We are in the concluding stages of an election campaign. Its signature feature has been a form of retail politics in which political parties “set out their wares” in such a way as to address the pressing and foremost interests and values of their core constituencies.
This has given prominence to hot-topic issues of the moment that move the emotions, like cost-of-living, tax cuts, crime, race, benefits, pot holes, and roads.
This is democracy in action and it is calculated to get out the vote. And it will shape the form of any new government.
But, while this strategy may move the emotions of the moment, it does not address many of the long-term policy questions that New Zealand faces. For example:
How is New Zealand going to lift its standard of living out of an excessive reliance on the mass production of low-value exports in sectors like farming, fishing, lumber, and tourism?
How are we going to meet climate change obligations for emissions reductions by 2030 that we have legally signed up to by international agreement?
How are we going to pay for the increasing demands of health and superannuation that Treasury tells us will require a fourfold increase in public debt by 2060 on current trajectories?
How will we shift the dial on affordability of housing, lower rents, homelessness, and a privileging of the trading of property over investment in the productive economy?
In other words, there is a policy mismatch between the immediate requirements of partisan contest in our three-year electoral cycle and the need for stable cross-party consensus to address the long-term policy questions that face New Zealand.
This has long been recognised and has been associated with suggestions for a four-year parliamentary term, the development of independent, arms-length institutions such as parliamentary commissioners, royal commissions, and other independent advisory bodies (such as the Infrastructure and Climate Change Commissions), and greater support for non-partisan, future-oriented institutions and organisations such as universities and think tanks.
It is in this spirit that The Helen Clark Foundation was established nearly five years ago as an independent, non-partisan think tank with peer-reviewed reports commissioned in the areas of housing, congestion charging, impacts of climate change, harm reduction in drug use, and added value in the primary sector.
Another area that does not lend itself to the retail politics of a closely contested election, but which is important to our future, is reducing poverty and inequality.
In a recent webinar hosted by the foundation as a contribution to featuring expertise in an area of strategic and social significance, the findings of a recent Productivity Commission report that there is a high degree of persistent disadvantage in New Zealand, were noted.
The number of people – just under 700,000 – who were living in poverty had not changed between the 2013 and 2018 censuses.
Thus, there is a problem of poverty and inequality that affects many households. Yet other data presented to the webinar on material hardship and an adjusted measure of poverty showed a halving of child poverty from a high of about 30% and 20 % for the two measures respectively in 2008, to a significantly lower level of 15 and 10% in 2022.
So, it’s a mixed picture, and there are no easy answers. Is it, as suggested in the debate on benefits, a matter of making it tougher for beneficiaries to stay on the public payroll in order to persuade them to take up work, or is it more effective – and more compassionate – to adopt a less punitive approach?
The answer seems to be that a judicious combination of sticks and carrots is what works.
If we look at the world leaders in maintaining low levels of poverty – the Nordic (Scandinavian) countries – they are indeed tough in their work requirements. For example, they require sole mothers to seek work at quite an early age of their children.
But in doing so they do their best to establish an enabling environment; in particular, they make it easy to gain new skills and educational qualifications, and they provide affordable childcare.
In addition, the financial rewards of employment need to be high and they need to enjoy reasonable job security, together with affordable and secure housing and a commitment to a full employment economy.
It’s using an active labour market policy to maintain household incomes by keeping people in work, but with the required human touch and upfront investment.
It has been said that the poor will always be with us, which is suggestive of a certain fatalism. That need not be so.
Compassionate but evidence-based public policy can do its work such that poverty levels fall substantially as they have for the elderly, where New Zealand’s record is good, and as we have with another key indicator, unemployment, where active economic policy makes the difference.
Retail politics – listening to our core constituencies – is the beating heart of democracy. But we also need ways of engaging these constituencies in the settlement of key issues that stretch beyond the electoral cycle and that determine our destiny as a nation.
These issues require a strategic vision that can forge consensus across party divisions. That seems an elusive prospect at present.
Peter Davis is the Helen Clark Foundation Chair.
This blog originally appeared in The Post.Read more