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Chris Ford: Labour selling itself short - and even doing it badly!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

First off, before I begin, I naturally wish to applaud the Green Party's and Labour's policies aimed at easing child poverty which have been released over the last two days. The Greens have focused on improving support via the education system while Labour has gone for what has been mistakenly seen and labelled as a 'baby bonus' policy.

However, in the social media world, comment against Labour's policy, in particular, has been harsh. I have to say that even some of its supporters have appeared to criticise the policy for seeking to encourage the underclass to supposedly have more children, and at the other extreme, for giving away taxpayer money to supposedly rich parents. Not that Labour's policy is seeking to do completely either as, after all, the policy cuts out at $150k per household (which, theoretically, would see a couple on $75k each lose out completely) and Sue Bradford has also criticised the policy for not going far enough in giving payments to all beneficiary families (as I believe it should).

Therefore, it seems that Labour can't win both ways. It either is getting flayed for supposedly giving beneficiaries and the rich additional taxpayer money when, in reality, it doesn't go far enough in either direction. For one thing, I am a fan of universality in that, yes, I personally favour paying both the families of rich and poor New Zealanders a universal child allowance in recognition of the additional costs that parenting brings and the value of children to our society. Besides, universality means that there is not the hassle and cost involved in means testing assistance. I say this because, after all, it appears that the majority of New Zealanders are still supportive of the concept of universal superannuation at age 65. However, I find it completely deplorable that more New Zealanders are not prepared to accept near universal (as Labour's scheme is) payments for young children alongside other good measures.

I hope that all this doesn't mean that more New Zealanders accept the New Right's arguments around the need for, what is essentially, the continuation of selfishness. I am also saddened and disappointed by many people's swallowing of myths around how poorer families supposedly make poor lifestyle choices for their children. I firmly believe that poverty is structurally created and not the fault of the individual. I am also saddened by the idea that rich people cannot accept any income from the state. I firmly believe therefore that they pay the bulk of this country's taxes and thus, it is their right to receive a payment in return from the state (if they desire to take it up) in recognition of that. I remember, for example, how my late paternal grandfather took out National Superannuation in his retirement despite the fact that he had been a successful farmer, race horse owner, and small businessperson. I believed that he was as much entitled to that payment as my family (a middle class farming family) had been when receiving universal child benefit back in the 1970s and 1980s. Therefore, these entitlements were there as a right of citizenship (and still are with superannuation) in recognition of the contribution made by older people in building our country and should be available once again to all families raising children.

And that's where Labour's narrative has fallen flat - it hasn't sold the policy as one predicated on citizenship. It hasn't used good arguments in that, for example, the Australian Tories under John Howard introduced a similar policy back in the 2000s - something both my Australian-based sisters benefited from when they had their children. Labour could have done some things better too as they could have tied in their policy launch with a simultaneous mail shot campaign through the ordinary post or by using Labour activists in a door knocking campaign to reinforce the message - something I remember they did successfully when Kiwi Build was launched. They now need to go back to the drawing board, not on the policy itself, but on how it's being sold - and I hope some of these ideas are a start. The way that Labour have sold their policies has been a gift to National when it should never have been.

Contrast this with how the Greens launched their similar children's policy. Yes, it has drawn some flack from the usual quarters but the party's messages about creating community school hubs; providing free lunches to school children (as opposed to breakfasts); funding free school nurses; and providing free child care and school holiday programmes has gone down better - because it's been messaged better. Metiria's speech (or what I saw of it on Sunday) was superb and was backed up again today by Russel Norman's excellent speech in response to the Prime Minister's Statement.

That's why I believe that Labour needs it own Clint! If no one knows or remembers who Clint is, he's the mysterious guy that Gareth Hughes turned to for advice one day while giving an on-camera interview about whether he had presented his message correctly - thinking in doing so that he was off camera. I have to say that the Greens have really come across well due to the sharp media operation they have run, something which has been remarked upon even by Matthew Hooton.

And just as this is being written, I have also come across web stories stating that Labour wants to ban Facebook. Yes, I understand that Facebook has not been a very good corporate citizen and has been allegedly underpaying its taxes. I realise that what Labour was wanting to say was that it would seek to bring corporate multinationals operating in New Zealand - like Facebook - into full tax compliance mode. But seeking to ban what is a very popular (if not the most popular) social networking site from New Zealand as a last resort will be misread by many as censorship gone mad. In fact, the party could have used better examples but now they will be backpedalling on this faux pas for days and National will be undeservedly laughing all the way into next month.

I believe that Labour and the Greens have both been brave and bold in coming out with policies to challenge inequality. I have to admit that it isn't going to be easy to sell these policies to an electorate which has increasingly lapped up New Right messages over the last thirty years, sometimes without much critical thought or analysis. But they must be sold  to an electorate which needs to hear them. In essence, Labour should stop selling itself short - or it will doom the whole centre-left victory project at this year's election! The one good thing is, though - time is still on our side - and the whole left must use it to good advantage by making no further serious presentational errors! And in that, Labour should look to the example of the Greens about how to sell policy (even potentially controversial ones) well.


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