Is National Stealing Labour’s Social Policy Clothing?

Or has Labour lost its clothes or forgotten how to put them on.

Some Labour supporters are disturbed that the government seems to be stealing their policies. Probably National is shifting a bit to the centre, perhaps for electoral reasons (although the party is almost certainly more concerned with New Zealand First than Labour) and because Bill English belongs more to a centre-right tradition than did his predecessor.

But are they stealing Labour’s clothes or is it naked anyway (at least in its economic areas)? In some policy areas Labour still has the initiative. I have been impressed by Phil Twyford, Labour’s spokesperson on housing since 2013, who has successfully led the opposition charge against the government’s lamentable housing record.

I puzzle why the government has made such a botch. Partly it is because housing policy is hard (some of the policy advice the government has been given has been pathetic); partly because there is no central agency in the government for housing policy – policy advisers are scattered all over the place with a plethora of ministers; partly because National seems to defer to developers whose interests do not align with good housing for the population.

Perhaps the housing situation has got out of hand, limiting effective policy responses. You can see the beginnings of it during the Clark-Cullen era. My guess is that had he been returned in 2008, Michael Cullen would have taken various effective initiatives which the following government took too late or has not taken at all. Some would have been an anathema to the right side of National. To be fair, dealing with earthquakes and leaky buildings has distracted attention, while high immigration puts pressure on the housing stock in the short term. Even so, the additional spending on housing in the 2017 budget, was  pathetically small, putting sticking plaster over a wound. After eight and bit years, the National government has still not got its head around the housing problem.

Whatever, Labour has certainly got the government on the run; witness their stuttering policy responses and hysterical reactions to anything Labour proposes. (One cannot help noticing that while in a recent package Labour said it would redeploy the revenue savings for housing purposes, the public dispute centred on the revenue gains with no attention to any expenditure offsets; thus has the New Zealand conversation become imbalanced.)

Labour has been much less successful over ‘social investment’, that is, policies designed to prevent (or ameliorate) social breakdowns before they occur. It is true that Labour has a long history of a ‘social investment’ approach, but I do not recall Labour making the case in the 2008-14 era, so they can hardly complain that National has gazumped them. (National only got the religion in 2014.)

I have a number of reservations about the government’s strategy, but this column focuses on the big one. Both parties have seen sound families as the basis of a sound society.

(There has been a bit of uncertainty as to what is meant by a family; the husband, wife and their three children living together is no longer a norm, except in certain ideological quarters. Forgive me if I skip definitions of what we mean by ‘family’ today, but practically it has to recognise many forms centring on a household living together with mutual commitments among its members.)

The foundation of the sound family was once seen to be a decent income, suitable housing and ready access to adequate health and education. Without these, families become dysfunctional and generate the sort of problems that the government’s social investment strategy is meant to be dealing with. This is not to argue that with adequate income, housing and so on there will be no dysfunctional families, but if these are inadequate there will be a lot more train-wrecks.

New Zealand abandoned the healthy families strategies in the early 1990s when incomes were cut, charges were increased for health and education and housing policy became fragmentedly neo-liberal. The train-wrecks did not start the following day but the conditions for them slowly built up. So we get the Ministry for Vulnerable Children with a big increase in their budget funding and the social investment strategy which is going to be spending a lot too.

We cannot really avoid this sort of expenditure. To reduce government spending and lower tax levels we have been undermining families for a quarter of a century and we are now paying the price for that additional stress.

But we can do something about future generations, reducing their proneness to train-wrecks. The policy is obvious enough. Ensure families with children have a decent income, do something about their housing, make sure they have appropriate access to health and education and other social support. Simple? Yes, but it may take a bit of time to get it in position.

Expensive? I’m afraid the answer is also ‘yes’. Yet doing it would boost the wellbeing of the poor (far more than any reduction of the wellbeing of the rich), reduce inequality, improve the efficiency of the education and health systems and lead to some early important gains as well as longer term ones. (Thankyou the Child Poverty Action Group and the NZ Psychological Society for a report on poverty and mental distress.)

If this sounds a bit like the strategy of the First Labour Government, so be it. For all I know it is the approach of the current Labour Opposition but if it is, I do not hear them articulating it; not the way Twyford has hammered housing, the Greens environmental degradation and Peters his agenda. And if they have not, it is nonsense to say that the National Government has stolen their policy.

Think of it this way using an image from the Maoriland Worker, which was a left-wing journal that began before the Labour Party. National is concerned about the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. Social investment is an attempt to put some measures halfway up the cliff to prevent the catastrophes falling quite as far (so reducing the need for ambulances). Giving families a sound economic base is putting a fence at the top of the cliff.