In business, it’s the equivalent of being shifted sideways. It’s always a difficult thing to have happen to you.

But political life is cruel. Very cruel. When you lose, you don’t go sideways, you go downways.

Such is the life of the Labour Party front bench, all formerly in positions of power, with public servants at their call and media waiting in their hallways, and now with little to do other than oppose the new government. It was not so long ago that they were adored by the media and voters alike. Now left to wonder what might have been.

Irrespective of our political views, we have to acknowledge that politics is hard work. We might not agree with the policies of a particular party or parliamentary member, but we should respect the fact that they are there, doing their best to develop and support the initiatives that they believe in, in a difficult and sometimes hostile environment.

The last Labour government was more radical than others. Their policies around water management, health, education, and crime were more extreme than we had seen before and as a result drew criticism from many. Their approach to issues of race were difficult to fathom. The ability of many of their ministers to execute on policy was shown to be inadequate and sometimes incompetent. Their spectacular failures around housing, mental health and child poverty will not be easily forgotten. Their financial mismanagement was such that some four months after their departure, the fiscal surprises are still being unearthed.

Against this backdrop, it must be difficult sitting in opposition watching the policies you introduced, but couldn’t execute on, get unravelled by a new government. Many of those unpopular policies such as Three Waters, Te Pukenga and The Maori Health Authority have been undone. The Ute Tax is in the past and primary school education is in for a massive overhaul. Gang patches and taxpayer funded Cultural Reports are gone.

And so it is difficult to understand the strategy that the opposition parties are bringing to their revised role. It’s almost embarrassing to watch as the same old faces talk about the same old stuff. The stuff that saw them leave the last election overcome and embarrassed.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen them lamenting the loss of their policy framework, much of it idealistic and ultimately undeliverable.  They’ve been given plenty of air time to sound off about how disgraceful are the policies of the new government. They would prefer to see their old policies retained.

Of course they would.

“ … it must be difficult sitting in opposition watching the policies you introduced, but couldn’t execute on, get unravelled by a new government.”

But here’s the problem. In doing so they are defending their policies of the past, policies that resulted in them being voted out.

The challenge for the opposition parties is to put up new ideas. The same old faces might get away with it, if they had new ideas. But new faces and new ideas is even better. The voter, or the viewer, is much more likely to be interested if they are saying something different.

The faces might survive if the rhetoric changes. In the meantime it’s looking tired and embarrassing.

In the case of the Labour Party, their fragility has been exacerbated this week by a couple of their own who have come out against them.

David Shearer, one of the more sensible Labour party leaders of the last fifteen years, suggested that Ginny Andersen’s attack on Mark Mitchell during Mike Hosking’s breakfast show was inappropriate. In fact he said that her claims were “divorced from reality”. He even suggested that she sit down with Mitchell so as she could understand what he did. Shearer knows plenty about operating in the war zones of the world and his opinion carries plenty of weight.

To her credit, Andersen apologised to both Hosking, his listeners and later to Mitchell himself, live and on air. That apology was a long time coming. But apologise she did.

And then, former Police Minister Stuart Nash came out in favour of National’s policy surrounding the Criminal Proceeds Act, and in particular the reduction of the minimum threshold of assets for seizure from $30,000 to zero. Nash claimed that, on his watch he tried to reduce the threshold to zero, just as National are now proposing to do. According to Nash, his efforts were rebuffed by Ministers Hipkins and Allan.

It’s a claim that both Hipkins and Allan have rejected. Hipkins even claimed that Mitchell was on the select committee that ‘unanimously’ supported the $30,000 threshold. Mitchell subsequently stated that he didn’t vote for it. But Labour had a majority on that committee. There’s a difference between a unanimous decision and a majority one.

So there you go again. As mouthpieces, these people just don’t ring true anymore. It’s not their fault. It’s just that they’ve had their time. There has been so much said over the last five years, that has turned out to be inaccurate or false, that the credibility has gone. And it’s time for fresh faces.

Meanwhile, the new government is getting on with it.  Largely untroubled by the opposition’s predictable approach of opposing everything, they’re getting stuck in to the mess they’ve inherited. Their first 100 days is nearly up and they have made good progress on their 100 day plan. Are they there yet? No. Are they close. Closer than many, including me, thought they would be.

Winston is playing ball. Seymour is predictably unflappable. And while he still trips up every now and then, the new Prime Minister seems to be getting more right than wrong.

His team look comfortable too. Erica Stanford looks controlled as she seeks to clean up Jan Tinetti’s education mess, and Shane Reti is doing a good job fronting the very difficult health portfolio, including unravelling of the incomplete reforms of his predecessors. Nicola Willis has a few big weeks ahead and we’ll get to see how she handles that. But for the moment, despite the depth of our troubles, everything feels a lot more comfortable than it has for a long time. Competence, confidence and a clear, well communicated plan can do that.

They have plenty of headwinds too. Inflation is not yet back in it’s box and interest rates, while thankfully on hold, are not likely to be coming down in a hurry. Too many Kiwisaver contributions are on hold and too many homeowners are struggling with the mortgage. We’re yet to fully recover from the flooding over a year ago, and we have way more government-employed bureaucrats than we either need or can afford.

And let’s not forget the surprises left behind by the former government in November.

“The faces might survive if the rhetoric changes. In the meantime, Labour’s looking tired and embarrassing.”

They include the bloated cost structures and long term contracts at the Three Waters agencies. Then there is the ridiculous amount of money spent on the now cancelled light rail projects that went nowhere, and the need to sell down properties such as the old Kiwi Bacon factory in Auckland’s New North Road, purchased immediately prior to the election, for the utopian yet unaffordable railway vision.

This week we’ve learned about the extent of property projects languishing in the education system. Projects that are unfunded and now, I suspect, unaffordable. And yet projects that, in many cases have been promised to the schools and the communities they serve. Stanford is already across the problem. We need “standardised, repeatable buildings” she said. Halleleuja! Since when did school buildings need to be contestants in the annual architecture awards anyway!

The state of New Zealand is a sad reflection of the last six years. There is a massive job to do in turning this country around. The new government has made big promises. And in the current landscape they are challenging to deliver on. It’s hard to get excited about unravelling the past. I’m guessing that we have to do that to create a platform from which to deliver a desirable future. It’s that future we should be interested in. And a vision that tells us where we want to go and how we can help to turn the ship around and get there.

In the meantime, those remaining in opposition need to reflect and learn from their mistakes.

And as for the people; the voters. We must never forget how we arrived in this position. Fortunately we have the nonsensical antics of the morally and financially inept Wellington City Council to remind us of the decisions that only left leaning politicians can make.

Not limited to the repeated and embarrassing cost blowouts on the Town Hall refurbishment that is now costing more than double it’s original budget, and despite a water infrastructure that is so poorly maintained, the capital is at risk of running out of water, they seem to have gone one better this week. Their latest act will see Council bail out the international owners of the Reading cinema, buying the land for $32 million and leasing it back to the owners in the hope that they will spend that money on refurbishment. The mayor was interviewed on Newstalk ZB immediately after the decision. She said the deal was fiscally neutral. It sounded like she didn’t know what that meant.

If that’s what our Capital city wants, it’s up to the voters there. As for the rest of us. let’s not return such incompetence to the Beehive any time soon.

This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on March 2, 2024

Bruce Cotterill is a professional director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, and host of the podcast, Leaders Getting Coffee.