Dribble politics: quenching policy hotspots

It’s the third term, for sure. Last week Michael Woodhouse dribbled some policy coolant on a political hotspot: hot immigration numbers. Judith Collins tried the same on police numbers.

Teeming immigration has nicely swelled economic growth statistics, which boost re-election chances in 2017.

But it has also kept wages low in some sectors through liberal issuance of holiday and temporary work visas, has contributed to careering house prices and added to the strain on underfunded health, education and social support services, not least for parents brought in to reunify families.

It is tainted by employment scams that demean our decent national reputation and is encouraging some tertiary students who come to qualify for residence to get diplomas, not degrees.

In short, immigration is now a warming political negative. Even the Greens joined in last week, to Winston Peters’ scorn.

So, the political quencher has come out.

When Andrew Little promised 1000 more police in response to rising political temperature over crime solving, Collins (fresh from telling children there was ample cash to provide all their necessities if their parents were real parents) dribbled a vague promise of more. (Let’s guess 500.)

Collins’ political problem: population numbers pumped up by Woodhouse’s immigration have pushed down the ratio of police to population.

That slippage also was in part the result of Bill English’s “more with less” budgeting which this term has been sliding into “less with less” across social services. Hence the partial catchup in the 2016 budget, with more signalled for the 2017 one.

English applied the same more-with-less to national superannuation. He is still pushing out to some undefined future date resumption of contributions to the Cullen fund.

The super crunch will not come until the 2020s, so for now vague reassurances are a safe policy dribble. (Actually, the fund would, until recently, have returned more than the cost of borrowing to fund contributions.)

Another safe dribble is John Key’s trailing of tax cuts, to come either in the 2017 budget or as an election gambit.

Cuts of the size Key has mused on would just undo fiscal drag since the 2010 cuts — that is, they would not be cuts at all. But his dribble is a thirst-quencher to the many voters who prefer personal tax cuts to more spending on others.

And Key and English are on National message: lower tax is an article of National ideological faith.

Ideology is one of the three foundations of any government’s policy. Labour for a century has backed better working conditions and wages, the Greens genuflect to nature, New Zealand First wants our borders more resistant to foreign influence, the Maori party sticks by article 2, ACT trumpets smaller government and Peter Dunne spoons a middling mix of social and civil liberalism.

A second foundation for policy is a technocratic or innovative response, devised by “experts” with ministers, to fix a “problem”. “Social investment” is one.

The third is the policy dribble.

Take poverty. Leave aside Key’s abuse last week of opposition MPs for “dodgy numbers”, which are numbers other than those he likes.

Key used to insist he wanted his legacy to be what he does for disadvantaged children. He declared child poverty his third-term focus. Assessed by missing necessities in a child’s life, the numbers are still sad.

That deprivation and rising numbers of “homeless”, as social not-for-profits measure them, discomfort moderate conservatives (National’s core constituency) because it doesn’t fit their idea of their nation. Key himself is said to have got angry with frustration at ministers a few months back. He did not dismiss the Labour-Greens-Maori party homeless report.

Hence Paula Bennett has dropped dribble after dribble of social housing coolants. (Next from her, climate change?) Hence, in part, the Ministry for Vulnerable Children. Hence a Housing Corporation strapped for cash. Hence in last year’s budget a welfare benefit rise of up to $25 a week.

Wild house prices were not a worry to Key until recently because house owners were flush. But now some flush National voters have to fork out a couple of hundred grand for an offspring’s deposit.

And Bill English has been converted to a soft version of Labour’s state-financed Kiwibuild, which in 2013 he called “the back end of Moscow”.

A policy dribble does not of itself extinguish a hotspot’s ignition source. But it can dampen the political embers and quench qualms.

Any discomforted actual or potential National voters can take comfort that ministers are doing something.

Third terms usually generate more such discomforts than earlier terms. So get out your political umbrella. There will be more dribbles.

* One who didn’t do dribble politics died on Friday. Helen Kelly developed innovative union responses to difficult changes in political, social and workplace conditions. Peters got it right when he said she had earned a place in “our national story”.