Speeches offer more heat than light

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 05:00 22/03/2012

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OPINION: For all the media hoopla before the event – they're ready to rumble! etc – the simultaneous speechmaking by John Key and David Shearer last week fell a good deal short of the Thrilla in Manila.

Rather than try to batter each other into submission, both leaders ended up blowing air kisses to the legions of moderate voters who – at least according to the spin doctors – might be frightened away by anything too crunchy.

Ultimately, Prime Minister John Key virtually limited himself in his speech to a reshuffle of four existing arms of government into a single "business-facing" super ministry to be headed by Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce.

The usual job cuts and budget reductions seem set to follow.

To no-one's surprise, business lobbyists such as Phil O'Reilly, chief executive of Business New Zealand, expressed delight at the prospect of a "business-facing" ministry headed by Joyce, Cabinet's heaviest hitter.

He will co-ordinate and solely command the functions of economic development, innovation, housing and employment.

Shearer's speech had a lot more riding on it than a departmental merger, and Labour's minders had talked up his speech beforehand.

The speech was supposed to justify the slow start to the year made by Labour, under its new management.

Moreover, it had been heralded as a launching pad for Labour's new direction, offering not only fresh insights into the personal philosophy of the still relatively unknown Labour leader, but also signalling how today's party will differentiate itself from the Labour Party that Phil Goff led into the last election.

Finally, the speech was to begin the long task of positioning Labour as a credible alternative government.

Obviously, no single speech could accomplish all of that heavy lifting.

Yet the speech fell so far short as to bemuse most observers.

Why talk up something bound to undershoot all of its alleged targets?

The discernible content came down to Labour sticking with a capital gains tax on all but the family home.

There was also a strong suggestion that Labour is intending to dump last year's election policy of foregoing tax from the first $5000 of income.

Something could also be gleaned from what, for now, went largely left unsaid.

Shearer hinted, for example, at taking a tougher stance on welfare reform, whereby Labour would support government giving "a nudge" to those beneficiaries not pulling their weight.

These few scraps of substance came wrapped in a highly user-friendly package.

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Labour, you may be astounded to hear, supports this country becoming more tech-savvy.

It is also in favour of everyone working hard, working smart, looking after their kids, and being part of a brighter New Zealand future, where effort is fairly rewarded.

Just how these laudable aims are to be realised, as Key pointed out, was left unsaid.

For now, both major parties seem intent on couching their aims in the least alienating way possible.

Wherever possible, the difficult content will be left to their coalition partners.

As one Australian analyst said of our 2008 election, the resulting campaign for votes came down to the equivalent of an argument over whose turn it was to take out the garbage.

If he plays his cards inoffensively enough, David Shearer is plainly hoping that by 2014, his turn will have come.

- The Wellingtonian

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