It is time to set out succinctly and without recourse to abstract nouns exactly what this Labour government has intended, is doing, and how it seeks to alter the country.
I will keep it as tight as I can.
Rebuild a recentralised state.
It is going to be a strong state, intentionally strong enough to withstand crises of scale that beset us at least once a term. They are building a more direct command of state agency that we had not had since the mid 1980s. They are entity by entity reversing the fracturing of such entities as TVNZ, and RNZ. They have grown the scale and scope of other entities such as Transpower, Waka Kotahi NZTA, Kainga Ora HNZ, Te Whatu Ora Health NZ, and polytechs, and with a greater policy command and ambition we have not seen again since the mid 1980s. In each entity they have touched they have accreted more power to the centre and less to the periphery or to the historic public-private hybrids of corporatisation.
Rebuild central power by liquidating the periphery.
They have accreted power to the centre by liquefying and sucking in any and nearly all regional and local centres of their power. They have stripped local government of much of its capacity to regulate built form, they far more deeply subsidise transport expenditure maintenance and capital, are now regionalising most planning powers, and they have done everything they can to take all forms of water management away from the regions. They have left them with local parks, libraries and pools. In all aspects Wellington, and Wellington’s political order, is once more underscored as the primary source of power in New Zealand and not the commercial power of Auckland or the provincial weight of Canterbury or indeed of the rural sector.
Obey commercial red lines of commercial intervention.
In general don’t regulate commerce more. They do not touch private or near-privatised companies other than in specific tactical points. They have left the electricity companies alone and remain satisfied with near-passively managing their 51% shareholding. They barely touch private oligopolies with much other than in one key exception: Fonterra. They are legislating to have a majority on the pricing board of Fonterra, which reflects Fonterra’s place as now the only business of any global scale at all with New Zealand-resident ownership. They have let China’s state-run investment and export market dominance continue to grow.
In the rebuild of the political centre, and in the hands-off to corporations public or private, they are retaining the middle class as far as they can within and around Wellington, as a legacy circulating political economy. They are ensuring the tight recirculation of liberal democrat ideology that once ruled Wellington under Helen Clark.
Rebuild the place of New Zealand in the world.
They are doing this in terms grander than anything even Peter Fraser might have imagined. We have never had a prime minister more globally renowned on the international stage than this. Across CPTPP, RCEP, COP25-28, carbon markets, Christchurch Accord, and the renewed China-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, Labour has reasserted itself as a primary broker of the rules based order of trade and international law upon which all small states utterly depend, and indeed of effective political management of crisis straight through the reorganised and recentralised state. A political dividend has been to permanently tame the Green Party.
She is what the international ideal of political leadership aspires to. Prime Minister Ardern has visited every realm state and province from the equator to Antarctica, which few of our leaders have done: she has re-planted the flag of New Zealand in all our associated lands to their furthest extent.
Do not touch public capital operators, no matter the risk.
The Reserve Bank with its most damaging intent laid bare, the foolishness of the NZ SuperFund Guardians in both light rail and in their portfolio management, the governance nightmare generated by ACC and others in Transmission Gully’s PPP, the folly of the ACC+NZSuperfund investment in Kiwibank requiring the state to buy it back, the incoherence of ACC’s worker insurance scheme and all the waste of taxpayer cash the above has consumed, but not a single person held to account at all. The state is growing centres of public capital with more and power, and there is no control over any of them. The intent of power accreted to the centre is shown in that it does not increase direct Ministerial power or Ministerial accountability to the citizen at all.
Continue to massively expand social welfare…
Few new programmes, but constant gradual expansions. In the course of less than 2 terms they have underwritten most of the pay of every person in this country and most of its businesses. They have expanded social welfare in most areas you can think of including minimum wage, fuel and electricity, childcare subsidies, welfare benefits, and may other fields. They have greatly expanded public subsidy for the massive construction and utility industries that employ much of New Zealand.
… without altering wealth inequality.
Not with tax (other than exceedingly lightly), not with effective first home ownership policies, with the big exception being the extension of the Bright Line Test. Income tax is no longer the primary instrument to redistribute wealth. They have had ample opportunity to do so but their changes are tiny. There is to be no disturbance to remaining wealth intergenerational handover.
Require New Zealand to accept Maori as core New Zealand identity.
In every single government agency, department and entity, all their contractors, and local government and their contractors, Te Ao Maori protocols and practices are enforced. Finally it is a requirement that the secondary education syllabus teach Maori history as part of New Zealand history. Bring te ao Maori into the discourse of public holidays and indeed into the measurement of time itself. Enable the Maori caucus within Labour to have its head and see where it goes. Reverse the decline of Maori language and practice, as if it is both essential to our identity as a country, and to our competitive advantage as a country. Let some things go wrong and accept on balance that it’s good. Use state procurement as a primary lever to favour growing Maori commerce: they have proven above all other kinds of commerce to be loyal to New Zealand. Use state commercial power as the primary lever to bring wealth to the Maori poor.
Revive politics for the young, ignore the old.
The concerns of the young have been an ideological engine of this government. Labour is deliberately out of step of talkback radio, newspapers and TV news and has such attunement to Twitter and TikTok, when it focuses on self-identity and sexuality and gender and reproductive health, climate change, animal welfare, the voting age, marijuana reform, minim wage and rights, decreasing incarceration, and women in sport and industry.
It keeps the noise of the old down by not mentioning the retirement age and going conservatively on euthanasia, remaining silent on intergenerational wealth transfer, and grinding senior public health down. Whatever the 2023 result Labour has used the triggers of youth to retain their interest in the idea of New Zealand.
It is a deliberately new New Zealand, but kept very quiet.
Labour is forming New Zealand into a deliberate shape even though it never sets out clearly what it’s doing. No big business-to-state conferences. No all-in dialogue. No new language. No particular effort into popularising what they do. No new branding or consistent effort at comms.
It has not proposed to replace the language of the 1984-1998 commercialisation of New Zealand with any other, hence an apparent discursive silence. There is certainly no apparent ideology they have spelled out so the silence is either deliberate or it is through lack of intellectual capacity.
It has neglected most other fields with negligible or sub-therapeutic doses: marine management, conservation, economic development and productivity, innovation, wealth disparity and poverty, health capacity, wealth development, population growth, local skill-building, defence, industry leadership, or anything else like that.
It focused on its limited goals, and that’s that.
The net result of all the work of Labour two terms will be a stronger purpose to the state and to the political order of New Zealand over and above that of commerce and commercialisation. That achievement won’t have much effect upon the citizen other than in moments of crisis, because there is no further developed theory of the state of the state other than that on the tin.
Labour’s recentralisation of power into the political order has meant everyone citizen, visitor and business knows the state will intervene deeper, harder and faster than imagined: it will be recognised as an exemplar in which the state announces simply I’m Back.