Historically in New Zealand politics, the Labour Party has liked to think of itself as the party of progressive, even radical, social change.
Conversely, it is sometimes claimed National is the traditional party of conservatism – the party that manages the status quo; that builds on social changes already made.
Whatever the truth of these claims, today’s political situation differs markedly from these perceptions. National and Labour’s traditional roles have reversed.
Labour is now the real conservative party – fearful of innovative social policy, afraid of new ideas – in short, the party which says “No” to everything.
This is so true.
National has been driving a quiet revolution in the state services, getting government departments to focus on results from the better public services programme.
This is having demonstrably good outcomes, as the regular target reports show: a 38% reduction in youth crime since 2011, a 40% drop in the number of teenage solo parents on a benefit since 2011 and immunisation rates for Maori which are now as high as the rest of the population.
Between 2003 and 2008, government spending jumped 50% but there were little to no improvements in social services, as the Salvation Army noted in its State of the Nation report at the time.
Labour are good at spending, but not good in results.
The government is transforming the welfare system toward one designed around an investment and liability prism. Rather than taking a traditional year-on-year cash view, the Ministry of Social Development looks at the lifetime costs of its clients.
This creates the opportunity to spend more today to get a better long-term outcome for individuals and households. This is leading to profound changes in government policy toward people receiving welfare and other government support.
This is encouraging the government to invest in people, particularly the young, and to do it early. This social investment approach is about targeted, evidence-based investment to secure better long-term results.
So spend more in areas where it will save you more in the long-term, and spend less in areas where little is achieved.
Labour’s response to social policy
The first response is often silence. The party has nothing to say about the social investment approach to policy, nothing to say about better public services targets and little to say about Whanau Ora.
You won’t find many press releases from Labour on these important social reforms, or many Parliamentary questions. It’s almost as if it’s too difficult for its MPs to engage with the issues.
If Labour does have something to say, it often reverts to tired and trite clichés. A favourite is to call the government “neo-liberal” – the social democratic politician’s favourite term of abuse for centre-right governments.
Labour’s response to a recent Productivity Commission report about social services was to wail about the government introducing “vouchers” in social services. The party seemed blissfully unaware that “vouchers” (which simply means funding following people when choosing services) are all around us already – in early childhood education, in tertiary education and so on.
Vouchers is what the left call choice.
On the new social impact bonds, Labour wailed about people “profiting” from social services. Profit already exists throughout social services.
As Eric Crampton of The New Zealand Initiative has pointed out, private hospitals profit by providing publicly funded surgery, private pharmacies profit by filling Pharmac scripts and private medical device manufacturers profit by developing better replacement hips for publicly and privately-funded operations.
Do Labour want to nationalise all pharmacies, all GPs, all midwives?
Overall, Labour is fundamentally uninterested in new approaches to old problems. It is a party stuck in an ideological time-warp – which insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, the government has the answers to everything, can effectively address social problems and all that’s required is more government spending.
Social democratic parties around the world have moved on from this 1970s view of government – social impact bonds, for example, were originally a UK Labour government initiative – but New Zealand Labour appears determined to remain stuck in the past.
These days, National is the party of progressive, equitable, social reform. Labour is the real conservative party – saying no to everything, opposing for opposing’s sake and uninterested in new ideas.
As Chris said, NZ Labour is way out of step with other Labour parties around the world.