Monday, October 13, 2014

Why David Parker *isn't* a credible choice for the Labour Leadership

The one electoral contest this year that a Labour leader is sure to win heated up over the weekend with the late entry of Finance Spokesman (and interim caretaker leader) David Parker into Labour's leadership race.

I'd blogged late last week about how Andrew Little's candidacy is likely to become an underrated but popular effort, thanks to his three core easy to understand and implicitly resonant policies.

These include axing Labour's proposal to raise the retirement age for workers to 65; taking out Labour's Capital Gains Tax on the middle class's retirement savings (because seriously - who raises the retirement age at the same time as promoting a policy to take more of the retirement savings you'll assumedly need to keep above water between 65 and 67); and removing the confusing and ultimately problematic in the efficiency stakes Labour/Greens joint policy of a single electricity buyer called NZ Power.

These are awesome points to reform Labour with, and they resonate well with tens of thousands of voters who decided not to back Labour last time around. The fact they're lifted direct from the New Zealand First policy manual is only further proof they're common sense :P

Now given how eminently *reasonable* (and, dare I say it, /electable/ if his policy agenda goes through) Andrew Little's platform was, I started counting down the seconds until somebody from inside Labour rocked up to remind me why they lost the last three elections.

Enter David Parker.

It's no secret that I'm rather leery about David Parker. He's quite clearly  frightfully intelligent and well versed, and I genuinely thrilled to hear him verbally slap down David Seymour at the Auckland Central BackBenches just before the election - Seymour had made a point in favour of reducing planning and zoning restrictions ... Parker lightning-riposted by asking Seymour how his Epsomite constituents would feel when planning/zoning restrictions were a thing of the past, resulting in things like five-story prisons in residential areas ruining the views and the property values. Top stuff. Regrettably, however, he partners what's obviously a pretty sharp mind with a somewhat hesitant speaking style (not that this stopped David Shearer exceeding David Cunliffe's Preferred Prime Ministership polling for months..) and a penchant for REALLY REALLY REPREHENSIBLY NEOLIBERAL SOUNDING policy outlook and orientation.

I mean, let's start with two of those policies that Andrew Little wants put out to pasture: the capital gains tax and raising the retirement age to 67.

Both of these are David Parker authored policies, apparently. And, as Finance Spokesperson, he's directly and personally responsible for their ongoing presence in Labour's policy manifesto.

Don't get me wrong, I'm really glad that Parker has *finally*, after two elections, realized that the only thing Labour was accomplishing by banging on about raising the pension age was losing votes and causing Young Nats to demand the Old Nats did likewise (because Young Nats *know* a hard-right policy when they see it, and are dearly annoyed when their parent party comes out *to the left* of Labour on an issue) ... but considering it's taken *two elections* for Labour to realize that the most obviously unpopular policies in its manifesto weren't exactly helping to win votes, I'm not entirely sure how legit it is to celebrate a sudden outbreak of political nous in the upper echelons of the Labour Party. This is particularly the case given Parker has not actually backed down from raising the retirement age ... but instead appears to be seeking to put the question of raising the age of superannuation to a referendum so as to avoid the stigma of Labour itself putting the age up.

He's also demonstrated how he operates by saying he'll put Labour's Capital Gains Tax policy (aka the thing David Lange said you SHUT UP ABOUT AND STOP PUSHING if you are a Labour Party seeking a term in government) up for "review". Not sure quite why you need a "review" of the policy when Andrew Little's already cottoned on to the obvious and electorally viable solution of removing the policy entirely ... but I suppose the review process is basically there to assuage party rank and file who've been banging on about the policy's unpopularity for some time - while finding eminently surplus-serving reasons to keep the CGT regardless.

Of arguably greater concern, however, is the man's record of really, really, obviously neoliberal quotes.


During the 2011-2014 Parliamentary term, David Parker made a speech setting out Labour's stance when it came to asset ownership and privatization.

See if you can spot the blindingly obvious problem with what he had to say: "Labour published a closed list of assets that we believe ought to be run in the New Zealand interest [...] That list excludes telecommunications and electricity generation."

So David Parker isn't actually concerned about whether electricity generation assets like those privatized by National are state owned ... or even whether they're "run in the New Zealand interest". I appreciate there is some difference of opinion as to the extent to which formerly SOE power companies being 49% privately owned is a bad thing ... but SURELY Labour and Parker ought to be, in reality, regardless of what he said in the highly publicized and much quoted speech, advocates for these power generation assets being run in the New Zealand interest (and, one would hope, by the state) rather than, say, a foreign shareholder's interests?

