During the State Opening of Parliament after the 2017 election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged that her administration would be a government of transformation.
31 months later, it is clear that Labour in 2020 will never be transformational.
Here are ten dead giveaways that explain why.
1. When the Budget was delivered in May, Finance Minister Grant Robertson would not say whether Labour would raise taxes if it won a second term. But Ardern said that she had no appetite to increase taxes and such a suggestion was “scaremongering.”
What? A Labour Prime Minister should be explaining that taxes are a good thing, and a progressive tax system ensures that everyone contributes according to their ability so the country can pay for essential services and infrastructure. Taxes are the reason Aotearoa has got through Covid-19: it is government spending that has kept the country afloat, not the private sector.
2. When asked about the future of colonial statues following the killing of George Floyd in the United States and the global marches and debates that have followed, Ardern said that any removal of statues was a decision for local communities.
The leader of a transformational government would have joined one of the Black Lives Matter marches in Aotearoa and used the current international focus on racism to have a discussion about colonisation. As long ago as 1973, a previous Labour government showed how transformative action is done. Then-Prime Minister Norman Kirk did not merely say that this country opposed French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. He dispatched two warships to Mururoa Atoll to bear witness to the tests and stand up for the rights of small nations. And Cabinet Minister Fraser Coleman sailed on one of the ships.
3. The Government when it took office pledged to tackle child poverty.
A transformational government would aim to abolish poverty. Advocates and governments choose to focus on child poverty rather than poverty as a whole, because child poverty is regarded as the unacceptable face of poverty. In recent decades we have developed highly negative attitudes to those in economic deprivation, essentially blaming them for their own misfortunes. We need to get rid of those judgmental attitudes, not try to circumvent them by focusing only on children in need.
4. Progress on paying contracted workers in the public service a Living Wage has stalled, as have Fair Pay Agreements and better protections for contractors. Labour hire and other companies continue to circumvent employment laws and deprive workers of employment protections by wrongly labelling them as contractors instead of employees.
No workers should be paid less than enough to live on.
5. Arden has adamantly refused to visit Ihumātao.
Just go there.
6. At Labour’s election campaign launch in 2017, Ardern described climate change as her generation’s nuclear-free moment.
Since then, there has been no real progress on tackling climate change and there is no indication that the billions the Government will spend on promoting economic recovery from Covid-19 will also be used to mitigate climate harm. The Government’s freshwater reforms have been so watered-down as to be ineffective.
7. The police between October and April trialled Armed Response Teams in three locations around the country. Routine arming of the police would be a massive change in Aotearoa and was plainly not a decision for the police alone to make. But both Ardern and Robertson described the issue as an “operational” matter.
Ministers always describe decisions as operational when they want to wash their hands of controversy. The Government should have publicly told the police that routine arming was not to happen in Aotearoa.
8. Labour has never renounced neoliberal economics, as epitomised by Labour and the Greens committing to Budget Responsibility Rules before the 2017 election and by Labour’s attitude to government debt.
A government budget is fundamentally different from a household budget and running the former as though it is analogous to the latter simply ties an administration’s hands and prevents it from making real – and needed – change. A transformational aim would be full employment – not accepting that the four per cent level which this country was sitting at prior to Covid-19 is as good as it gets. During the 30 years between 1946 and 1976, unemployment in Aotearoa was one per cent.
9. Aotearoa has for almost three decades deliberately set benefit levels at amounts too low to live on. Listening to Labour Minister for Social Development Carmel Sepuloni seeking to justify keeping many of our most vulnerable citizens in grinding poverty is just an awful experience – as are her attempted justifications for paying people on post-Covid-19 benefits twice as much as those who lost their jobs earlier.
There is no sign Labour will lift benefits to liveable levels.
10. Labour is currently seeking to attack National’s new leadership by saying that it is no longer the party of former Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English.
That implies that Labour believes there was something to admire about those leaders. This is a truly bizarre line from Labour. Key ran an essentially caretaker administration bereft of values and vision and focused solely on remaining in power. Labour should not be holding that up as anything to admire or emulate.
Ardern has been Prime Minister for more than two-and-a-half years, but we still have no idea what cause or policy she would die in a ditch for. What issue matters so much to her and Labour that neither would ever compromise on it ?
So far what we have seen is a series of frayed ambitions, but time is now running out for better outcomes.
The international praise heaped on Ardern shows that the world is hungry for inspirational, transformational government.
Looking forward, I couldn’t hope more that I will be proved wrong about Labour’s lack of transformation.
Cat MacLennan is a journalist, lawyer and researcher