickly if the public gains the feeling that it does not really know what it is doing, or grossly oversold its policy programme at election time.  Right now, this Government, which initially offered fresh hope in so many areas, is starting to look no different from all its predecessors.

At the same time, some have noticed that the Prime Minister seems more and more detached from the day-to-day grind of government. Increasingly, she has not “been fully briefed” on this issue or that, and is leaving detailed responses to her Ministers “who are more familiar with the issue”.

Good management, and delegation of responsibility based on high levels of trust, perhaps, but perhaps also the lure of the international stage and its adulation is, albeit subconsciously at this stage, becoming more attractive.

She would not be the first New Zealand Prime Minister to be so blinded.

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