A year that could be pivotal

Last June the Appeal Court kicked sand in beach-lovers’ faces. This is the year Helen Clark and Michael Cullen have to make the peace down on the foreshore.

If they fail, expect a lot of splashing around as protagonists for and antagonists against Maori rights make their points. But if Clark and Cullen do solve the foreshore/seabed puzzle, that might prove to be a pivot around which the Treaty of Waitangi will turn.

For 30 years the Treaty has gone in just one direction. It has operated to recognise Maori claims: some to redress longstanding injustices, some for ownership or control of resources, some for control by iwi, hapu or whanau over the education, health care and welfare assistance for Maori, some for participation in decision-making.

A year ago taniwha were holding up highways and sending talkbackland into high dudgeon. This year the dudgeon is more likely to be on the Maori side as the foreshore/seabed legislation works its way through the House under threat of opposition from two Maori Labour MPs — which would kill it if the Greens, National, ACT and New Zealand First stick to opposing it.

A year ago senior ministers were muttering to each other that some boundaries needed to be set to the Treaty and indigenous rights claims. Oil and gas ownership was ruled out last year. So was ownership of Tangaroa’s domain (the seabed).

The government is also trying to shift the focus from grievance and failure to opportunity — and to coopt younger, better-educated Maori in that quest. Maori Affairs Ministers Parekura Horomia and John Tamihere, for example, are both saying they want such people, not the old warhorses, to set the tone at a hui taumata on the Maori economy and Maori in the economy. That would be an important marker of change.

But even if this year does turn out with hindsight to be a pivot in Maori development and the Treaty, we will not know for a good long while. Tamihere reckons we are doing the “hard yards of building a nation”. With our heads down and tails up, it is not easy to see where the hard yards are taking us. All we can see is the road.

But you would not say that of the government’s policy direction.

There is not what most would call a “vision”: only a three-year-old “growth and innovation framework” which is now being reworked to get more focus on productivity growth. And when that reworking is done, you are not likely to notice. Though the government knows it needs a faster growing economy to make good its social, environmental and cultural ambitions, it has so far proved incapable of wrapping it in an inspirational, or aspirational, message that brings the nation in behind.

But there is a discernible policy direction — and this year might just be the year in which Labour (and its close ally, the Progressives) reach the point beyond which a future National government would find it very difficult to reverse. In the sense of Labour defining the parameters of political debate for this decade, 2004 might also turn out in retrospect to be a pivotal year, the year that decisively puts the 1990s behind us.

Steve Maharey’s massive rejig of the benefit system, due to hog much of the new spending in the Budget in May, is one marker. Maharey aims to simplify the benefit system and to improve tax credits and other assistance, including housing, for low-to -middle-income families.

Annette King’s primary health organisations are another. This year will get them to the point where to dismantle them would cause a big, and probably publicly unwelcome, upheaval.

Pete Hodgson’s relentless march to Kyoto and carbon taxes is a third. Coming up this year, among other conservationist initiatives, is an oceans policy and passing of the far-reaching Marine Reserves Bill.

Margaret Wilson’s Supreme Court, which came into being on Thursday, is a fourth marker: a step in the winding road towards an eventual republic. But no more such steps are likely this year, or before the 2005 election.

And Wilson’s “fine-tuning” of the Employment Relations Act is a fifth marker. It is a significant step on from the original 2000 act down a path intended to reinvigorate collective action in the workplace.

Along with the foreshore bill, hers is likely to be high in controversy. And her pay equity taskforce may raise the temperature a little further.

So, too, a civil union bill, due in February, will be controversial. This is another milestone on the road of social liberalism — or, as opponents put it, political correctness. You may not smoke in bars any more. Prostitutes may ply a legal trade. Families are officially recognised in law as all sorts.

The civil union bill is to put long-run same-sex living-together arrangements on a similar footing with conventional man-woman marriages. It will be the last major such bill this parliamentary term, though Georgina Beyer has permission from the Labour caucus to put a bill into the members ballot seeking to outlaw gender discrimination.

These bills illustrate this government’s style. It is to take a bite at a time from the social democratic cherry: some this term, some next term, some the term after next, all the while keeping the majority together, soothing them with foreshortened ambitions which flower again after the election.

If Labour stays in office long enough, New Zealand will be a different place from the one it inherited in 1999, more like a pale version of 1970s Sweden than 1999’s pale version of the United States. That is the policy direction, focused on social, environmental and cultural issues.

But will Labour stay in office long enough? It is certainly competent. It has so far ably handled the unexpected, the acid test for governments. It has an enormous lead in opinion polls over National, enough 18-21 months from election day to give confidence of a third term (and engender a cockiness verging at times on arrogance).

But there are small warning signs. The average poll lead of the four parties in or supporting the government over the three opposition parties nearly halved between June and December, from around 25 per cent to around 14 per cent.

