10 Nov 2020

Why is Labour putting the brakes on its own political capital?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 10 November 2020
Labour has claimed a landslide victory in the 2020 election and has the numbers to govern alone.

Labour has claimed a landslide victory in the 2020 election and has the numbers to govern alone. Photo: Getty Images

The Labour Party has just swept to the most convincing election victory New Zealand has seen in a generation.

But with many of the party's own preferences now lying dead in the water after failed referendums and past hard-nosed coalition negotiations, is the party in danger of abandoning its transformative pledge in a quest for power for power's sake? 

On today's episode of The Detail, Emile Donovan sits down with PR man and former National, Labour and Greens staffer David Cormack to talk about political courage, the importance of a strong ideology, and the danger of refusing to stand for something.

Widening gap

In the year to September, median house prices in New Zealand have risen more than 10 percent. 

Last week construction and road maintenance giant Fulton Hogan - which collected more than $30 million of wage subsidies during lockdown - paid out more than $80m to its shareholders.

As Bernard Hickey writes in Stuff, the Covid-19 response has, perversely, widened the gap between rich and poor.

With a left-leaning bloc now firmly in charge of the House of Representatives, this is arguably the biggest mandate a government has ever had to help reduce that gap.

But David Cormack says Labour's track record on potentially vote-losing issues doesn't fill him with confidence that the government will pull all the levers at its disposal - or stick to its ideological guns - when faced with tough choices. 

"They straitjacket themselves - or, the prime minister straitjackets the Labour Party. She rules things out. 

"She ruled out a capital gains tax, she ruled out a wealth tax, she said that [cannabis] legalisation is now off the table, which is just ridiculous and short-sighted. 

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Andrew Little - in favour of cannabis legalisation but not prepared to push it through Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"Positions are continuously evolving, we’re learning new things about the harmful effects of drugs, learning better ways to have a tax system that's progressive and fair ... to just come out with these really binary 'this is not going to happen while I'm prime minister' statements is just stupid." 

Jacinda Ardern has already ruled out a capital gains tax as long as she's prime minister. 

Ardern has been accused of not properly using her "political capital" - she's the most popular prime minister since John Key's heyday - and Cormack says the party is paying too much attention to focus groups and polls, and too little attention to formulating, and acting, according to its own ideology.

But is the purpose of a government to lead? Or to reflect the will of its people? 

"I think governments should be there to continually improve countries. To lead the people.

"Often a parliament is more conservative than the general populace. 

"It takes boldness to make those transformational changes - that's why you see it in members' bills, rather than the manifestos of political parties."

He cites Sue Bradford's anti-smacking bill and Louisa Wall's marriage equality bill as two examples of issues parliament wasn't prepared to stand up on until they were drawn from the biscuit tin.