Promises play an important role in politics. During an election campaign, politicians have a duty to tell voters what they intend – and don’t intend – to do.
However, politics built on empty promises does nothing to strengthen the integrity of our democracy, and it causes all sorts of issues for the politician or party making them.
No one will have felt the impact of this more than the Labour Party in recent years. During the 2017 campaign, voters were promised the world. Yet at the end of its first term, the Government had failed to deliver on most of its signature promises.
Jacinda Ardern’s strange Ted Talk-styled speech in which she fatefully called 2019 the ‘year of delivery’ did nothing to help the cause. It increased the already considerable pressure on her own Government, and gave the opposition more failures to point to.
Of course, being in coalition with two other parties was never going to make things easy – particularly when one of them was New Zealand First. Finding a middle ground meant Labour would have to make sacrifices and swallow a few lemons if they wanted Winston Peters to grant them power.
But aside from light rail, Labour’s other major broken promises lie squarely at the feet of the Government itself.
Labour was careful not to repeat the same mistake during the 2020 election. Instead, the party campaigned on the success of its Covid response. And yet, Ardern’s earlier promises of transformation – on poverty, inequality and the environment – remain a thorn in her side.
This term, however, she has no one to blame if the outlook on issues such as child poverty, homelessness, the housing crisis and mental health (to name a few) doesn’t shift.
With an outright majority, Labour is solely responsible for the success of its second term and the policy it chooses to progress.
So it was strange when Ardern challenged the National Party last week to consider their own position on drug reform, appearing to blame them for her own government not making any progress on the subject.
It is as if she does not realise that she doesn’t need support from other parties anymore.
It is no longer acceptable for commentors to explain and blame delivery failure or lack of policy progression on naivety and government inexperience. Four years is more than enough time for Labour to have learned the ropes.
Instead, it all seems to boil down to Ardern wanting to hold the centre. It is hard to be transformational when much of your majority has come from the support of former National voters. And it is for this very reason that having such a majority is both a blessing, and a curse. Labour knows that if it pushes too hard, it risks losing the support it has gained.
So the government is not just unable to deliver on issues where it can’t; it is also unwilling to on issues where it could do something.
It has accepted the failure of some of its earlier promises, such as KiwiBuild and fees free. Now that New Zealand First is out of the picture, it is giving light rail another go, although the chances of it being successful are dubious at best. Bold policy must also be achievable, and this is something all parties could stand to learn from.
But being unwilling is a conscious decision. Labour has openly acknowledged that it would like to see change in areas in which it has the power to do so, like drug reform or increasing benefit levels. However, it has so far refused.
It may pay for Labour to blame any broken promises on simply being “too definitive”. Like Grant Robertson was when he assured voters there wouldn’t be an extension to the bright-line test, perhaps so too was Chris Hipkins when he assured us that New Zealand would be at the front of the queue for the Covid-19 vaccine.
However Labour manages expectations over the next three years, it will need to appease its base somehow for fear of losing them to the Greens. But when stuck with a promise to deliver on transformational policy while being too scared to actually do so, it’s difficult to see a clear pathway forward to keep their majority content. Or intact.
Monique Poirier has a Masters degree in Political Studies, and is a former small business owner and Parliamentary staffer. She is the Campaigns Manager for the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.