Opposition's early release of policies plays useful function

8:40 pm on 27 August 2019

By Brigitte Morten*

Opinion - The public often argue that opposition parties should spend less time telling them what the government is doing wrong, and more time saying how they would do it better. However, when opposition policies do get released they usually spend 24 hours in the media and then are relegated to the depths of the party website. The public, especially this far out from the election are simply not engaged.

22082016 Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King. Caucas run. Paul Goldsmith

Releasing an economic discussion paper soon after the appointment of Paul Goldsmith to the role of finance spokesperson was a way of raising his profile in the public. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The common political wisdom is that it is a waste of time to release policies this far out from the election and this convention is largely true. The National Party released its economic policy discussion paper this week, over a year out from the likely next election.

The practice of producing policy papers in opposition is not uncommon and appears to be growing in popularity. The now Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, did considerable work on a Future of Work discussion paper whilst in opposition, that then informed policy initiatives he has undertaken in government.

There is a lot of benefit to opposition parties doing this work. Along with giving them a response to the 'tell us how you would do it' argument, it also demonstrates that they are doing work behind the scenes. Already in many of opposition leader Simon Bridges' speeches he has made reference to the previously-released policy papers on foreign policy, the environment and primary industry.

What is contained in these documents is largely irrelevant. The fact that they exist is key.

Releasing policy this far out from the election is also a good way of getting the hard stuff out of the way. Most headlines from the economic policy discussion document focused on National's promise to raise the superannuation age to 67 from 2037.

The issue of the super age has tormented many election campaigns as it is clear that this policy needed to change otherwise New Zealand was heading to a budget blow out. So much so that John Key ruled it out under his leadership to avoid the discussion, and the current prime minister was forced to do so yesterday in response to National's release.

This was exactly the response that National would have wanted. A neon sign to voters that it is only National that is prepared to make the tough decisions to manage the budget, and that Labour is not.

There is some valid criticism that National had nine years of government to raise the age, but didn't. But this is another example of incremental policy making - sometimes you have to wait until the constituency is ready to hear your announcement.

Announcing election policies this far out does have its disadvantages. You can never know what is coming between now and the formation of the next government. Events like the Christchurch Earthquake, whilst rare, can't be foreseen and may derail even the best thought out policy work.

What is more likely to upset earlier policy announcements are changes in leadership. While Bridges is looking stable as the party continues to poll highly, a change is leadership is never out of the question. New leaders often like to change policy positions as a way of differentiating themselves from the former leader - unfortunately this just looks shambolic to the public.

Early announcements also give your opponents plenty of time to design their scare campaigns. It won't be hard to design a campaign around how much less government superannuation a person would get under the new rules. But given the implementation is almost 20 years away, it is unlikely to be front of mind for too many people.

Alternatively, it is also enough time for your opponents to steal your announcement and implement it. National also announced a 30-day payment rule for small businesses. It won't take much for the government to announce implementation with possible results by the time the election rolls around.

Policy papers are also a test of opposition spokespeople - particularly if they didn't occupy the position in government. Releasing the economic discussion paper soon after the appointment of Paul Goldsmith to the role of finance spokesperson was a way of raising his profile in the public, and also making sure that he is up to the promotion.

Early policy releases go unread by the public. In fact most policy releases go unread, regardless of whether they are from government or opposition, are released close to an election or far from it.

The aim for the opposition is to look like a government in waiting, and for this opposition, that they look like they will deliver from day one.

*Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant for public law firm, Franks Ogilvie. Prior to that she was a senior ministerial adviser for the previous National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.