Kumbaya be damned... Labour needs to pull-up its big boy pants, thank National for its robust approach and get on with business. That is how you become a great government

In amongst its busy and ambitious First 100 Days agenda, Labour seems to be determined to find time to sulk.

After yesterday's "farce" in parliament as MPs gathered to be sworn in and Labour almost failed to elect Trevor Mallard as Speaker, the new government has been pouting about National playing hardball in the House. Jacinda Ardern shook her head like a disappoined teacher; she wasn't angry so much as disappointed, she seemed to say. She had hoped for better from National.

Chris Hipkins tsked tsked about the "acrimonious" start to our 52nd parliament.

This comes after Bill English was attacked last week for daring to promise that National would be a robust and determined Opposition, unafraid to use its numbers to frustrate the government. English accused Labour of already being a "brutal" government and said:

"You should expect more tension and more pressure in the Parliament, and particularly through the select committee process. Because we are the dominant select committee party... we have no obligation to smooth [Labour's] path. None whatsoever."

To which I say, good on him. And to Labour: Diddums. Get organised or get lost. To paraphrase and mangle Tana Umaga and Bill Shankly, this isn't tiddlywinks, it's more important than that. It's democracy.

The whining about National's aggressive start to its time in Opposition is a classic example of partisan short-memory syndrome. When Labour was out of office, its supporters were howling for it to be better at holding National to account. Labour tried parliamentary point-scoring itself. It repeatedly questioned the integrity and honesty not just of National's policy, but of its ministers. It laid complaints with the Speaker and police. 

And so it should. Time and again, National's standards fell short and the Opposition was there to hold it to account. That was Labour's job then and is National's job now. No government should get an east run. English is right to say it is not his job to make its path smooth in any way whatsoever.

Of course there are limits around that. Just as I warned in yesterday's post that Labout should be careful not to over-reach its mandate, National needs to hold its nose and stop banging on about having more votes than Labour. As Michael Cullen once said, "we won, you lost, eat that". Its job is to engage in a contest of ideas, but not just to stall, filibuster and disrupt for the sake of it.

National will have to carefully walk the line between robust opposition and childish toungue-poking that looks like it hasn't accepted the election result. Up against the "relentlessly positive" Ardern, it could easily start to look petulant and sour. 

But those complaining about National's aggression need to ask themselves what they were arguing when the shoe was on the other foot. Dirty Politics, if it taught us anything, should have warned against governments which think they don't have to play by the rules, don't have to be transparent and can avoid explaining themselves.

Robust debate and eternal vigilence is at the heart of democracy for a reason. It holds the powerful to account and demands rigorous thinking. It stops a government sliding into arrogance or incompetence.

Which is why we have to be careful what we wish for. During the coalition negotiations some were talking wistfully about the possibility of a grand coalition between the two main parties. God forbid. That way lies a type of tyranny, where those with power are able to swat aside awkward questions.

In that light, Labour's response to National's ambush yesterday was, frankly, pretty pathetic. Remember Jacinda Ardern saying in the debates she could survive politics without lying? Well that didn't last long... Her claim that Labour knew it had the numbers and really had the Speaker's vote under control the whole time, is clearly a load of hooey. Otherwise, it's a display of ineptness. Who would really by choice trade-off years of grief in select committees for a symbolic gesture of unity on a single vote? 

Really, if you believe Labour's spin on that, I have a unicorn in my backyard for sale.

Labour, instead, should suck it up and promise to do better next time. Indeed, it should welcome this early attack. It should welcome National putting the fire to its feet, as it will make it a better government. As much as Ardern wants to be relentlessly positive, if she wants to lead a truly historic government she should want to be relentlessly tested as well.

 

Comments (11)

by Raymond A Francis on November 08, 2017
Raymond A Francis

Well said.

Unfortunately during Labour’s time on the opposition benches it was not very effective, it had it’s moments but tended to be like a dog chasing every car it saw and not knowing what it would do if it caught it.

Consquently the left leaning public are not used to an opposition flexing its muscles.

But there was this

 http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/5097079/Labour-filibustering-costs-453-000-hr-ACT

by Graeme Edgeler on November 08, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

Who would really by choice trade-off years of grief in select committees for a symbolic gesture of unity on a single vote?

