National released its defence and foreign policy – sorry, discussion document - today. It must have been a relief for the party to deliver a chunk of information without making a major gaffe.
After the week from hell last week, topped off with a poor poll result in the latest Herald DigiPoll, the party would have been keen to get back on the front foot again.
And at least leader John Key and seasoned defence spokesman Murray McCully didn’t make any faux pas at this announcement. But then, that probably wasn’t very hard, given that there wasn’t much to say.
National might as well have scrapped the 18-page document – fairly slim already for a position paper on foreign affairs, defence, and trade – and replaced it with a single sheet of paper with the words “we’ve lost the argument’’ in bold type.
For the paper is a reasoned and sensible piece of work that any government official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade would be proud of. It neatly encapsulates the arguments Labour has been making for the past nine years – and which National used to vehemently disagree over.
Now, though, “the debates of the 1980s are over’’ and we need to “move on from the ideological debates of the 1980s and 1990s’’.
National has discovered that New Zealand is too small to defend itself, can’t own every type of military hardware, can make only a “token contribution’’ beyond the South Pacific, and needs an independent foreign policy.
It won’t change our “iconic’’ nuclear free policy, agrees relations with the United States are getting better, likes free trade agreements, and wants to increase our level of exports. Oh, and Key says National could work with Winston Peters as Foreign Minister.
That’s lucky, because Winston could have written this document himself. With a little help from Defence Minister Phil Goff.
Perhaps that’s why National has been focusing so much on other areas of late, where finally some differentiation from the Government is showing through. The party’s musings on state asset sales, health policy, and the use of private providers in education have provoked something of a firestorm here at Parliament.
Labour is beside itself, pointing and shrieking at National as if it were the devil incarnate. And on the face of it one does have to wonder why on earth National would want to raise this stuff, given that it is bound to provoke a negative reaction.
It really does seem to be a solution in need of a problem. It’s unclear how on earth private companies would make a profit out of running state schools, for example, and how the taxpayer would benefit. National says infrastructural assets could be built faster by the private sector, but how, exactly? They all use the same labour force, have access to the same levels of capital and must jump through the same ideological hoops.
It’s almost as if National is suggesting this purely because it feels it needs something to prove that it is not Labour in drag. That’s fair enough, and it’s certainly good to see politicians debating policy for once instead of slagging each other off.
National needs to take the debate back to Labour, however, which has suddenly gone all shy about PPPs (public-private partnerships). National could, for instance, remind the public that it was this Government that recently passed legislation enabling PPPs to take place and that until recently it was rather keen on them in the transport field.
It might also remind people that Labour launched a discussion document on a range of PPPs a couple of years ago, only to pull the idea when the chairman of TVNZ at the time, Ross Armstrong, became involved with a local consortium and started big-noting to his mates about how he had “first mover advantage’’ because of his access to Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen.
That cost him his job and Labour has gone a little quiet on the idea ever since.
However, it's working well by all accounts in Australia and the UK – two countries Labour is often keen to borrow policy from.
But if National really believes in this stuff, it’s got to convince the public firstly that there is a problem and secondly that greater involvement of private enterprise through PPPs is the answer.
So far the party hasn’t done this, but it still has another year or so in which to try.