Clever politics leave voters in a vacuum

Fear and greed may be the motivating emotions in the market place, but information is the life-blood of democracy. The voters of 2011 need a transfusion before they visit the polling booth on Saturday.

At this very late stage of the campaign, the biggest fear of every political party has to be a low turnout. There is no sign of the kind of a burning platform, issue, event or policy that will have people flocking to the polls, and every indication that too many voters are going to shrug the whole thing off as a politician’s game and leave them to play among themselves.

So much of the world is burning with political and financial turmoil that the natural reflex here will probably be to pull the hoods over our heads and hope for safe passage. That’s something that National seems to be counting on – and Labour either hasn’t recognized or willfully ignores. Both major parties have left voters woefully ill-informed about the new policies they will implement, as a consequence of their fragmented communications strategies. 

Just days before the polls open, National is still dribbling out detail on the major new plank in its platform – the partial sell-down of a handful of state-owned energy sector enterprises and its majority holding in Air New Zealand. How it expects to raise up to $7 billion by retaining ownership and control of the enterprises as a 51% shareholder and capping individual holdings of the balance of shares at 10% and imposing some [as yet unexplained] mechanism for restricting foreign ownership to 10-15% of the shares it's selling is a mystery that’s still to be explained.

Equally mystifying was National’s decision to split its policy releases on welfare and education reforms into two chunks for release at different periods of the campaign. Why not provide voters with comprehensive statements of its intention in each of these two major areas of State expenditure so that the changes could be considered in their entirety?

Labour also dumped a complex set of financial policies on the voters’ plates early in the campaign – but someone made a decision that the vital fiscal implications would be held back for release on another day. It was a monumental act of stupidity, highlighted by Phil Goff’s floundering when John Key hit him with the invevitable challenge: Show me the money. It was a long time – too long – before Labour’s tables and charts appeared.

Most people still have no idea of precisely what would and wouldn’t be hit by Labour’s proposed expansion of capital gains taxes, but they do understand that [a] there will be loopholes to exploit, [b] it will be complicated and costly to administer, and [c] it will be a long time before it gathers any meaningful revenue. But the killer criticism is that it isn’t going to get the country out of the kind of hole we could be in if things go belly-up in Europe, the USA, or China over the next couple of years.

It is also hard to understand why Labour wants to give everyone the first $5,000 of their income tax-free – including those rich folk that they are also going to hit up by reversing the top rate break that National gave them. Similarly, it is hard to see why there will be more jobs at $15 an hour when there are no jobs at $13 an hour  - but it is probably the price of CTU support for Labour’s campaign.

Naturally, National and Labour have spent a great deal of time muddying each others’ waters in this frightfully compressed campaign. National has been trumpeting a po-faced warning that Labour’s policies will see the country borrowing “an additional $15-16 billion dollars” without acknowledging that its own additional borrowing will be around $2 billion short of the same mark before it starts cashing up its SOE shares. Labour has adopted a similar tactic in representing National’s plan to sell-down 49% holdings in the SOEs as “flogging off” our assets to foreign owners.

Labour tried hard to downplay leadership as an issue at the start of the campaign. But Goff exceeded expectations with sterling performances in each of his televised encounters with John Key. However, no serious blood was shed in the tightly formatted bouts between the commercial breaks, and honourable draws are not enough to turn the electoral tide.

To borrow or not to borrow. To sell or not to sell. Those seem to be the main questions voters are left to ponder as the campaigning winds up. Most New Zealanders have made the choice on borrowing. They are keeping their wallets in their pockets, paying down debt, and cutting credit card use now the Rugby Cup is over. They are likely to want their next government to follow their lead. In terms of “the sell or not to sell” proposition, National’s policy may not win popular support but it has been out in plain view long enough to demonstrate that it isn’t going to alter the course of the election.

The big uncertainties confronting New Zealand remain unchanged by the policies dribbled out by both of our major parties in the course of this campaign. No-one yet knows how much the Christchurch rebuild is going to cost, when it will really start, and what can be done to make sure the process isn’t handicapped by insurance problems. The other, of course, is the swarm of financial quakes that continue to threaten all the major markets of our tiny trade-dependent economy.

The campaign of 2011 has fogged rather than cleared our vision. The fact that a whole week was lost in the trivia of the teapot tape saga speaks volumes about the commitment of both our media and our politicians to the notion that the purpose of a campaign is to ensure voters go to the polls well-informed about the implications of the choices they make.

How the minor parties will fare and fit with either of the major players after polling day is still as much of a mystery as it was when the campaign started. But their campaigning did produce one surprising moment of clarity and commonsense. Hone Harawira touched a chord that resonated when asked for his top political priority: Feed the kids. It will only cost $38 million a year, and it might be the best investment New Zealand could make.