Armstrong on Tricky

John Armstrong writes:

In what is ominously but obviously quickly becoming a year-long de facto election campaign, you can guarantee National will try to drum one particular message into voters’ brains.

National will make considerable effort to permanently typecast David Cunliffe as a politician who cannot be trusted.

Such a strategy would have been a complete waste of time were the mild-mannered David Shearer still ’s leader.

It is equally unlikely to have had much effect had it been applied to Phil Goff, someone who commanded respect, if not popularity.

But voters know little about Cunliffe. They may have watched his brazen undermining of Shearer’s leadership at Labour’s annual conference in 2012. They may have heard his disingenuous-sounding denials that he was fomenting trouble.

And they may have noted that the policies he pushed in the leadership primary, are not quite the same ones he is now pushing.

Something was missing, however, from the explanatory paperwork handed out to journalists covering the policy’s launch in west Auckland.

The material made no mention of the policy’s stipulation that those qualifying for the $60-a-week “baby bonus” would not get any money until their household’s eligibility for paid parental leave had been exhausted.

As Labour intends to expand paid parental leave from the current 14 weeks to 26 weeks, Cunliffe’s assertion in his speech notes that “all” families eligible for Best Start would get the weekly $60 payment “for the first year of their child’s life” did not tell the whole story.

Cunliffe subsequently blamed a speech-writer for the wording. And – to be fair – the policy and the conditions governing the varying amounts of cash to be paid to families during the up to three years that their child might qualify for assistance were mostly spelled out in detail on Labour’s website.

Mostly. There was scant mention of Labour’s intention to abolish the parental tax credit to help fund the new policy.

That tax credit is worth up to $150 a week for some families, and covers the first eight weeks of a baby’s life. That is equivalent to 20 weeks on Labour’s new scheme.

There is further evidence Labour’s scheme is not as generous as it might appear at first glance.

The first income-tested payment for 1-year-olds will not occur until April 2017 – more than three years away. Meanwhile, Labour has quietly canned its 2011 policy to pay the $60-a-week in-work tax credit to beneficiaries.

Labour has done itself no favours by failing to be totally upfront about its intentions. Reporters at the policy launch should have been able to rely on the information given to them. They will be asking whether the absence of important facts was a genuine mistake or an accidental omission on Labour’s part, or whether they were being deliberately kept in the dark in an attempt to increase the chances of uncritical coverage of the baby bonus.

Buying a fight with the media is not the smartest way to kick off election year.

What Labour should have done is provide tables showing the net changes for different families. Instead they provided tables only showing the gains, but not the losses, providing a misleading impression.

Labour’s rhetoric has noticeably toughened under Cunliffe – and for one reason.

There seems to be no mood in the electorate for a change of government. Without such a mood, Labour – which anyway does not look ready to govern – and the Greens – who do have their act together – have to manufacture one.

Like the manufactured crisis in manufacturing!

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