Governments ultimately pay the price for deflection

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, November 26, 2020

    Jacinda Ardern with her Deputy Grant Robertson and other cabinet colleagues (Herald-AP Photo)

Mastering the art of deflection is a critical part of any successful politician’s skill set.

Put simply, it is the ability to know when to claim the credit for things that are working or look good, regardless of how or by whom they were initiated, matched by the capacity to shift responsibility elsewhere when things are not going quite so well.

All governments and politicians do it, so it is neither novel nor unusual, but this government is better at it than most. Unlike many of its predecessors who have tended to dismiss the significance of policies or programmes that are not working, it has developed the additional skills of empathy and identification.

So, it “understands” the problem and is “concerned” that “something should be done about it,” even if it appears not to have any idea what that “something” might be.

It is a very clever tactic; some may even describe it as cynical. It shifts the focus from the issue at hand, to the government’s concern about it.

What the public sees is not the policy failure, but that the government agrees something needs to be done. It is on their side, and in the current environment that seems to be all that matters.

Covid-19 response

The present state of the Covid-19 response is a good example.

The failings of the cumbersome managed isolation and quarantine facilities are nothing to do with the government that set them up, but everything to do with the fact that the people within them are not complying. Likewise, the New Zealanders stranded overseas and unable to get home to either farewell dying loved ones or be with family at Christmas are not in that situation because of unyielding rules, but simply because they did not organise themselves in time to be able to get an isolation berth before booking their return to New Zealand.

In any case, because we are all in this together, it is the “team of five million,” not the government, setting the expectations, because the “team” wants to keep people safe.

People challenging that in any way are seen as unreasonable.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

The Vaccine issue 

While other countries are contemplating the availability of vaccines and how quickly life will be able to get back to something approaching what it used to be, we are being told that even once a vaccine is widely available in new Zealand, it will still be at least 12 to 18 months after that before we can consider lifting border and other restrictions.

Again, the excuse proffered is because that is what people would expect. The fact that other countries have said they will let people who have been vaccinated come into their countries without quarantine cuts no ice here, apparently because that is not what the “team” wants.

Shifting responsibility

It is all good and clever rhetoric which shifts the burden of responsibility to the citizenry, while at the same time allowing the government to appear concerned about the impact on daily lives that the impositions it alone has imposed is having.

The implied empathy of that helps to keep the government on side with the people. And, so far, it has to be admitted, it has worked remarkably successfully.

The same deflection tactic is now at play in the housing debate, although this may prove more problematic to sustain for very long. Housing is quickly turning into the government’s Achilles heel.

The blunt and underlying truth is that for various reasons insufficient new houses have been built under successive governments.

This government burned its toes sharply when it thought its ill thought out Kiwibuild scheme was the answer. Since its failure, the government has retreated into its housing shell, apparently bereft of other ideas. Now, it is casting around looking for other levers, from the Reserve Bank to local government, to put pressure on.

Drastic action essential 

All the while, it laments the current situation; understands the difficulties it is imposing; and agrees something drastic needs to be done, overlooking, as it does so, that the primary responsibility and opportunity for meaningful action rests with the government.

It will be able to get way with this type of approach for a little while yet, but it may prove to be a harder tactic to sustain with housing than it has been with Covid-19.

Covid-19 has so far been much more intangible even though it has been pervasive.

In that instance, there is no rulebook to refer, nor shared experience of what it could happen next to take guidance from. It is therefore much easier to adopt the type of approach taken so far.

But housing is different; its impact is more visible and measurable, and the solutions more obvious. While the government can probably still extract a little more yet from its empathy and concern cards on housing, it cannot go on doing so indefinitely without the growing public expectation for more and cheaper houses hardening into uncompromising reality.  

Already, housing is shaping up as the issue that could blow away the government’s inflated Parliamentary majority like a house of cards if it is not properly addressed before the next election.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.

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