23 July 2011

The Key to Power

Political predictions are always risky. But it looks safe to bet that John Key will remain PM after this year’s election and that we will vote to retain MMP. If, as some recent polls suggested, National were also to win an absolute majority in the House – and can govern without needing support parties – this would pose a challenge to MMP, as one of the original reasons for having that system was to avoid one-party majorities and the ‘elected dictatorships’ that they can become.

One main aim of MMP was to shift power away from the political party that dominates the Beehive, in favour of a more diverse House of Representatives. So, giving back to one leading party the absolute majority in the House would undermine that aim.

How many New Zealanders would willingly go back to the undemocratic politics of Muldoonist bullying or Rogernomic shock-tactics? If they wake up in time, enough half-hearted National supporters may switch to other parties out of fear of giving Key such an excessive mandate. But wait and see what cards the voters deal on 26 November.

For now, let’s assess the track-record and the stated intentions of the National-led government.

I almost felt sorry for Key when he became PM in 2008, being upstaged by Barack Obama’s election a few days before, and then entering office just as the global economy was on the brink of the end-of-the-world trade. But crisis suited him well, as it provided a convenient setting for pushing policies that might otherwise have met more resistance, such as cutting public-service budgets and selling off our publicly-owned property.

Another quality of Key’s leadership is to let his lieutenants front the bad news, while he retains the friendly look of the ordinary (although very wealthy) joker. So, Nick Smith gets to vent his hysteria over ACC reserves, and Gerry Brownlee drives Christchurch residents mad by keeping them in the dark; but the PM can be Teflon-John provided he keeps the key (pardon the pun) to the Beehive office.

All he needs to do now is to wriggle out of the projections he made about an economic step-change and catching up with Australia. Since 2008, we have only fallen further behind Australia, in economic terms, and there’s still no sight of the promised land. Key reminds me of the famous communist who said ‘I have a rabbit but no hat.’ And those who voted for him on the grounds that ‘Key made himself rich, so must be good at managing an economy’ may need to recant.

Before the 2008 election, Key said he wouldn’t rerun the radical free-market policies of 1984–96, an era when politicians tried to change the real world into the image of an economics textbook. Instead, his government were ready to continue with the more gradual and pragmatic approach that had worked well for Helen Clark – and which, incidentally, is more in keeping with most our political history. And so far, he and his team have muddled through accordingly.

Admittedly, disasters keep diverting their attention: economic recession, the mine explosion, the earthquakes, the ABs losing the WC (what did I say about predictions?). At such moments, true political leadership requires acting as if ‘above politics’, all the while knowing that a failure to give a convincing performance of being non-political will look bad and turn the voters off.

But while Key (the decent, practical joker) may not own up to having any particular ideological leanings, his party are now seeking to capitalise on his apparent personal popularity and to use that as a mandate for policies that are reminiscent of the National Party of the 1990s, namely the proposed privatisations of state-owned assets and of workers’ compensation – and of anything else in sight. National’s chorus of tax cuts and spending cuts sounds more like the Tea Party than traditional Kiwi pragmatism.

But what’s policy got to do with it when an inoffensive telegenic personality, a common Kiwi accent and a smiling face are what matter most to most voters?

If you ask the average adult whom they vote for and why, you normally discover that they haven’t a clue about the real-world policies they’re voting for. The so-called ‘swinging’ voters are the most clueless among us, as they can’t make up their minds until they enter the polling-booth, and some even forget whom they voted for once they leave it. But they are the ones who can turn things left or right on the day of reckoning. The most decisive votes come from the most indecisive and ill-informed voters.

So you have to ask just what kind of ‘mandate’ any party lucky enough to get elected to govern really has. Once in office, though, they’re damned to govern, and they’ll use the recklessness of voters to justify things that may not be in the interests of people who ticked the box with that party’s name on it.

Despite my bleak view of democracy, it still somehow, most of the time, works better than dictatorship. And that would bring us back to the question of MMP, but perhaps another day…

10 July 2011

Neo-liberalism without doctrines?

Are we living in an ‘anti-political’ and ‘anti-ideological’ age, and, if so, does that make the nice (but bland) Mr Key a politician who best personifies those qualities of our times?

This is my summary of the point made recently by Bryce Edwards – and responded to by Chris Trotter.

You don’t have to go far to find ‘anti-political’ sentiments. Cynicism about politicians and about their behaviour is heard often enough in everyday conversation. ‘They behave like children’ etc.

But a common trend in western democracies, including New Zealand, is towards lower voter-turnouts, lower political-party membership rates, and lower self-reported ‘trust in government’ (whatever the latter may mean). There may be exceptions to these trends, but they are generally regarded as regrettable, as they seem to signify a detachment between the political classes and ‘the masses.’

I’ve always been impressed by Richard Sennet’s book The Fall of Public Man. My take on one major theme of this book is that, in a world dominated by TV for the consumption of political ‘information’ (or ‘disinformation’), the consumer becomes a passive observer, and the attention shifts to the face and voice of the leader, his/her televised persona and apparent ethical integrity – and away from the substance and the critical appraisal of public policy.

On those grounds, it may be said that we live in an ‘anti-political’ age. TV focuses our attention on conflict and scandal, rather than reasoned debate. ‘Politics’ becomes a dirty word, and politicians are the people we most love to hate. Under those circumstances, a nice, but bland, exterior could be the right mask to put on. But is this anti-political, or just part of the character of politics today? It depends on what you mean by politics!

What about this ideology of our being ‘anti-ideological’? As Trotter rightly pointed out, New Zealand has for a long time been seen as pragmatic in its approach to policy-making. The social legislation of the 1890s was described by a French observer as ‘socialism without doctrines.’ The Liberals of that era tried to present themselves as representing a ‘classless’ society, upholding the interests of all, rather than the sectional interests of a few.

And consider this passage from John A. Lee, published in 1938 when he was still a Labour MP:

“Rather than be theoretically radical, New Zealanders have sought to achieve their radicalism with their hands as well. Plain blunt men wanted [old-age] pensions and legislated. Should they first have written tracts? Parlour revolutionaries can erect imposing theoretical edifices, but people who have worked in the industries of a country know that socialist housing, for instance, is a matter of bricks and mortar and sweat.”

Well that almost supports the point about the anti-ideological and pragmatic approach of New Zealanders, except for the fact that he did say socialist housing. Which MP would dare use that word in defence of a policy today?

Since 1938, however, fascism and the Cold War have given the very idea of ideology a bad name in the democratic west. And on the most recent occasions when New Zealand politicians sought rigorously to apply a set of preconceived social and economic theories (I’m referring to neo-liberal ideology, in the period 1984-96), the results were often disastrous and the public had good reason to feel they’d been deceived.

So, the disavowal of any ideological leanings is a common ploy in the game of ideology. It is always one’s opposition who are being ideological, while one’s own policies are the rational and effective ones.

It follows then that I am only willing to see the present age as ‘anti-ideological’ in the sense of a pretence to be non-ideological.

John Key is not so much a consummate politician of the present, as a politician who is typical of New Zealand’s political history: pragmatic, cautious and trying to please a wide audience. Underneath that, the substance of his real-world policies does follow a discernible ideological pathway. So, the Key government is seeking opportunities to promote and advance a neo-liberal political agenda, while avoiding the appearance of being rigidly dogmatic, and trying to bring voters along for the ride. It’s easy to point to examples of their policies that support this, but I’ll leave that for another day.

For now, I’m not backing the ‘anti-political and anti-ideological’ description of these times. As for whether Mr Key personifies present-day New Zealand, that’s another matter.