Well, given Parker stated in the New Zealand Herald as recently as last year his belief that "competitive markets don't need regulation", I suppose I really shouldn't find his hostility toward electricity generation or telecommunications assets being "run in the New Zealand interest" - or even state-owned - in any way surprising.

Just to recap, David Parker appears to be running for the Labour Party leadership on the old trick pony of sidestepping personal responsibility and avoiding ditching what surely must have been two of Labour's least popular policies for two elections running. Instead of listening to the broad swathe of New Zealanders who've comprehensively rejected both measures at the ballot box every time they've come up - and axing the policies as a result ... Parker is apparently calling for a "referendum" on raising the pension age, and a "review" of Labour's CGT policy. What's the bet the "review" process roundly ignores voter concerns with the CGT and instead attempts to blame Cunliffe's debate gaffe for the CGT's singular and enduring unpopularity.

The reason why I rate Andrew Little, by contrast, is because he's done exactly the opposite of what Parker's done. It's always difficult to edit, cut, or outright abolish policy you, yourself have worked on. I'm no major party finance spokesperson (yet), but I definitely get very attached and protective of some of the policy I've written (for example, elements of the NZ First Tertiary Education Policy) and find myself frantically attempting to mentally justify why it's the electorate rather than the policy/party that's wrong so that I don't have to cut something I've worked hard on and believe in.

This appears to be what's going on with Parker. Rather than take heed of the electorate's screaming demands for the pension age to be kept at 65 and a CGT avoided if at all possible, he's digging his heels in on the CGT (hence "review" rather than "remove") and has sought out an alternative implementation mechanism for his pension age reform that either leaves the blood on the collective voters of New Zealand's hands if we vote to raise the age - or doesn't really do anything whatsoever and hopefully puts this political football firmly back into touch if we all vote NO. This affords Parker the interesting position of being able to push for a particular policy-outcome without ultimately wielding the knife, and keeping his hands a little cleaner for when the electorate comes baying for blood.

Little, by contrast, did the smart thing. He's evidently been out talking to Labour's volunteers, supporters, affiliates and voters. Arguably more importantly, he's also been looking at the lie of the political land; and has taken the obvious lesson that those parties which were opposed to raising the pension age or the implementation of a domestic CGT appear to have reaped considerable dividends at the polls.

This reveals a fundamental difference of approach, and potentially priorities between Little and Parker.

Where Parker has embraced a narrow and technocratic mindset when it comes to the CGT and pension age, that emphasizes fiscal considerations at the expense of democratic-viability ones; Little has actually demonstrated an ability to engage with the electorate and respond to its perceived misgivings about some of Labour's more unpopular policy.

Dependent upon which style of leader you feel is best to combat John Key with - fiscally restrained but obviously intelligent technocratic economic manager for the direct rival; or man who actually engages with what a neglected part of the electorate that Labour's needed to reconnect with for two elections now ... your faith in either candidate's ability to do the job will vary.

However, taking a slightly longer-term perspective, it's worthwhile noting what each candidate's difference of approach to these issues tells us about their likely leadership style if and when they actually ascend to lead the nation. I'd be lying if I didn't own up to being a bit trepidatious about the idea of a somewhat neoliberally inflected technocrat whose policy priorities and philosophic penchants seem occasionally far more at home in the centre or centre-right than they do in the left-hand corner of the social democratic milieu where New Zealand's political epicenter *should* be situated at.

It's also worthy of note that, in stark contrast to Parker's complete lack of care about whether our formerly state-owned energy companies are run by the New Zealand government - or even in the New Zealand national interest - New Zealand First has had some measured success with pushing a power company #Renationalization bottom line.

The reason why I mention this, of course, is because one part of our rationale over here in NZF for advocating for full-blown #Renationalization and amalgamation of the nation's electricity generation capacity ... was, in point of fact, penned by David Parker. According to 2006 David Parker, a single buyer model as encapsulated in 2014 Labour's NZ Power scheme was likely to be less efficient and desirable than the fully #Nationalized and amalgamated generation entity that NZF advocates for.

So who knows. He might be amenable to reason after all.

In any case, I'm not here to back or support any particular Labour leadership candidate. I know how incredibly annoying it can be when pontificating and prognosticating figures from other parties grandstand and pick over your internal politics - not least because outsiders can very easily wind up producing breathless and decontextualized observations that are frequently fraught with inaccuracies if not outright laughably wrong.

But considering the manifest importance of the outcome of the Labour leadership contest for the electoral hopes of the less-terrible end of politics in 2017, I do definitely feel that the candidates - as well as their policies and style of politics - deserve close scrutiny from all quarters. After all, as incredibly unlikely as it might seem right now ... one of these gentlemen may in the not too distant future be Prime Minister.

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