Labour’s long march back to the Beehive has begun.
Its weekend conference revealed a party surprisingly united and ready to set clear policy and organisational goals to make it a viable opposition party again.
One phrase dominated those parts of the conference that were open to the media — Labour values.
It was given to Finance Spokesman, Grant Robertson, to define those and in a sentence he said Labour stood for shared prosperity.
In a way the party is going back to go forwards.
Leader Andrew Little referred back to the party’s past and ticked off the achievements of its big leaders, Savage, Fraser, Nash, Kirk, Lange and Clark and then defined what he called “the kiwi dream” which he said was: ““Owning a home; having security for the people we love; a chance to enjoy the outdoors and the environment we love; and a job that gives us the time and the money to lead a fulfilling life.
THE KIWI DREAM
“These are the aspirations that we all share.
“Together, they’re the Kiwi Dream, a dream that’s central to our country’s identity.”
He said the party had come together at the conference to rebuild that dream.
“Our forebears in this great party put these values at the heart of the Labour project.
“Whenever the Kiwi dream has been threatened, Labour championed it.
“Whenever the rights of New Zealanders needed defending, Labour defended them.
“That’s what previous generations did.
“Now it’s our turn.”
Annette King went back to the first Labour Government’s landmark 1938 Social Security Act and repeated its founding principles for the health service – the prevention of disease, “Prevention in the full sense including good housing, a health environment and an adequate and balanced diet.
She quoted that as support for her policy to have manufacturers voluntarily reduce the sugar content of processed food.
LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE
But like the party’s policy on the TPP, there may have been less to the sugar policy than met the eye.
For a start it was voluntary though there would be targets and they would have to be met inside a deadline.
Mr Little held a feisty press conference on Friday to denounce the TPP – or at least that part of it that didn’t allow a future Government to restrict foreign land sales.
However he conceded that the TPP negotiators had met four out of Labour’s five bottom lines.
Privately Labour MPs were even moderately enthusiastic about some things that had been included in the agreement.
But the right to restrict the land sales was not there and Mr Little repeatedly said he would fight that “tooth and nail”.
But fight what?
There is unlikely to be any legislation specifically related to land sales since the TPP simply confirms the status quo.
The best Labour will be able to do is offer a dissenting opinion in the Select Committee which considers the agreement and then possibly move amendments to any TPP legislation noting their opposition to the missing land sales section.
Again, behind the scenes, they are emphasising they would be unlikely to pull out of the agreement.
Nevertheless if Mr Little’s fiery rhetoric was the price of keeping the rank and file on side it appeared to have worked.
The media were excluded from all policy sessions but the party was publishing remits which had gone through the sessions.
They were predictable Labour party remits; calling for a universal basic income, an increase in the refugee quota, affordable oral health care, more assertive action on climate change and the restoration of collective bargaining and so on.
There were no whispers of splits or divisions during the remit debates.
However the remits had been carefully edited before they got to the conference floor – a trick Labour appears to have learned off National.
One surprising remit, which was passed, appeared to exploit another National trick.
Whilst the Government is formulating a National Policy Standard under the Resource Management Act to allow for faster and more liberal consenting processes for urban residential development, Labour is proposing an NPS for affordable housing which would follow more or less the same path as Environment Minister Nick Smith’s proposal.
But Labour would add on special local government bonds which would be used to pay for the infrastructure needed for new housing developments.
The bonds would be repaid by a 30-year levy on the rates of the houses in the development.
But was this moderation from Labour, simply the party going for the “safe” option after its disastrous previous conferences dominated by issues like its constitutional reforms or the “man ban”?
The new party president, Nigel Haworth, rejected this argument.
“They haven’t been managed for safety,” he told POLITIK.
“What’s happening is everything comes forward and only a handful are selected by the Policy Council to come forward because they are seen as being priority issues.
“Policy Council is a very serious group of people.
“They are not there to monitor, to vet or to censor.”
ROBERTSON’S ECONOMIC PRIORITIES
Grant Robertson actually foreshadowed some of the remits with what he said would be the five core areas which would make up the “path to shared prosperity.
- The opportunity for decent work wherever you live in New Zealand.
- Lifting incomes – including lifting the minimum wage and restoring collective bargaining
- Zero tolerance for child poverty
- Access to affordable and quality housing
- A sustainable future — including restarting contributions to the Cullen fund and transitioning to a low carbon economy.
But Mr Robertson’s big initiative, the Commission on the Future of Work, is still a work in progress.
And it is fraught with challenges.
Delegates got a preview with a panel that included Victoria Crone, the managing director for New Zealand of the software company Xero.
She suggested that smart watches would enable employers to monitor workers’ heart rates and thus be able to rest them if they were too stressed.
The new Combined Trade Unions President, Richard Wagstaff, also on the panel, quickly made the point that this raised any number of issues.
But that was about as close as the conference got to controversy.
And for many in the Caucus and the party, whose memories of the past five years are still raw, that must have been a huge plus.
Next year’s conference will be a policy conference and will come amid celebrations of the party’s centenary.
It will be the launch pad for the party’s election year effort.
So far, so good.