Little guys take a few blows

As details of National's agenda emerge, it appears the new government might be less progressive than appeared on the campaign trail.

When I try to explain politics to my kids, I talk about looking after the little guys. Centre-left parties, I say, like to look after the little guys, the vulnerable and needy, believing that the big guys are strong enough to look after themselves. The centre-right, I explain in dumbed-down Reaganomics (if that’s possible), focuses more on helping the big guys, believing that making them stronger still will, ultimately, help us all.

In the last election, this was turned on its head somewhat. John Key dusted up Labour by shedding the big guy rhetoric and promising to adopt many of Labour’s progressive policies. Just as Dubya did in the 2000 US election, Key promised a blend of compassion and conservatism.

It didn’t take long for Dubya to show election rhetoric counts for a hill of beans. Recent signs suggest that just as leopards struggle to shed spots and Australian league coaches struggle to wholly embrace sportsmanship, National doesn’t really like the whole helping-the-little-guy ethos either.

How else do we explain the decision to rush through the 90-day instant sacking legislation before Christmas? The legislation will clearly hurt the little guys, the most vulnerable workers. It appears to be something of which National is not entirely proud – Key neglecting to include it in the list of urgent bills when briefing the press gallery at the Monday post-cabinet press conference. Nor does National want to expose the bill to the scrutiny of select committee submissions and analysis.

It is one of a series of statements and announcements which suggest much more of a reversal from the new progressive consensus than appeared during the campaign.

The undermining of ACC, for example, is well underway. Worst case projections have been announced with great fanfare. The appearance of an unsustainable ACC has been established. Editorials have damned the last government for its stewardship of ACC. Commentators have joined in too. The ministerial inquiry will, with little doubt, recommend the opening up of ACC’s business to private competition.

The tragedy is that ACC should be a sacred cow – it is that good a system. It is admired throughout the world. Yes, it has some flaws. Yes, it can lack flexibility. But the public cost of allowing private companies to cherry-pick the most lucrative parts of the business is significant, and will severely undermine the ethos and efficacy of no-fault, universal accident insurance scheme.

The third worrying statement was Phil Heatley’s announcement that a freeze was being put on the state housing stock. With population growth, a freeze is effectively a cut. Moreover, as we head into harsher economic climes, the need for affordable public housing will only increase. Given the government’s likely prescription for local government, we can safely predict that council owned public housing is facing considerable challenges. Capping the state housing stock will exacerbate what is already a problem.

Of a more progressive nature is Tony Ryall’s decision to order the funding of Herceptin. Yet, while it will be popular, it is a dangerous one for a Minister to make. Pharmac’s model provides a transparent and fair system for making thorny decisions on which pharmaceuticals to publicly fund. Emotive lobbying of politicians is a scary way to make such decisions. He might be right – it would be great to see an effective cancer treatment – but the jury is still out on that particular drug’s efficacy, particularly on how long it should be used. Some studies are showing worrying side effects from extended use. A Pandora’s box has been opened by this precedent.

Key’s victory provides him with a considerable store of political capital and his honeymoon has some considerable time to run yet. But hurting-the-little-guy wasn’t part of his Labour-lite mandate, so he needs to be very careful.

Labour and Phil Goff’s strategy is to carefully choose their targets. National is obliging by providing a few.