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The pitfalls of being the Opposition

opinion Guyon Espiner

By Guyon Espiner ONE News Political Editor

Published: 12:00PM Tuesday July 21, 2009 Source: ONE News

There's an old axiom about the way an Opposition should conduct itself over the three year Parliamentary cycle: oppose, propose, depose.

The theory is that you spend the first year highlighting the government's inadequacies, the second year floating some of your own ideas and the third year campaigning to take office.

In the modern political world the actual policy period only kicks in a matter of months - and sometimes weeks - before the election and the reticence for an Opposition to go early with its programme is well founded.

If you make poor policy you simply provide a distraction from the myriad of difficulties which are always on the incumbent's plate. If you make good policy, but make it too early, the government simply steals it, gives it another name and gives you none of the credit.

Labour's ill-judged foray into the benefit policy debate - offering the dole to anyone who losses their job regardless of their spouse's income - is a strategic blunder which ignores these basic facts of political life. In fact, it may prove to be a mid-year, circuit breaker for a government which has been under mounting pressure.

Since the Mt Albert by-election National has been on the back foot. After Melissa Lee's woeful campaign came Richard Worth's sordid scandal, an austere Budget and then the dithering and eventual ditching of the plan to add folic acid to bread .

Now, momentous matters of state these are not. But the overlay to all this was that in the absence of the government doing much else these were the issues that got traction. Meanwhile 1,000 people a week were joining the dole queue. Then 1,100 per week. Then 1,200 a week. Last week more than 1,300 people signed up for the unemployment benefit.

Labour was able to take the moral high ground arguing that the government's ideas from the Jobs Summit were inadequate and its cycleway was a symbol of its preference for style over substance .

With Parliament sitting again on Tuesday after a two week recess Labour should have been chomping at the bit to biff the National Ministers around the ears.

"What are you doing about the unemployed?" is Labour's central question. "Well, we aren't going to be giving the dole to the unemployed husbands and wives of millionaires," is the answer National has served up for Labour .

Labour now claims it isn't going to allow the dole to be paid to anyone, regardless of income. But that's a back down because that is exactly what they were saying on Monday.

Labour has effectively taken the foot from the throat of the National government by poorly thinking through its plan.

You could sense the desperation on Monday after the story was broken in the Herald. Goff had clearly blurted out the story too early because Labour party officials and MPs were scrambling to fill in the details as other media worked to follow up the story.

On Tuesday Goff was desperately trying to claim that he was talking about the principle of middle income people not missing out on welfare and not the details. All the more reason then for not announcing the plan until the details are worked through.

It's another pitfall of being in Opposition that you simply do not have the resources to do things quickly and at short notice. You do not have an army of bureaucrats and bean counters to crunch the difficult numbers.

Reason again to take your time over policy and get everything right.

It is something Labour traditionally has done very well. It is usually meticulous and thorough with its policy making - more so than National, in my experience.

What is really perplexing is why Labour thought it needed to enter the fray at all.

Perhaps it felt stung by some of the criticism from unions and left wing bloggers that it wasn't proposing enough solutions to the growing welfare queues.

But it is not the opposition's job to find solutions before the new government's first year is up - especially when Labour had the best part of a decade to implement its own ideas.

I see Labour is having another go. Having failed to win a proper select committee inquiry into whether the banks' interest rates are too high, they are teaming up with the Greens and Jim Anderton to hold their own "inquiry" - one with no standing, no authority and no power.

Essentially they'll be sitting in a room, preaching to the converted. Looks like a gimmick to me. Looks like Labour hasn't fully realised it was turfed out of power.

My advice would be: You're not in government, stop acting like you are. For now, do the work of her majesty's loyal opposition and critique the government. That's your job.