Here are two potential killers of this government (besides the Maori party which is dividing part of Labour’s core vote).
The first of these two other killers is “political correctness” — “PC”.
Of course, what is politically correct or, more accurately, politically incorrect, is in the eye of the beholder. The trick is to get your opponent seen as offside with majority values and too closely aligned to minority values — that is, correct about values the majority doesn’t care for.
In the inverted jargon of wedge politics, which the National party is playing to the hilt, that is PC. “PC” was on nearly every speaker’s lips at National’s conference at the weekend.
The Civil Union Bill is PC. It aligns Labour in the public debate and the public mind with homosexuals — not just in tolerance, which is the firm majority attitude these days, but in actively promoting homosexuals’ interests.
Civil unions probably have majority support and National leader Don Brash, a confirmed liberal on such matters (he also voted for the Prostitution Reform Act) is a supporter. But Labour cannot expect the bill to win it over any more votes than it already has, whereas some of its core voters will be among the bill’s opponents.
So the bill is a net loss of votes for Labour. But more important than that single cost in votes is the reputational cost: it adds credence to National’s assertion that generally Labour is too PC — out of step.
National, for example, also paints Labour as excessively and punitively anti-smoking, too deferential to Maori and their spiritual and cultural values, too indulgent of greenies and other vexatious blockers of development, too soft on criminals, too cosy with teachers unions at the expense of parents and children, too easygoing on longstay beneficiaries — too willing to express what Katherine Rich and Bill English (aping George Bush in 2000) termed at the conference a “soft bigotry of low expectations”.
None of this is as black and white as National is painting it but any shade of grey on the darker side of the median point will do.
Labour has tried to blunt this drive. Phil Goff has toughened penal policy quite a bit. Trevor Mallard is supposed to be rooting out “race-based funding”. Steve Maharey has been closing down the worst examples of funding strange activities in the name of social entrepreneurship and employment promotion.
But they are reactions. They leave National with the initiative. And they may also be too late, only 14 months at most from the next election, to penetrate enough into the public consciousness to blunt the plausibility of National’s criticisms.
Whatever Paul Swain does to the Employment Relations Law Reform Bill, for example, business is likely to go on believing the worst or fearing more to come from a re-elected Labour government. Likewise with David Benson-Pope’s adjustments to the Resource Management Act.
Maharey’s shift of wefare emphasis from simple income support to getting beneficiaries’ primary focus on preparing for or getting work is unlikely to neutralise Rich’s work-first focus in her emerging welfare policy, even though Ministry of Social Development officials insist the work focus is contributing to reducing unemployment numbers and the looming simplification of the benefit system should remedy Rich’s complaint that Work and Income staff spend only 30 per cent of their time trying to get beneficiaries into work and 70 per cent working out applicants’ entitlements.
Trevor Mallard has for several years been working on two prime focuses of National’s emerging education policy: literacy and numeracy; and getting teachers to believe they can make a learning difference to kids in low socioeconomic areas, particularly areas with high percentages of Maori and Pacific islanders.
Pete Hodgson has got a huge dollop of money for roads for Auckland after years of underfunding going well back into the era of the 1990s National-led governments. He has also begun to deal with the shortage of fuel for electricity generation and of generating plants and overdue transmission line upgrades, which all risk future blackouts and brownouts.
But not much of this — nor of much else that the government has under way — will impinge greatly, if at all, on voters’ consciousness before next year’s election. That is in part because the problems are deep-seated and in part because the government has been slow to address them and is only now, after five years in office, starting to get momentum.
So National may well be able plausibly to run its criticisms as if the government has not moved or maybe even made things worse. Only if Labour gets a third term might its belated second-term efforts neutralise those attacks.
But is a third term likely?
On the one hand, too PC for many; on the other, not much to show across a swathe of policy and issues on which it is vulnerable to a revived National party: this is a government at real risk of stopping dead at two terms.