That is still comfortable but it might not take too much to halve it again — the economy coming off the boil if, for example, the international recovery hesitates; the foreshore legislation going bad; or some unpredicted shock or trouble in the parliamentary grouping around the government.

There is room for tension. The Clark-Cullen government’s direction is not one that, for the most part, its main support-party would approve. United Future’s conservative MPs did not come into Parliament to strengthen unions, ban smoking, legalise prostitution, inexorably raise taxes. There is much they disagree with in Labour ‘s programme.

This year, therefore, will not be an easy one for United Future, especially if its poll ratings remain in the 2-4 per cent range. It is unlikely to fly apart — Peter Dunne’s “stability first and foremost” formula should see the year out — but if it cannot go into 2005 with its image cleaned of Labour mud it may be less inclined to promise voters another term supporting Labour after 2005.

Labour could still count on the Greens but would rather not. Too much dependence on the Greens would open up ground for National in the centre. To repaint New Zealand eventually, term by term, as a pale 1970s Sweden, Labour needs to come out of 2004 positioned for a strong government after 2005.

In that sense, too, this year may well be pivotal.

It could be pivotal for the Greens, too. They have dropped a couple of points in the polls since genetic modification (GM) came off the boil with the lifting of the moratorium in October. They might sporadically be able to cash in on GM as applications are dealt with but otherwise they will have to work hard to get attention for issues on which they can pitch beyond their core vote which is probably at most 5 per cent.

Small school closures and the diversion of the lower Waitaki River for hydro-electric generation in Project Aqua are possible issues for Greens to score off.

But in reaching out for a broader electorate, the Greens transgress an iron rule of politics in this country: no doctrine. The Greens would call their positioning principled but to most voters it comes out like doctrine.

Which is ACT’s problem. ACT stands for the 1990s deregulatory economic doctrine, which the majority of voters have rejected over several elections. As policy, deregulation delivered a much more resilient economy, on which Labour has thrived. As doctrine it is minority politics.

ACT has tried to reposition itself as “classical liberal”. But last year it was dogged by scandal. Digging itself out of that hole will be its prime task this year.

And it doesn’t help that National has hip-hopped across into ACT’s doctrinal territory. Don Brash is the 1990s doctrine personified.

His election as leader has made party faithful and backers feel better. The party machine outside Parliament is doing some interesting things: 68 have enrolled in its candidates training college, for example, and it will soon announce an initiative to revitalise the party at grassroots.

But Brash has a big job ahead of him to convert the electorate. This may well be make-or-break year to demonstrate that in due course his he can be a 40 per cent-plus leader. For that he needs a wider span of policy knowledge, especially on social and environmental issues and bucketloads more nous about politics. It is too early to tell but if, come September, National is below or not much above 30 per cent, leadership talk will likely resurface.

And Brash has a big problem. While the economy rolls along nicely (even if on a frightening mountain of debt), the point of difference he is most fitted to draw with Labour, the economic one, is inoperative, especially if tainted with what most voters see as doctrine.

Meanwhile, Winston Peters is more experienced, more skilled and more extravagant at drawing the operative differences with Labour, those on law and order and “one New Zealand” issues. He is unconstrained by the need to build a 40 per cent constituency. On his territory it is no contest with National.

And Peters is on a roll. Party membership is up and in a good mood. He is playing both sides of the foreshore issue. Though migration is easing, there is still plenty of blood to be got out of that political vein this year.

Contrast that with three years ago, when voters scarcely heard a word from him and the poll ratings were negligible. If he can hold his act together, New Zealand First could head out of 2004 into election year in very good shape.

But still as an opposition party. And opposing a competent government that so far has not got too far out of line with public opinion and sees it as important not to. We may need to go back to the early Holyoake years of the 1960s for a comparison.

It is also a busy government. High on the list are three major infrastructure issues: roads, with electronic road pricing (satellite tolling) on this year’s work programme; energy, notably to ensure electricity supplies in the event of yet another dry year this year and to move along the discovery and development of new gas supplies (with regulation waiting in the wings for the distribution industry if it can’t come up with a self-regulating plan); and development of a new mechanism for allocating water as it starts to become scarce.

That last is tied up with Project Aqua, for which the government is legislating a separate process that will produce a water allocation plan for South Canterbury and the Waitaki River catchment and then deal with Project Aqua’s water claim against irrigation claims in South Canterbury and on the lower Waitaki and recreational and conservation claims. A “think big” amendment to the Resource Management Act follows.

Across the water there is Australia. Tension in the relationship erupted over the Solomon Islands and simmers away. A leadership forum, led by the two foreign ministers, will meet to try to improve and deepen mutual understanding.

Beyond Australia there are free trade or closer economic relationship negotiations in train or in active contemplation with Chile, Thailand and China.

And also related to water is the much delayed aquaculture rejig. Which brings us back to where we came in, down by the foreshore. Enjoy the sun.