It’s not enough to be the party of bright ideas

The gloss seems to quickly come off every big announcement this Government makes -  and to win the next election it will need to stop a public perception that it is 'all talk' becoming entrenched

Labour's recent conference seemed to tick all the boxes. The party appeared not only united, but enthusiastic and energetic; an impressive new president was elected with a minimum of fuss; the Prime Minister's education spending announcement; and, the promise of a bigger infrastructure spending announcement to come before Christmas, were all well received.

The elephants in the room of the party’s appalling handling of sexual abuse allegations involving staff in the Prime Minister's office, and the constantly recalcitrant approach of its coalition partner, New Zealand First, barely rated a mention, at least in any of the public sessions.

All in all, it was a positive weekend for the lead party of government. However, any residual hype would have been surely blown away by Monday's revelation of yet another privacy breach, this time involving personal data collected by the Police, including names, addresses, bank account details, of those participating in the weapons buyback scheme.

This is arguably amongst the most serious of all the data breaches of recent years, given the nature of the information disclosed, and the fact that it had been the Police, of all agencies, that had the responsibility for the collection and secure holding of this information.

After all, if the Police cannot be trusted to hold personal information securely, who can be?

Once again, the Government has been left in the position of having to explain why one of its flagship policies has gone awry. Just like KiwiBuild, just like the capital gains tax. Or the year of delivery that has not been.

All bright ideas, where either the follow-up has been lacking, or where all the details were not properly nailed down before implementation.

... as the most recent polling shows, it has a problem

The weapons buyback initiative was a bold, positive and generally welcome move in the wake of the Christchurch mosque killings, but now it and the accompanying online weapons register are in danger of falling over because of the data breach.

Like KiwiBuild, if you believe the Police Minister, it also has been everyone else's fault. He has even offered the fatuous explanation that those who have accessed the information are breaking the law. And the Prime Minister says the blame lies with the private sector company developing the system, and certainly not the government or the Minister.

It is all so much of a far cry from the dizzy heights of the weekend in Whanganui. However, generally speaking, party conferences are of little real relevance to the general public, unless things go wrong.

They are expected to be the highly stage-managed events they have become over the last couple of decades, and, consequently, pass by largely unnoticed. The only ones people remember are those where there was blood on the floor.

Where party conferences do matter is that they are the one big opportunity each year when a party, through its political and administrative leadership, can engage directly with its members.

Conferences are an opportunity to enthuse and encourage the party loyalists, especially in the lead up to an election, and a chance for delegates to rub shoulders with their political leaders. Beyond that, they count for very little.

Labour well knows that the public judgment come election time will be on the Government’s performance, not the passing enthusiasms of its annual conference.

And here is where, as the most recent polling shows, it has a problem. The perception that this is a Government which talks extremely big, but delivers very little, appears to be entrenching. And once a public perception solidifies, it is very difficult to shift.

To head off this, and the separate but mounting criticism that it should be spending some of the record Budget surpluses it is accumulating, Labour made two bold, but rushed, announcements at its conference.

The first was from the Finance Minister that when the HYEFU (the Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update) is announced alongside the Budget Policy Statement there will also be a significant accompanying announcement about a substantial boost in infrastructure expenditure.

When challenged as to why this announcement was being so boldly foreshadowed at the Labour Party conference, the Minister brushed questions aside, correctly pointing out the release of the Budget Policy Statement (effectively, the Government’s blueprint for next year’s Budget) was the proper time to release such information, further begging the question of why it therefore had to pre-announced at the conference.

The only reasonable conclusion is that it was designed to give an impression of urgency and determination on the Government’s part, even if not much is going to change in the short term.

Once again, the gloss was coming off, almost while the Government was still burnishing it.

The second announcement, from the Prime Minister, of a one-off boost to state school funding of $400 million is many senses classic of this Government. A bold announcement, simple in concept and breathtaking in its sweep, that seeks to capture the public imagination – just like the promise of 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years under KiwiBuild, or the world’s most comprehensive automatic weapons buyback scheme in the wake of the Christchurch atrocity.

As with both of those, the devil was in the detail of the schools’ funding package. Within 24 hours, it had become clear that the bold sweep was not all state schools, but all state schools minus integrated schools, and that the package did nothing to address funding inequalities between schools.

Once again, the gloss was coming off, almost while the Government was still burnishing it. Although the Prime Minister once proclaimed 2019 to be the Government’s “Year of Delivery”, for most people it has become the year of missed opportunities.

Yet, for much of the time, Labour (and the Government in general) have been able to bask in the reality that despite everything, people still thought they were better than the National Party.  

However, the controversial nature of some of its policy pronouncements notwithstanding, there have been distinct signs over recent weeks that National is at last starting to get its game together and show some discipline and focus.

And with ACT climbing off the electoral floor, it is starting to dawn on Labour that the previously inconceivable notion of a National-led Government, supported by ACT, is at least a possibility.

The 2020 election is but nine to twelve months away. There is still plenty of time for it to be won or lost by either side of politics.

The hype and adulation of its conference notwithstanding, Labour knows that it is public perception which will determine its fate. If the perception that this is a Government which talks extremely big, but is struggling to deliver becomes locked in, it will be very difficult to prevail against a resurgent National.

But if people start to see the Government has been following a coherent plan which is working after all, the contest will be much more winnable.

Normally, party leaders fire up their conferences by promising “we WILL win the next election.” Interestingly, the Prime Minister’s closing promise to the Labour conference was only “we CAN win the next election.”

As 2020 approaches, she clearly knows that for her party and Government, there is still everything to play for. 

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