Radical or conservative? It all depends on your perspective

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
1 December, 2023

After six years of a Labour-led Government, the newly sworn-in Government’s policies were always going to shock its opponents. Despite the centre-left and the centre-right parties all pitching their policies to the median voter, profound philosophical differences divide them.

Under Labour, political discourse was dominated by the politics of identity. Race and gender issues became entwined in almost every aspect of public policy. Health, education, and environmental policies are the most obvious examples. But issues of identity pervaded even matters as banal as wastewater. 

Against this background, the coalition Government’s universalist approach may seem radical, even heretical, to some in the Beltway. Just consider the outrage on social media since last Friday at the coalition commitment that “public services should be prioritised on the basis of need, not race”. Only a few years ago, such a position would not have raised an eyebrow. 

The incoming Government’s attitude to race and gender is emblematic of its broader philosophy on inequality. 

After six years of the Labour-led Government talking endlessly about inequality, the coalition arrangements between National, ACT and New Zealand First do not mention the word. Not once.  

Compare that with the commitments to reduce inequality in the opening paragraphs of Labour’s 2017 coalition and cooperation agreements.  

Does this mean the centre-right cares less about unequal societal outcomes than the previous government? Or is it simply taking a different tack? 

Under the Labour-led Government, more spending was never enough. Between 2017 and 2023, real Government spending per capita increased by nearly a quarter. Meanwhile, educational disparities widened, hospital waiting lists grew longer, and the number of Jobseeker beneficiaries swelled. Rather than lessen inequities, more spending seems to have made them worse. 

National’s coalition agreements with ACT and New Zealand First suggest a different approach. Instead of focusing on inequality, the new Government’s policies will tackle the causes of deprivation. 

One example is the coalition’s education commitments. Refocussing the system on academic achievement, teaching literacy and numeracy better and improving school choice promise to improve educational outcomes after decades of decline. Nothing will reduce inequality more than better education. 

Housing reform proposals have a real prospect of solving another cause of poverty and inequality: severely unaffordable house prices.   

And policies that make the health system more accountable for its performance are a good start to addressing the health system’s inequities.     

Critics may claim the new Government doesn’t care about inequity. But its policy agenda suggests otherwise. We should wish it well. 

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