Opinion: The strange year of ultra-cautious politics

Justice Minister Andrew Little’s plans for penal system reform are the biggest future political risk.

There was enough unease, in the 2017 electorate,  to produce a change of government – but only just enough, and even then only after the special votes came in.

It has been an unusual year in politics. That might seem a strange thing to say, given the surface levels of calm over the past 12 months. 

It's been unusual because of what has not happened. For all the talk from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of wanting to lead a “transformational” government, mostly it has been a year of small and cautious moves.

That's unusual for the first year of any new government.

Usually, when the government changes, the first 12 months see a rash of initiatives, dreamed up in opposition and which turn out to be not quite ready to meet reality. There are backdowns, sometimes quite large ones. 

In the case of the Labour-New Zealand First Coalition, a notoriously large number of working groups, commissions and the like have been launched. The last government to play it this way was John Key’s ultra-cautious administration. 

Only one government has been an exception to this ultra caution – and more on that below. 

But take that exception out? 

So far, we are looking at a relatively straightforward, if ever-so-slightly-liberal-ish government with perhaps a slight bias toward building railways and launching save-the-kiwi programmes.

That has meant a frustrating time for all political partisans but particularly those on the government side. It's probably a good thing if one considers such hardships as good for the soul. 

Stoking frustration 
True, some of this frustration has abated over the past few months, as one or two of the more stratospheric if ill-defined expectations have settled down.

But those expectations are still there. They are going to stoke frustration of the government's core supporters as Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s “wellbeing budget” draws closer.

The problem is the government never had a mandate for the kind of “transformational” (whatever that happens to be this week) administration that its leaders want.

Election 2017 was not a vote for change; well, not much anyway, or not in any political direction.

Instead, a broadly prosperous electorate had some concerns about the strength and breadth of that prosperity, especially anything to do with housing.  The feeling that too many people were being left behind is something even National Party MPs were reporting back in the wake of the 2014 election. 

National did nowhere near enough to address that. There were changes – the beginnings of the social investment strategy was potentially truly “transformational” – but those were lost in other areas. National was too twitchy to make meaningful change in housing and instead burnt up  political oxygen in trivia such as the John Key’s flag referendum.

Great unexpectations 
Labour’s political problem is to take enough of the electorate with it on its “transformational” journey – wherever that might be going.

The first task is to get people used to the idea that this unexpected government is, in fact, a responsible and reliable government.

It can take time to get used to the idea of individual politicians as holding senior office. When they are in opposition, the prospect of individual politicians as responsible ministers can seem preposterous. Much of the trick of government involves getting acceptance that having them around the cabinet table is not so outlandish. 

The Labour-NZ First-Green political conurbation looked both unlikely and potentially unstable at its outset. The best way to counteract that has been for ministers to keep away from any radical policy moves.

Time is the important factor here: It allows those crucial swing voters, the ones who don’t necessarily follow politics closely but who just want the general feeling the place is not being run too badly, to stay quiescent.

There has been one exception to this no-risk policy. No, not the referendum on marijuana. Allowing a such a referendum, rather than adopting decriminalisation as a policy, is the acme of cautious politics.

Alarming business
Nor is the oil and gas exploration ban a high-risk policy, politically. This was an immensely important policy because it alarmed and annoyed business groups.
 

But the Labour, NZ First and Green party bases are quite happy with those grizzles. Ministers absolutely need a low level of grumbling from the business sector. The party activists lap up that kind of thing. 

No, the big political risk comes from Justice Minister Andrew Little’s attempt to move the country’s penal system away from its punitive default position.

The previous government talked briefly, and behind the back of its hand, about how the "lock 'em up" mentality is, as Bill English put it at the time, “a fiscal and moral failure.” 

But National was too wedded to that approach to shift. 

The risk Mr Little is taking is large: a couple of violent bashings – or worse – by people who have been let out of prison earlier, say, and you can see where the politics of this will go.

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