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Dr Muriel Newman

Election 2011 – round one

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The campaign for New Zealand’s 2011 General Election on 26 November has started. The jostling and jockeying, shaking hands and kissing babies, meetings and protests, promises and bickering, the battle of ideas for the hearts and minds – and more particularly the votes – of New Zealanders has begun!

Last Friday night over a quarter of a million viewers watched the televised opening addresses of the National Party, the Labour Party and the Green Party. That sounds like a lot, but the ratings tell the real story. On Friday the top ten most-watched programmes in order of popularity were: One News with an audience of 594,730, followed by TV2’s Shortland Street on 481,260, TV1’s Close Up on 436,440, TV3’s 7 Days on 408,080, TV3’s The Graham Norton Show on 391,160, TV3’s X Factor USA on 376,670, TV1’s MasterChef Australia on 346,520, TV2’s Two and a Half Men on 302,430, TV3 News on 270,100, and with an audience of 256,240, TV1’s Election 2011 was in 10th place.1

Our political leaders will no doubt take heart in the fact that they beat Coronation Street, which ranked 11th with 244,140 viewers!

And just to put these figures into a wider perspective, they didn’t come within cooee of the Rugby World Cup final which attracted a massive television audience of almost 2 million Kiwis – TV1 with 687,200 viewers, Sky Sport 1 with 599,770, TV3 with 472,040, and Maori TV with an audience of 225,040!

These televised addresses from parties running in the general election, are all taxpayer funded. Allocation decisions are made by the Electoral Commission based on the level of public support a party has, including poll ratings and the number of MPs. This year the ads will cost us $3,283,250. National and Labour receive the lion’s share of the allocation with $1,150,000 each, the Greens receive $300,000, ACT and the Maori Party $160,000 each, United and New Zealand First $100,000 each, and the Alliance, the Conservatives, the Legalise Cannabis Party, and the Libertarianz Party $20,000 each.

In general parties use their opening addresses to set the scene for their election campaigns. With regard to the two main parties, what became very clear was that National intends to focus on aspiration, while building on its record in government. Labour however, seems intent on reviving class warfare to protect enslaved workers from the ravages of the capitalist elite. The problem for Labour is that few people buy into that story nowadays – life has moved on. And their timing of a negative campaign could not have been worse for a country that has had one hell of a bad news year with earthquakes, a mine disaster, and now a shipwreck. The Rugby World Cup victory at last had delivered some light relief and good news, and negativity will be the last thing that many voters want.

Labour also made a strategic error in their opening address by exposing their ugly side for all to see. In describing National’s tax cuts and the ‘trickle down’ theory as “the rich pissing on the poor”, Labour has lost sight of the fact that aspiration for a better life is a key motivator of most New Zealanders. This ‘hate the rich’ philosophy is, judging by Michael Cullen’s “rich prick” comment when he was Deputy Prime Minister, deeply held within the modern Labour Party. It’s an incredibly destructive attitude and is no doubt one of the reasons that so many of New Zealand’s entrepreneurs and go-getters have left the country – and why our remaining high achievers are more reticent than ever to speak out. It also shows that the Labour Party has failed to understand the fundamental yearning of working class families to get ahead under their own steam, rather than having to rely on plundering politicians to redistribute the wealth of others.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the well-off should get a free ride. They wouldn’t expect that anyway. But I think it is fair to say that they will be offended at being referred to by Labour Party MPs as “rich pricks pissing on the poor”. They will also probably take issue with Labour and the Greens saying the “rich” don’t pay their fair share of tax, when the top 10 percent of households pay over 70 percent of all income tax in New Zealand. In fact if the issue of fairness was to be openly debated, it could be argued that the top income earners in New Zealand are paying a great deal more than their fair share – which is why a flat tax is widely regarded around the world as the fairest form of taxation and one which this country should be moving towards.

The fact is that the tall poppy syndrome has been allowed to run rampant in New Zealand for far too long. Too little is made by our leaders of the positive contribution that entrepreneurs and business people make to society, not only in terms of tax – they provide the majority of tax revenue needed to fund essential services such as health, education, and welfare – but also in terms of jobs and wealth creation. Given that the more successful citizens a country has, the better it does, political parties should be promoting policies to encourage New Zealanders to strive and achieve – policies that discourage such positive behaviours are destructive and hurt everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.

