Election time Mardi Gras

Jenesa Jeram
Insights Newsletter
31 January, 2014

Coming up with careful policy in an election year is a bit like turning up to Mardi Gras in a business suit. After all, it is supposed to be a time for political parties to woo the public with their most extravagant and colourful policies.
The election festivities have begun with the delivery of State of the Nation speeches that were obviously dressed to impress.
Yet in the same fortnight, former Labour party leader David Shearer wrote an opinion piece on his private member’s Food in Schools Bill that was markedly more demure than some of the grandiose promises that have arisen.
Rather than announce that his policy will solve one of society’s most multi-faceted and entrenched problems, he declared the much less exciting “I’m going back to the drawing board” to rethink his original bill.
Such political modesty on Shearer’s part may not deliver the same public spectacle, but this approach has important lessons for sensible public policy.
The bill, which has been pulled from the ballot, originally aimed to ensure free food would be available for all students in decile 1-3 schools, as a response to child poverty. But since meeting with relevant stakeholders – principals, doctors, charities, and communities – Shearer acknowledges the nuances of the problem and unintended consequences the original policy failed to address.
Sensible policy requires looking at examples of excellence that already exist. Shearer has since been inspired by Owairaka District School, who have already set up initiatives to address food availability issues and to encourage good nutrition. The school, working alongside family and community volunteers, addressed not only immediate need, but fostered lifetime skills. 
Instead of reinventing the wheel, or intervening in an area that is already being dealt with effectively, sensible policy works alongside community initiatives, rather than overriding them completely.
Following from this, sensible policy should always empower the people it aims to reach, encouraging personal responsibility and self-reliance. It addresses the capacity for people to successfully care for themselves and their family, and provides them with the skills and ability to do so.
In his piece, Shearer recognises the danger of institutional dependency, and the need for forward-thinking policy. This is the factor that many social policies struggle with, and is the toughest factor his own bill will be measured against.
As political leaders attempt to delight and dazzle the voting public with promises of health, wealth and happiness, it is important to keep a cool head about the necessity of such extravagance. It is also important to consider whether the policy empowers the people it purports to, or simply empowers the political party advocating it.

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