Fast fixes, enemies and the politics of the future

[This is as originally drafted. A correction to the first few paragraphs appears at the bottom of the 10 November column.]

Suddenly last week Steven Joyce announced a geotechnical investigation for a harbour upgrade at Opotiki to service an aquaculture venture. For years the government has stayed aloof. Why the shift?

Small, distant Opotiki has innovatively addressed social issues and business potential. Business, the community and iwi got up the aquaculture project. Mayor John Forbes’s council backed it. Most of the consents it needs have long been in place.

To develop the harbour needs government backing. The potential return: for the country a big export business and for the area less crime and welfare and more prosperity.

No go. Until now.

“Now” is seven months after Winston Peters trounced National in the Northland by-election and National realised grumpy provinces are not good for its fourth-term bid.

To repair this damage Joyce’s officials have been rustling up regional “action plans”. These pick projects and activities — winners? — for ministers to back with attendant publicity. Joyce called the Opotiki project “exciting”.

More damage for National lurks in climate change policy. The cabinet has seen it as cost which might damage business and farmers.

But a widening range of businesses, with investment horizons well beyond the next election, can see a real carbon price coming and need to plan. That was demonstrated last month by Business New Zealand’s energy study and at the Environmental Defence Society’s conference.

Cabinet missteps open space for Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First. Fixing missteps looks reactive, not proactive. Too many fast-fixes and, come 2017, National may no longer be seen as the future party as it was in 2008, 2011 and 2014.

National isn’t the only party with that risk. The question underneath this coming weekend’s Labour party conference will be whether it (with the Greens) is the future.

Many in Labour would follow British Labour, which has chosen a leader who evokes the 1970s-80s. That is reactionary — yearning to restore a lost past — not progressive — foreshadowing a sustainable future.

Reconfirming Annette King, a cabinet minister as early as 1989-90, as deputy leader, though she is by far the youngest 68-year-old I know, is not an obvious leap into the future.

Andrew Little is only a sliver younger than John Key and Bill English.

But Little grasped that the core Labour issue for the next 10 years will be how “work” changes. His “commission” under Grant Robertson (43) is exploring how to apply core Labour principles in this emerging world.

Most key MPs on that project are under 45 and three under 40, including Chris Hipkins, who is rethinking education away from specific “knowledge” — most teachers’ expertise and National’s “standards” focus — to broader skills such as creativity, innovation, teamwork and problem-solving.

Hipkins, recently in the United States, Britain and Finland, reckons half today’s jobs will have gone in 10 years. People will need to be more adaptable.

Hipkins also says policy language must change: from a consumption objective to societal fairness; from treating tax as a levy from which the taxpayer can expect specific services to a general funding of social goods.

“Social democracy” has to be recalibrated to fit Hipkins’ new world. And that must be done alongside leading a constructive relationship with the Greens.

For that Labour needs unity, which the commentariat doubts but insiders emphatically insist is genuine under Little and chief of staff Matt McCarten. There is debate, insiders say, but not disparate objectives or power-seeking personalities.

And insiders are adamant that if they are to produce future policy and not fast fixes (remember Little’s fast-fix ditching of some 2014 policies), they need to read, think and consult deeply and widely. That means at most a “direction of travel” early next year and policy a year away.

Outsiders are taking increasing interest. There are more invitations from and conversations with people not normally Labour-huggers. One recent example for Robertson: accountants. Will there be accountants in 2025?

There is another issue.

In the wake of the Liberals’ big win in Canada, former leader Michael Ignatieff called it a win for the politics of adversaries over the politics of enemies.

Adversaries can potentially rub along after their contest, Ignatieff wrote. Enemies aim to destroy, treating politics as war. He said defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper had run the politics of enemies.

Harper mate Key has mostly run the politics of adversaries. But every now and then he and some ministers cross the line into enmity. Little’s public anger also at times goes close to that line.

The lesson: if Labour is to be a genuine future party, it needs not only future policy but a demeanour that encourages citizens to believe it (and, unavoidably, the Greens) will build a broadly acceptable foundation for that future.

In 1935 Labour had both elements in place. In 1984 it had only the policy element. In 2017?