Labour’s derision of the rich belies the fact that many of New Zealand’s – and indeed the world’s – richest individuals have come from struggling working class families. Most would have had parents who encouraged them to succeed and achieve greater rewards than they had ever had the opportunity to enjoy. And in the course of their journey, these high achievers would have taken many others along with them – family, friends, work mates, employees, investors, communities and their country.

Owen Glenn is one such high achiever who came from a working class immigrant background. Leaving Mt Roskill High School at age 15 after gaining his School Certificate, he learnt to recognise opportunity and chase it. Not afraid of hard work – at one stage he held down five jobs – he is now one of New Zealand’s richest men with a successful international business and a history of global philanthropy that dates back over 30 years.

After watching Owen being interviewed by Sean Plunket on TV3’s The Nation last month, and hearing how he passionately believes that New Zealand can do better, I contacted him to invite him to share his views with NZCPR readers on what he believes New Zealand needs to do to get ahead. In his Guest Commentary, Now is the hour for leadership to arise, Owen highlights the need for a successful country to have great leadership. But he reminds us that building a better future is in the hands of people – not governments. He discusses the imperative for bigger and better export growth, and the need to do more to ensure that all children and young people have a good start in life.

With regard to our over-reliance on government, he explains: “The problem is we’ve become overly reliant on others versus ourselves to define our direction. Our over reliance on ‘Government’ – as in ‘Government will do this, or Government will pay for that’ – is an attitude that has become sorely ingrained. I for one believe that some decisions being made, particularly in relation to debt burden, don’t make sense. Moreover, I’m not afraid to say it but maybe I’m in a minority.

“In my mind Government has become way too hands on and too regulated. Too often politicians demonstrate their cleverness — and being ‘on the job’ — by micromanaging things to death. They take control and then strangulate enterprise and initiative.”

Owen Glenn is quite right – the country has become far too dependent on government programmes, many of which we really cannot afford. The worst are those that sound compassionate, but contain destructive incentives that produce perverse outcomes. Take Labour’s Working for Families – I wonder how many workers have turned down promotions or overtime because the extra earnings would tip them over a threshold, causing the loss of some of their welfare payments. Instead of the labour market rewarding people who work harder, under Working for Families it is filled with pitfalls.

Or what about Labour’s interest-free student loans? I wonder how many graduates look at the size of their loan in disbelief and wonder whether they will ever be able to afford to buy a house or have a family, let alone find the money to pay the loan back. Even Labour’s 20 hours free childcare has a downside – how many parents have been persuaded to give up their children, who at three years old are little more than babies, into the care of the state, instead of raising them within their own families?

On November 26, voters will be asked to decide which of the main parties should form our new government. As Owen Glenn points out in his article, leadership matters. National and Labour are pushing agendas that are poles apart. On the one hand National is saying it wants to grow New Zealand’s economy by making it more competitive – through investing in education and infrastructure, cutting red tape, streamlining compliance, and reducing government spending. On the other hand Labour is pushing the politics of division by substantially penalising some New Zealanders through increasing the top rate of income tax, introducing a capital gains tax, and pushing the crucial agricultural sector into the expensive Emissions Trading Scheme years ahead of schedule. In conjunction with this they are planning to give huge powers to their union supporters, firstly by establishing a powerful Workplace Commission of political appointees to control industrial relations in New Zealand, and secondly by imposing binding Industry Standard Agreements on all businesses that will dictate pay and conditions – even if employees and employers don’t want it. This policy will effectively pass control of businesses away from the owners who have risked their capital and devoted their lives to making their enterprises succeed, to the unions.

In searching for an election circuit breaker Labour has pledged to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 – but this policy promise is more form than substance since it is not scheduled to begin until 2020! The Maori Party meanwhile wants the age of retirement for Maori to be lowered to 60 – and they want that policy to begin right away!

With politicians driven to disclose what their real agendas actually are, don’t you love election campaigns?