This week we published our assessment of the Labour-led coalition’s first 100 days of policy plans and pronouncements. To be clear our assessment is strictly about whether the policies announced are substantive, will likely deliver what their promotors assert, and will progress the state of well-being of New Zealanders. It’s important to differentiate policy substance from any popular public appeal that a policy, a policy announcement or indeed the mana of the messenger – might engender. With policy, what matters is
- the stated objective,
- whether the detail of the policy plan supports that objective,
- and finally whether the implementation of the policy does or does not enable the policy to be effective.
Of course the devil is always in the detail, hyping up a policy is a far cry from delivering the declared effect.
The art of politics obviously is to convince people to believe that ‘things will get better’ as a result of whoever the government is. It is not necessary to justify that expectation in any robust fashion. The fact that 20% of the electorate moved to Labour immediately after it changed leader is testimony to that. Donald Trump’s hyperbole on the transformations he intends to effect is legendary. The voting public is most often happy to believe, seldom is its thinking sufficiently rigorous to assess the efficacy of a politician’s policy declarations. Of course voters do react eventually, but normally well after policy failure is manifest.
We can consider governments of being two broad types; caretaker governments and transformational governments. The difference is that the latter actually delivers effective reform. Its far more common that we get caretaker regimes, some might talk a big game at times, but deliver very little to fulfil their proclamations. Governments in New Zealand since the transformational governments of 1984 and 1990 have been caretakers.
The Ardern government, with its persona of optimism, conciliation rather than confrontation, and consultation rather than control, is absolutely on the front foot with the voting public’s support. That all occurred with 48 hours of Jacinda’s elevation to the leadership, when 20% of the electorate shifted allegiance. They did that with no policy change from Labour whatsoever. Since then Labour has made various declarations that suggest it might become one of those rare transformational regimes – climate change, freshwater, child poverty, these are examples of topics the PM has sold a message of substantial reform. Obviously, we hope that the government can follow through on these declarations .It would be a dramatic shift from the previous government that focused on a regime of economic growth at the expense of all else.
Over the first 100 days one cannot adjudge whether her government will live up to its own promotion. But following its pre-election declarations has come 100 days of policy elaboration, so it is possible now to get an indication of how transformational it is likely to be.
It is the reality rather than the expectation that is of interest to us in the policy evaluation that we’ve carried out. In other words, what is reasonable to expect from each of the policy announcements and elaborations in the 100 day list. The reasonableness assessment can only be made by comparison to what the policy research and advisory community consensus is on any issue. We’re not interested here in what the popular expectation of voters might be, or the hyperbole of politicians - remembering that most of them will not be strongly knowledgeable in any but a couple of specific policy areas, if that. And, in most areas many voters will align with the intent rather than the content – of which they are not equipped to evaluate.
Standing back from the detail of the evaluation we’ve conducted, suffice to say that we classified the 100 day package of measures from the Ardern government as mainly mediocre or inadequate. Of the 17 measures we considered, 10 of them turn out to be mediocre or inadequate in terms of their chances of significant impact. Of the 7 we passed, 3 of them are enquiries rather than policy action as yet – so clearly the benefit of the doubt must be given at this time.
On balance our overall impression is the Ardern government will be another journeyman caretaker effort of the sort that all governments New Zealand has had for the last 30 years. Remember that two of those – Helen Clark’s and John Key’s – had significant tenure, so clearly met all that voters expected of them. As we say, policy excellence is not the be-all and end-all of government in New Zealand. Far from it in fact, much of the electorate is so comfortable that they want governments that don’t disturb the status quo.
We’re not making any statements on whether the Ardern government will endure and be popular, given that demonstrably has little to do with the efficacy of policy and more to do with the softer attributes of empathy, commonality and identity with voters.
Our conclusion though is that any expectations of significant improvements in the lives of New Zealanders as a result of electing this government will not be borne out by the policies it has signalled. We expect inequality and low productivity to continue to beleaguer our socio-economic landscape – albeit with a significant portion of the electorate comfortable, content, and complacent about those less fortunate.