Appropriating middle ground political language

“Balance” is a useful political word. It says a policy is evenhanded, moderate and reaches across a fair swathe of the electorate.

The National party used to have a mortgage on “balance”. Not any more.

National also used to have a mortgage on its claim to be “national” in reach, appeal and membership — acting on behalf of the whole nation. Labour, dominated by unions’ card votes, was sectional, the tool of the unions, National said.

Now Labour celebrities “diversity”, denoting representation of many communities, ethnic, sexual , economic (though Labour is light in business owners). Conference delegates this weekend past were a living illustration. Labour paints National as sectional: tax cuts for the well off, labour laws to suit employers, planning laws to suit developers.

“Balance” peppered Helen Clark’s keynote conference speech on Saturday: balancing the claims of different interest groups, balancing competing policy influences, balancing reform and status quo.

“Balance” will be the theme this week when the Foreshore and Seabed Bill takes its next steps: a balance of customary rights, to enjoy the beaches and fishing from the rocks and to exercise Maori rights of use from time immemorial.

Labour will say it is a uniting bill. Winston Peters will say something similar, having spotted an opening to claim the national reach once commanded by the party he left in 1992 (and to claim some of the centrist ground United Future thought it had a mortgage on).

“Balance” is also at the heart of Labour’s economic policy. It is much used by Peter Harris, a former economic adviser to the Council of Trade Unions and then Michael Cullen, in a discussion paper that has been circulating in the party.

Harris’s paper is a clear exposition of modern social democratic economic theory. Unsurprisingly, it closely accords with Cullen’s own approach.

Harris asserts as a fundamental principle that “the individual is valued, individuality is respected and personal choice is encouraged and supported” — notions you would normally associate with National. But he adds some balancing principles National does not assert vigorously: “equality of opportunity” and “a fair share of the collective efforts of society”.

Harris is “unashamedly” for a growing economy because it enhances “the capacity of the individual to expand personal choice and opportunity” — and that requires tax to be held to a level that leaves “enough of their market earnings � under individuals’ control” to enable them to control their own lves. Redistributing too much “can deliver more now for less later”, though governments should also not “hoard”.

Lest that last point be taken as criticism of Cullen’s surpluses, Harris warns against tax cuts and spending in good times that lead to deficits in bad times, as in the 1970s. He wants a balance between being too debt-averse (which can lead to underinvestment in infrastructure and skills) and taking on too much debt and so lumbering the government with high interest costs.

And so he goes on: respect property rights but not so their exercise pollutes or endangers safety or tramples customary rights; balance the distribution of risk between individuals and the government; balance market power and “trustee and stewardship arrangements”; balance the needs of family and a cohesive society with the needs of the firm and so get more productive workers.

There is much more in this closely argued and internally consistent paper. It is valuable reading for anyone trying to figure where Cullen is headed.

Most of the economists we usually hear from, those in the banks, would likely chafe at the emphasis on “balance”. But it would likely resonate with non-economists. And the vast majority of voters are not bank economists. Harris’s economics is the sort that makes good politics in middle New Zealand.

That is to say, it marks out political middle ground for Labour on the economy. And it is on that ground, not in the textbooks, that elections are won.

But Labour is not resting in the middle ground. It is starting to push salients into National’s territory — for the moment unguarded while Don Brash and the centrists argue. “Work”, a Katherine Rich welfare focus, was the conference theme. Slipped into Clark’s speech was a section on asset ownership.

This was no accident. Encouraging not-so-well-off people to build a property and financial asset base — to become owners — is a conscious new Labour focus. Harris’s tax-based long-term savings scheme, proposed recently, is one. David Skilling’s work at the New Zealand Institute has won Clark’s attention.

Hey, “owners” are supposed to be National. But that is the point. Labour is appropriating some commanding political language.

If National wants to know what this might portend, it should study opposition Labour during Sir Keith Holyoake’s long rule in the 1960s when “balance” and “standing for all the people” and “the ownership society” were National political assets.