In 1993 Roger Douglass wrote “define your objectives clearly, and move towards them in quantum leaps, otherwise the interest groups will have time to mobilise and drag you down”. The current government has applied this strategy with skill and vigour and to great success.
Labour and the Greens have recognised this, but not effectively. Their response has been good old fashioned parliamentary opposition. It’s been a depressing and spectacular failure. As Jane Clifton pointed out in the Listener this week, they’ve got a target which is failing on almost every front: houses are both terrible and expensive, the TPPA is a disaster, and the flag thing has tripped off the balcony and is staggering around with its head in the punch bowl. And now, realising that he looks like a hard-hearted scoundrel, Key is toning down his hard line on refugees: the only good thing this Government’s doing is everyone else’s idea.
Still, the rapid fire agenda adopted by the Government sets a wicked trap, into which Labour and Greens have fallen head first. The more the government does which they don’t like, the more they have to complain. And the more they complain, the more they become defined by the Government’s agenda, not their own. This creates the impression that they don’t have one. Whether they do or not is beside the point. Of course they do.
It turns out that classic, oppositional strategies only work when the Government plays like a gentlemen, or an amateur.
What would happen if Labour and the Greens (and the folks at Action Station) picked a single issue, prioritised it above all others and divided the country over it? This has some precedent.
In 2008, a bunch of truck drivers blocked up city streets to protest Labour’s plan to increase their road tax. They provided a powerful symbol that embodied everything National and its pundits had been parroting over three terms in opposition: tax is bad, roads are good and critical analysis is a waste of time. Even with the tax increase the trucking companies were paying less tax under Labour than they were under the previous National government, but nobody listened. Labour was already tired, and this spectacular demonstration galvanised conservative voters and alienated progressive ones like nothing else.
In another century, Marilyn Waring cost Muldoon the 1984 election, crossing the floor on the nuclear issue, but it was the Springbok tour three years earlier which unified a broad and highly motivated opposition to his National government. Lange’s election-winning nuclear stance drew a lot of support from those tumultuous years.
And now, nearing the middle of National’s third term, Labour and Greens should be doing the same thing with the TPPA. It unites everyone from hard-core radicals to middle-everything moderates. I can’t remember anything this urgent, and with this much agreement, since – well – since the ’81 tour. Maybe not even that.
If you buy health products, if you’re a client of PHARMAC; if you like organic food; if you invest money; if you respect limits on booze and fags; if you don’t want widespread GM; if you use the internet; if you’re a dairy farmer; if you think the government’s first obligation is to New Zealanders … then you have good reasons to oppose the TPPA, and any government that wishes to advance it.
Thousands marched all over the country in the middle of August. Since then, nothing’s happened. It’s been back to housing, on with refugees, general flapping around the flag, something about climate change. Yes, these things matter, hugely. Yes, the Government’s making a mess out of all of them. Yes, the opposition need to keep on them. But no, they should not eclipse the one thing that impacts everything else: the TPPA. But that’s what Labour, the Greens and the progressive community appear to be doing.
I know this is the case, because since the march on August 15th, nobody’s asked me to do anything about the TPPA that I haven’t already done, and they should be. The government is on a losing wicket with the TPPA. If the deal doesn’t come together, National will go into the next election having failed to achieve one of its key agenda items. If the deal goes ahead (which it probably will), National will still hear about it for ever. It’ll be like butter in the 1970s, only in reverse, and of our own making.
In his campaign for Green Party co-leadership, James Shaw made climate change his top priority. But as long as the Government continues to pursue the TPPA, he’s wasting his time. Given what we don’t know, it seems pretty clear the the TPPA is climate change. It is everything that Labour and the Greens oppose, along – you can bet it’s true – with a great many snapper-eating New Zealanders.
In 1981 thousands of us protested the tour on a regular basis. Many of us suffered abuse, violence, and prosecution, for a cause in a country most of us will never see (for which Titewhai Harawira was justified in her criticism).
By comparison, the TPPA is being managed in secret, but – from the little we know – will stitch us up in our own country for ever and a day, and will be the most unpopular thing ever. Why have all those with an interest in changing the government taken their foot off it? Complacency? Hardly. The government is simply doing so much damage, so fast, that its opponents simply can’t keep up.