Great Expectations: Labour's new leader, Andrew Little, is expecting a lot more from his Shadow Cabinet than the standard neoliberal commitment to keeping the books in the black. He will not be judging the worth of Labour’s economic policies by the level of praise emanating from the business community.
ANDREW LITTLE’S Shadow Cabinet reflects his assessment of where Labour is, where it needs to be, and how quickly it should move in that direction.
With Grant Robertson’s faction currently wielding extensive influence in both the caucus and the wider party, Little has taken the precaution of seeding the Opposition front bench with at least three of his rival’s closest supporters (Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins, Phil Twyford).
In accepting Little’s offer of the finance spokesperson’s role, Robertson himself has shown considerable courage. Throughout his parliamentary career, the Wellington Central MP’s political decisions have (mostly) erred on the side of caution. That will now have to change, because the incremental strategies of his mentors, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, are no longer equal to the task of halting the relentless decline in Labour’s vote.
What’s needed in the finance portfolio is creativity and daring. Already, Little is making encouraging noises about a Universal Basic Income (UBI) the radical income support guarantee popularised by the economist-turned-philanthropist Gareth Morgan. Will Robertson be bold enough to transform New Zealand’s fiscal and welfare landscape by making the UBI policy his own? Or will he, instead, hold fast to the orthodox Treasury line?
Prior to last week’s wide-ranging interview between Little and Radio NZ’s Kathryn Ryan, the only political party bold enough to take the UBI seriously had been the Greens. Simply by broaching the subject, Little is sending out a number of important messages.
To the Greens he is saying: “You might want to taihoa on that shift to the centre you lot are so obviously contemplating because, unlike David Cunliffe’s, my radicalism tends towards the practical and specific.
To the rank-and-file of the Labour Party he’s acknowledging, firstly, the years of patient UBI advocacy put in by Lower Hutt stalwart, Perce Harpham, and his supporters; and secondly, that in spite of the time spent at the helm of the notoriously conservative EPMU, Andrew Little, as Labour’s new leader, is not afraid to debate radical ideas.
And, finally, to his caucus colleagues he’s saying that spouting left-wing rhetoric is no longer going to be enough. Labour needs to advance a practical programme of reforms that aim to do a lot more than just tinker around with the existing system.
The message to the man he defeated by a single percentage point could not be clearer.
Little expects a lot more from his future Finance Minister than the standard neoliberal commitment to keeping the books in the black. He will not be judging the worth of Labour’s economic policies by the level of praise emanating from the business community. For Little, looking after the One Percent’s funds cannot be Labour’s first priority. The critical challenge confronting Labour’s next Finance Minister will be funding the changes so desperately needed by the other Ninety-Nine Percent.
In other words: how does Labour make sure that a rising tide of economic growth lifts more than just the luxury yachts?
Little has strongly hinted that the answer to that question does not lie in the introduction of a Capital Gains Tax, or raising the age of eligibility for superannuation from 65 to 67. New policies, based on the electorate’s most urgent needs, is what Little has asked for, and his promise to review the Shadow Cabinet’s performance in 12 months’ time strongly suggests that he means to get them. Little’s colleagues would be wise to assume that his threshold for failure is set a lot lower than his predecessors’.
Little cannot afford to let Labour drift any longer. Either its Shadow Cabinet will convince the electorate that it possesses both the will and the talent to take New Zealanders where they want to go, or it will be reshuffled within an inch of its life. Either its MPs will make themselves the conduits for new ideas and bold initiatives, or they will be replaced. Labour will either, once again, become the party of progressive reform, or it will die.
And, if Andrew Little aspires to being something more than just the latest person to pass through Labour’s revolving door of leaders, then he will not only use the next 12 months to introduce himself to the voters, but also to recruit the best and the brightest Kiwis he encounters to Labour’s cause.
Time is not on his side.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 November 2014.