9 Apr 2024

Getting stuck on attack: the slow road to positivity in government

From The House , 5:30 pm on 9 April 2024
Christopher Luxon during the first debate of the 54th Parliament.

Christopher Luxon during the first debate of the 54th Parliament. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

When the government changes from one party to another, you might expect that party’s refrain would also switch, that the once-opposition, now-government MPs would suddenly go positive — singing of new happy times. 

Equally, you'd think was-government, now-opposition MPs would flip into dour mode. But neither happen, at least not for a long while. Both sides tend to stay partially stuck in their prior mode. This behaviour is especially obvious from an incoming government, and in the debating chamber.

For example, on Tuesday the Prime Minister was asked in Question Time whether his government’s newly announced truancy policy had been approved by cabinet yet.

He responded: “Well, as I said, we have an ambitious government, and that is fantastic because what we observed over the last six years was a government that spent more, borrowed more, taxed more, and delivered worse outcomes. Your government had six years. You did very little; you failed at it. What we're doing is declaring nine key targets — two in the education space — we're marching hard towards it, and every quarter, we're going to be doing things to make sure we make progress on it.”

Not so much an answer as an excoriation with a vaguely relevant affirmation tacked on.

New governments spend months, if not years, largely sticking to their oppositional refrain and attacking the previous crew. 

This is not new. You might remember in 2017 (when a Labour-led government took the reins), just how often the ‘nine long years’ mantra was repeated in reference to their predecessors. The new, National-led government, has also held tightly onto their opposition mindset.

This is evident in various places, but most obviously during Question Time where it serves other purposes as well. The attack-posing-as-an-answer is a common approach in Question Time, but it is obviously beginning to try some MP’s patience. 

After a number of questions to the Prime Minister where he had received similar replies, the Leader of the Opposition, Chris Hipkins, complained to the Speaker about this approach.

“Almost every question that I've asked the Prime Minister today, he's resorted to an attack on the previous government without actually answering what are relatively direct questions on his government's and decisions. The cutting of the Suicide Prevention Office is not a non-controversial matter. The questions that I've asked have been very straight questions, I don't think it's too much to ask that the Prime Minister takes them seriously and gives serious answers to them.”

And at that point the ground shifted slightly. The Speaker, Gerry Brownlee, made a ruling.

“Well, I think he has given serious answers — if I'm listening to them. But I would also say to you that it is not inappropriate for ministers to refer to programmes of a previous government. The difficulty comes where that reference becomes an attack, and I'd ask that all ministers, including the Prime Minister, think carefully about those comments in an answer.“

Course correction

No sooner had Brownlee gently chastised his colleagues, than Finance Minister Nicola Willis was asked some friendly questions.  Responding viscerally to an interjection, she forgot her prepared response and went on the attack. The Speaker dragged her back on course.

Willis’s course correction from debate-outrage to calm reading was spookily instant, but changing oratorical or tactical gears isn’t usually that easy. Especially for any patsy questions where an opportunity for attack was part of the point.

Both the Minister of Social Development, Louise Upston, and her National Party colleague Suze Redmayne (who was asking Upston some patsy questions) had to attempt swift handbrake turns when the Speaker intervened during their exchanges as well.

The question Redmayne had been given to read was: “How long are people predicted to spend on benefits if we continue with the previous approach to welfare?”

Brownlee ruled that wording was “effectively, setting the battlefield for an attack and it's not on, so ask it in a different way.”

For newish government back-benchers the apparently simple task of reading out patsy questions can be pretty daunting. Having to edit them on the fly is much harder, but Redmayne coped admirably with what the Speaker described as “a think-on-your-feet moment”.

Upston though, took a little more prompting from the Speaker to get used to the new expectation.

A little later, when Tama Potaka was also chastised, Chris Bishop remonstrated with the Speaker’s approach. 

“It has got to be possible for the government to make commentary about previous governments, because there has to be a bit of back and forth to contrast and compare records. I accept that supplementary questions should not be used with the sole purpose of attacking the opposition or the previous government, but it has got to be possible for the government to compare and contrast what they are doing with the record of previous governments, otherwise the place will become so sterile we may as well not bother turning up.”

Brownlee responded: “The point I'd make is that I think it is possible to do exactly what you're saying without making an accusation of, for example, malfeasance. And I think it is that stepping point between talking about a situation you're dealing with and an outright attack on another party's policy.”

There are probably many reasons why MPs resort to attacks.

  • Most obviously, the mode can be ingrained in MPs (sometimes even before they spend time in opposition), as a core political mindset.
  • Attack can also be an automatic response on an emotional level.  
  • Tactically it allows an MP to resort to the flawed logic of whataboutism
  • And it is an excellent deflective tool to avoid answering questions at all.
  • But also — it’s sometimes the only response there is. 

Glacial change

However impressive any new government may be, and however much positive impact they may ultimately have, it is usually years before there is anything they can point at and say ‘I did that’. 

Often a government has come and gone before they can hope to see concrete outcomes from their policies. Policies are frequently removed as ‘ineffective’ well before they could realistically be expected to show outcomes.

Here is a (literally) concrete example of such achingly slow progress. Next year a new road will open over the Tararua Ranges to replace the now impassable Manawatu Gorge road. The new road was being planned when Simon Bridges was minister of transport — at least eight years ago — under a National-led government. It has been built throughout the two Labour terms that followed, and will finally open two changes of government later.

That's sobering. But even worse, compared to social change building roads is fast.

As we noted, it takes a long while before there are real results to point at — but till then, governments can always fall back on attacking the previous mob.

Or now, maybe they can’t.

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