National must balance policy with public good to remain popular

Peter Dunne
Wellington, December 1, 2023

Dame Jacinda Ardern observed after she stood down as Prime Minister that “Government is not just what you do, it is how you make people feel.”

While an interesting insight into how she viewed the purpose of government (and, some would argue, an explanation of why her government seemed focused as much on appearance as on substance) it is also nevertheless a very pertinent reminder to Christopher Luxon as he begins his term as Prime Minister.

Ardern’s message that policy change, however well designed or intended, ultimately only succeeds if people feel it is in their best interests is an especially relevant consideration for the new National-led government as it commences its term and embarks upon its “100-Day Action Plan.”

The 100-Day Action Plan

The Plan contains 49 actions which National says were key elements of the election campaign that it wants to get started on. It is a mixture of repealing legislation passed by the previous government – like the Auckland regional fuel tax, the so-called “Ute” tax, and Three Waters – and new policies like banning the wearing of gang patches, allowing the sale of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, restoring 90-day trials for all businesses, and extending free breast screening to those aged up to 74.

The overall impression the government is seeking to establish is threefold. First, that it is a government of action, getting on with the job it was elected to do. Second, that it means business by moving quickly to drop policies of the previous government that it did not support. And third, it can be relied upon to carry forward the policy programme contained in National’s coalition agreements with ACT and New Zealand First. Overall, and consistent with the Ardern maxim, it wants to establish, if it can, the narrative that it is acting quickly and decisively in the public interest to get the country “back on track” so that people will feel better and more positive.

In that regard, it is doubtful that the new government’s first move, good policy though it is, to restore the Reserve Bank’s monetary policy focus solely on reducing inflation will immediately seize the public’s attention. It is by no means clear that National has yet convinced the public how important it is that inflation be curbed, if living standards are to rise, and that adjusting the Reserve Bank’s mandate is more than just a technical change to the operation of monetary policy.

The Smoke-Free Legislation

The government’s plans regarding smoke-free legislation are an even more dramatic instance. For the record, the government plans to “repeal amendments to the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act 1990 and (associated) regulations,” not to abandon the policy entirely, as some health professionals who ought to know better, have implied.

The amendments it is referring to came into effect on 1 January 2023, with the associated regulations being promulgated in late September. Most of the provisions do not come into full effect until 2024-2025, and the restriction on the sale of tobacco products to persons born before 2009 does not take effect until 1 January 2027.

There is therefore plenty of time for the government to develop an alternative approach, consistent with Prime Minister Luxon’s stated commitment to continue to reduce smoking rates if it is of a mind to do so. However, by focusing its early defence of the policy on the need to secure tax revenue from tobacco sales to help the government accounts, and to protect tobacco retailers from potential burglaries, the government immediately lost the argument, at least as far as the public was concerned. To most people, it just looks like winding back forward-looking changes, and nothing more.

Public health risks

As was demonstrated dramatically by the Ardern government during the pandemic, measures to protect public health, no matter whether they work or not, always score highly. Conversely, measures seen to risk public health are dramatic losers, as the negative public reaction, and some of the ridiculous and extreme over-reactions in some quarters to the government’s smokefree policy, have shown. It has gifted its opponents – political and socio-medical alike – the easy line that the government cares more about tax cuts than protecting public health.

Whatever worthy arguments the government may have in favour of its policy – and protecting the tax base is not one of them – it is not going to win over the public unless it can develop and implement alternative policies to reduce smoking rates within the time frame of the legislation it is now set to repeal. Of all the issues governments confront, health is the most sensitive and the most personal, the one people care greatest about. It is therefore the issue where the Ardern maxim has its highest relevance.

Positive public mood 

Establishing a positive public mood is an important contributor to political success, but it needs to be balanced alongside achievement.

The last Labour-led government lost the public’s support when it became clear that there was little in the way of substantive policy gains to balance its warm and caring approach.

For the new National-led coalition, the other side of the coin applies. It will lose public support if it is seen to be too focused on its policy agenda as an end, rather than taking the public along with it, as it makes changes.

Getting the balance right – which Labour failed to do – will determine the success or failure of the Luxon government. Its early handling of the smokefree legislation shows it has some way to go in that regard, and that a long rocky road may lie ahead.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown from December 1999 and September 2017 under the Labour and National-led governments. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly Column.

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