Three terms in opposition will make any political party desperate and the New Zealand Labour Party is no exception. That is why we have seen Andrew Little, the leader of the Labour Party who was elected not by a free vote of individual party members but by the block-voting of union affiliates, push two new policies that are cynical in the extreme. Firstly, he has proposed Labour will introduce three years' free tertiary education. Currently, many tertiary students take advantage of the government's no-interest student loans policy, a significant financial benefit over previous interest-bearing loans that was introduced (at considerable taxpayers' expense) by the previous Helen Clark Labour Government. The new policy is expected to cost around $1 billion per year.
Let us examine the impact of this new policy on two young people. The first chooses to study law and after graduating will quickly rise to be amongst the highest income earners in the country (probably representing Maori tribes seeking even larger Treaty of Waitangi claim payouts from the government - the most lucrative legal gig in New Zealand these days). The second chooses to leave school and use self-taught web development skills to start a small business building websites for local companies. This latter person takes the most risk and while he or she may make a reasonable income they are unlikely to make anywhere near the eventual income of the law graduate, and yet the web developer will have to pay more even taxes to support the lawyer's tertiary education. How is that fair?
The worst thing about this policy is that no one is demanding it (apart from, perhaps, the heads of the university students associations). It is so obviously an attempt to buy young people's votes at the next election that one wonders whether Andrew Little has any shame.
The second policy Little has announced is his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. This is despite the fact that it was the Clark Labour Government that signed the original agreement and that all the latest version of the agreement does is to extend the deal to more countries (including the United States) and to more goods and services. Two senior members of Little's team (Phil Goff and David Shearer) have already indicated they will cross the floor and vote with the National Government in favour of the deal.
Why would Little break the unity of his caucus to oppose something his party has always supported? The reason is not so much about cynical vote-buying as about Little doing his masters' bidding. Little's masters are, of course, the union leaders who ensured he became Labour Party leader. The unions oppose TPP because it threatens feather-bedded jobs in protected industries and have ordered him to oppose it. Never mind democratic process, the union bosses have said 'jump' and Little's response is 'how high?'
Everyone expects politicians to act in their own political interests and that of their supporters, but in both these cases the Labour Party is pursuing narrow, sectoral interests rather than the interests of the country (or Labour voters) as a whole. If this is an indication of how a Little-led Labour Government will act, then I hope we never see such a thing in reality.