This is going to need a bit of explanation. How is a proportional allocation of 108 select committee spots, instead of 96 select committee spots, going to affect the level of select committee grief in any meaningful way?

by Chris Morris on November 08, 2017
Chris Morris

Graeme - If there are 12 select committees with 9 members on each, then there should always be a majority decision without the chairman having to use a casting vote. What it could mean is that a lot of bills come back from select committee with only minority support.  

by barry on November 08, 2017
barry

If Labour indulge in the same sort of  shenanaggins as National did (dirty politics, delaying and selectively redacting OIA requests etc), then I hope that National does hold them to account. Even if National are trying to stop legislation that they are philosophically or fiscally opposed to, I wouldn't mind.

However if it is petty point scoring and opposing for the sake of it, then I think they are wasting their influence.

by Charlie on November 09, 2017
Charlie

It was silly of Hipkins and Adern to lie. Of course they were caught unprepared - any fool could see that. So to lie about it just makes them look even sillier.

The voting public is not expecting them to be pitch perfect, so if they'd shrugged and admitted it, all would have been forgiven and forgotten in a day.

As it is they already look fragile and amateurish. It's going to be an interesting three years!

by Dean Knight on November 09, 2017
Dean Knight

Hmmm. Isn't the Select Committee numbers also a faux victory for the Opposition? Labour were never going to be able to hold to 96 Select Committee seats, ie, business committee works on near-consensus. Thus, National would have got what they wanted anyways?

by Tim Watkin on November 09, 2017
Tim Watkin

Graeme and Dean, I bow to your knowledge of the details. But politically Labour had wanted to make the changes presumably because it hoped for better things; National argued it was an affront to democracy and so the loss for Labour is not what it wanted.

I thought the argument (from both Labour and National) had been that smaller select committees would make the process more efficient and better, so not shrinking them would make life harder than need-be for the government. It was also argued that as it stands MPs are stretched and not as well-informed about committee issues as they should be and so making them smaller would make life easier for MPs and the public interaction with them more satisfying. 

That's what I was getting at, but I'm happy to hear your views.

Dean, given there seemed to be unanimous agreement to cut to 96, what makes you think it never would have happened?

by mudfish on November 09, 2017
mudfish

Charlie, appearances of fragility and amateurism are in the eye of the beholder. Sorry to play the man not the ball but you appear one-eyed. What do you make of Joyce’s massive fiscal hole and was it silly of him to double down on it?

by Graeme Edgeler on November 10, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

Graeme - If there are 12 select committees with 9 members on each, then there should always be a majority decision without the chairman having to use a casting vote. What it could mean is that a lot of bills come back from select committee with only minority support.

So why would National push for Select Committees with 9 members and not 8 members, if the Government (which has more MPs than the opposition) will have more select committee majorities?

[I will note that the average across all subject select committees with be 9 members. They will differ in size.]

by Graeme Edgeler on November 10, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

Labour were never going to be able to hold to 96 Select Committee seats, ie, business committee works on near-consensus. Thus, National would have got what they wanted anyways?

If the Business Comittee couldn't reach near consensus, it would be for the House to resolve the issue on a majority vote. This is what National say they feared: no Business Committee agreement, so the Government uses it's majority in the House to insist on 96.

Dean, given there seemed to be unanimous agreement to cut to 96, what makes you think it never would have happened?

It wouldn't have happened at the Business Committee, given that you cannot have near unanimity without National's agreement. It would then have been solved by the House.

FWIW, I believe Hipkins (Ardern?) when they say that they were going to concede the point at the Business Committee. It is entirely believeable that they did not care all that much, given overall, they're still going to be proportional, and it just wasn't worth the fight if National were digging in that much.

by Chris Morris on November 11, 2017
Chris Morris

Graeme - If the government has 31 in the executive and the three Speakers, there remaining MPs are going to have to be spread very thinly across the committees to maintain a majority, especially as many sit at the same time. Sure they can have alternates and even Ministers there I believe, but those people won't contribute much - often they are only seat warmers. The Opposition members can then easily dominate proceedings because of continuity, or have critical decisions made when the government  is in the minority.

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