In defence of discord

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.