Amid the energy-sapping and morale-draining bouts of
bedlam afflicting the New Zealand Labour Party, one senior
caucus figure gives every impression of being a veritable rock
of calm and stability.
David Parker's authority and influence as Labour's deputy
leader and finance spokesman has been on the rise as much as
David Cunliffe's has been on the wane.
Mr Parker's standing was further boosted this week by the
release of Labour's alternative Budget, a document that
somehow manages to be both cautious and audacious - and is
all the better in political terms for being so.
The figures and forecasts have been worked, reworked and
worked again to ensure they survive the scrutiny to which
National will no doubt subject them. But that constraint has
not stopped Mr Parker inserting a major surprise in the
package. He has taken the battle over economic policy into
what National views as its own territory by flagging the
possibility of income tax cuts.
Admittedly, such cuts would have to wait until Labour's
second term in Government, due to the lengthy period before
Labour's capital gains tax really starts cranking out
revenue. Even so, when was the last time a Labour finance
spokesman mentioned tax cuts while still ensconced on the
Mr Parker's innovative thinking and hard work is likely go
unrewarded for now. One day, presuming he sticks around long
enough, he will be minister of finance. Judging from his
record so far in Opposition, he will probably be a very good
Unless there is something of a miracle in the next three
months, however, he will not get his mitts on the portfolio
before 2017 at the earliest.
He will be able to blame a combination of factors for that,
ranging from the pick-up in economic growth, which is of huge
benefit to National, to Mr Cunliffe's string of mistakes.
But knowing the Presbyterian streak that runs through Mr
Parker, he will more likely blame himself.
He shouldn't. True, at times he seems to disappear from
public view, seemingly abducted by aliens who reprogramme him
to issue continual warnings of pending economic catastrophe
as the inevitable result of New Zealand's shocking current
Mr Parker is one of a long list of politicians ranging from
Jim Anderton in the 1990s to the Greens' Russel Norman who
are members of this Doomsday Cult and whose forebodings of
disaster are about as accurate as the predictions of the end
of the world made by Jehovah's Witnesses.
Mr Parker can also be pointy-headed at times. There is little
point in winning arguments that your target audience cannot
understand. As Labour's economic reform agenda has begun to
crystallise, however, Mr Parker has come out of his shell and
started to confront National on whether it is simply sitting
back and basking in the current surge in economic growth, but
doing little to prolong it. Labour, on the other hand, is
unquestionably looking long-term at how to sustain the upturn
at consistently higher levels.
Mr Parker now has an array of policies that, while not
necessarily popular - the capital gains tax being the obvious
example - have the long-term national interest at heart.
On that score, Mr Parker passed a major test this week in
presenting an alternative Budget that is both visionary and
responsible in addressing matters such as national savings
through KiwiSaver and an early resumption of contributions to
the Cullen super fund.
National's response was utterly predictable. Interviewed on
National Radio's Morning Report, Steven Joyce was castigating
Labour within seconds for producing yet another ''tax and
He was technically correct. Labour is flagging higher levels
of government spending in some areas. But these will be
balanced by savings in other areas and increases in revenue.
These are spelled out in detail in the alternative Budget,
which Mr Parker claims is the most comprehensive set of
costings and forecasts of the fiscal impact of various
policies produced by a political party.
Mr Parker's boasting does himself and others in his party a
disservice. A similar ''fiscal strategy'' report issued just
before the last election was arguably even more detailed. The
trouble was that document was a hurried response to Phil Goff
being hammered by John Key during a debate in Christchurch in
the early stages of the election campaign.
The prime minister's reference to a $14 billion hole in
Labour's economic plan and his repeated demand that
Goff ''show me the money'' was the defining moment of that
campaign until it was blown out of the water by the infamous
cup of tea between Mr Key and Act New Zealand's John Banks.
Caught up in the shambles over Labour's 2011 costings and the
far-too-belated attempt to remedy it, Mr Parker is determined
to avoid a repeat. He timed the release of his version at an
earlier stage to pre-empt National's inevitable attempt to
paint it as another example of Labour's fiscal laxness.
It is vital that Labour steers the economic debate rather
than becomes a victim of it. Somehow, Mr Parker has to
silence National's ''tax and spend'' jibe. Given his caution
means there is only a modest difference between National's
and Labour's spending tracks when overall spending is taken
into account, Mr Joyce's ''tax and spend'' line becomes
In fact, Labour's tight allowance for new spending may make
potential coalition talks between Labour, the Greens and
other parties even more tricky.
In addition, Mr Parker has insisted that Labour not reverse
its intention to raise the age of eligibility for New Zealand
Superannuation. Raising the age, something John Key refuses
to address, provides Mr Parker with solid proof Labour is
serious about fiscal rectitude.
But that will not stop the likes of Mr Joyce from pinging
Labour. He and Bill English will probably shift the argument
by suggesting that although Labour is promising to keep the
lid on spending, its record in the last years of its previous
term offers no guarantee it would not stray from any
self-imposed limits on spending. And as long as voters
believe that, National will keep hammering that theme.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political