Andrew Little has wasted no time in making his mark, not just on the Labour Party but on New Zealand politics. What is already clear is that here is a Labour leader who is thinking seriously about what it means to be in government.
A striking instance of this hard-headed approach to his job as Leader of the Opposition was the stance taken by Labour over the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Bill. The measure was objectionable on a number of grounds – the speed with which it passed into law, the limited opportunity for consultation about its implications, the restriction of the rights of New Zealand citizens to travel overseas, and, most importantly, the sanctioning of a government spying without a warrant on its own citizens.
Many would have expected that, for all these reasons, Labour would have opposed the Bill – as the Greens, New Zealand First and the Maori Party duly did. Labour, however, conceded that the Bill, however imperfectly, was an attempt to address a serious issue. Andrew Little’s approach was to support the Bill but to ensure that its more extreme proposals were scaled back.
The significance of this decision goes well beyond the Bill itself. By taking this stance, Andrew Little seems to have quite deliberately distinguished Labour’s position in the new parliament from that of other opposition parties. His message seems to have been that Labour is not just another opposition party; rather, he leads a party that is, in constitutional terms, the Opposition.
Indeed, the message goes further. Labour is not just the main opposition party; it is also an alternative government, a government in waiting, a party that is already thinking about what it will mean to be in government.
That is why Labour recognised the responsibilities that a government – including a future Labour government – must accept in ensuring the security of its citizens. Andrew Little’s response was not to oppose but to mitigate – to demonstrate that Labour, while accepting the need to protect the country against extremists, would be vigilant in limiting any encroachment of the rights of New Zealand citizens and would drive a hard bargain with the government to make sure that that was the case.
The episode is significant in a number of ways. One of the factors that may have adversely affected Labour’s electoral appeal in the recent election was the sense that the alternative to a National-led government was not as clearly defined as it might have been. Andrew Little may well have decided to demonstrate that the alternative to a National-led government is a Labour-led government – that is, a government clearly led by Labour.
And he may also have intuitively dealt with the issue in a way that reflected his own real and practical experience of negotiating solutions to tough problems. He will know, as lawyer and former union leader, that you rarely get everything you want from a negotiation, but what you do aim for is getting the best deal possible.
Again, the message to voters is clear. Here is a leader who takes a clear-eyed and hard-headed but responsible approach to difficult issues. The voters may well see a favourable contrast with a Prime Minister whose negotiating stance – especially when foreign leaders and businessmen are involved – is to roll over and have his tummy tickled.
11 December 2014.