Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Within sixteen months New Zealand will have its next General Election. Prime Minister John Key will be seeking to equal Keith Holyoake’s record of four straight election victories. Opposition Leader Andrew Little’s goal will be more modest – he will be seeking to break the mould of his three predecessors and just win an election.

As always, the election will be as much a referendum on the government’s performance, as it will be a statement of how New Zealanders see themselves in the world of the time. A confident outlook will more than likely secure the return of the government of the day – a less certain or even negative outlook will obviously favour the Opposition. So the backdrop against which the election occurs will be as important as the domestic circumstances of the country at the time.

International events such as Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump, and mounting anxiety about terrorism and the insidious linkage of that to migrant and refugee policy are conspiring to portray a very unsettled and insecure world. And that, in turn, is leading to the rise of an “Up You” approach to politics from many voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised. Those whose jobs have been affected by the technology revolution and globalisation; those whose lack of tertiary education in the 1960s and 1970s has left them unequipped for today’s rapidly changing economic environment; and those who fear the social and economic security of their retirement will be threatened by society’s changing mix, all see politicians and governments as the cause of their anxieties, and are increasingly intolerant of politics, as they have known it, to do any good by them.

It is no surprise therefore that in such an environment the rise of non-politicians – like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, or even on the left Bernie Sanders – appeals. Their simple solutions, seldom based on facts or evidence, are far more appealing when contrasted with politicians and governments offering measured, considered programmes that are now seen as ponderous and increasingly out of touch. The irony is that the age of instant communications and dramatic changes that has left these people feeling so disempowered, has at the same time led them to embrace instant solutions to the problems they perceive around them.

The question for New Zealand in the lead-up to next year’s election is how far that international mood of fear will have permeated our society, and what its impact might be here by the time we come to vote. Already, the racists and the xenophobes are lining up to pedal their messages of hate and division, but again ironically, they have been around here for so long, with so little success, it is a wonder anyone bothers to take them seriously. Prime Minister Key’s challenges as he contemplates 2017 are how he presents his government as still the government for the times, and how he deals with the seas of extremism starting to swirl around him. A superficial analysis might conclude that his task is an uphill one.

However, that ignores a couple of significant factors that might work in his favour. Last week, in Britain, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, announced the formation, in the wake of Brexit, of a new cross-party group, More United, to fight across all political parties the extremism and intolerance now emerging in British politics. By all accounts, its message of supporting policies and MPs that are moderately progressive has been well received by people feeling the time has come to pull back from the brink of the abyss many felt they have been hurtling towards. An early sign, perhaps, that the tide is turning?

A second point is that by the time we go to the polls next year Trumpism will have either triumphed or been vanquished. If it has triumphed, then the message of progressive moderation may well likely be an attractive antidote around the world for what may be happening in the United States by then. If Trump has been defeated, then the same appeal is likely, but perhaps more in the mould of the “Never Again” mood that swept the western democracies at the end of World War II.

John Key is no historian, so will not necessarily be influenced by what has gone before him, but he is an astute observer of the human condition, with a sharp sense of political smell. His instincts would be strongly opposed to following the path of extremism, unlike some of his colleagues who would follow whatever path was available, so long as it led to National staying in power. So, the extent to which John Key is prepared to offer himself as the antidote to extremism, in the mould of the progressive moderate, is likely to determine whether he becomes the modern Holyoake.

After all, he too was a progressive moderate, long before the term was coined. That was why he won four elections.  







Wednesday, 20 July 2016

New Zealand is generally well regarded in the international community. That is probably one of the biggest things going for former Prime Minister Helen Clark (aside for the moment from her considerable and formidable personal skills and talents) in her bid to become the next United Nations’ Secretary-General. She comes from a country which is one of the oldest continuous Parliament democracies in the world, with a commitment to international co-operation (the role wartime Prime Minister Peter Fraser played in the formation of the United Nations is still widely recognised) and a reputation for speaking out (the Kirk Government’s stand against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and David Lange’s anti-nuclearism are legend). Even today, Prime Minister John Key is developing a reputation as a leader who speaks up in international meetings for the interests of small nations and the protection of human rights generally. If Helen Clark’s bid is successful, as all New Zealanders hope, our country will be justifiably proud to see our national values recognised on the world stage.

All of which makes the one great blind spot in our foreign policy that much harder to tolerate and understand. New Zealand’s 1972 decision to recognise the People’s Republic of China was hailed at the time as in the vein of the independence our foreign policy has become noted for. We were again forging a new path others may wish to have followed, but sadly, as the years have gone by, that independent streak has first weakened, then frayed, and now virtually disappeared altogether. As we have become closer to China economically and politically, our policy approach has simply become more timid and craven. When the Lange Government’s anti-nuclear policy was at its peak, international commentators used to describe New Zealand as the mouse that roared. Now, they could just as accurately describe us as the mouse that scuttled for cover.

Our foreign policy now has a desperate air to it. It is no longer about trying to secure our trading future, or playing our part in the Commonwealth and wider international community. No, New Zealand’s foreign policy today is all about not upsetting China. Even though we have a free trade agreement with China, and generally good political relations, we dare not use those links to speak out about issues of concern. Despite our laudable opposition to the use of the death penalty worldwide, we suddenly become mute when it comes to China, one of the most judicially murderous nations on earth. We pointedly state no view on China’s increasing incursions into the Pacific and its building of artificial islands in the South China Sea to extend its national frontiers. Only once international adjudication has ruled against China do we meekly state that maybe China should respect international law. Even this week, there have been reports that we are unwilling to do too much about reportedly inferior Chinese steel fabrications being used in local projects because China has apparently threatened retaliation against Fonterra and other exporters if we complain.

Now, of course China is a much bigger and more powerful nation than New Zealand, and of course, the relationship with China is far more important to New Zealand, than the other way around. As a consequence, there are those who argue it is a case of “beggars cannot be choosers” and we cannot expect China to play the game any other way. They were the same voices who said we could not take France to the World Court and expect to win as we did in the 1970s; or that we could not challenge United States’ nuclear defence policy and expect no retaliations, when we did so in the 1980s with little impact on trade and a temporary political frostiness which began to thaw from the time of Prime Minister Bolger in the early 1990s.

The sad thing is that these voices of timidity represent the policy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their cringing pathological fear of doing anything to upset China is not only weak and cowardly – it is downright humiliating and utterly embarrassing. It is time for New Zealand to grow some backbone when it comes to its relationship with the still dictatorial, authoritarian China.            





Tuesday, 12 July 2016

There has been much comment recently that we have entered a “post truth” era of politics, where politicians not only no longer tell the truth, but worse, have given up any pretence of doing so. According to this line of argument, what matters most with voters is the impression that a politician’s comment leaves, rather than its substance.

The most striking example the commentators quote comes from the recent Brexit campaign, where “leave” campaigners claimed that Britain’s membership of the EU was costing British taxpayers £350 million a week, which could be better spent on health and social services if Britain left Europe. In fact, the claim was quite untrue, but its simplicity struck a chord with disenfranchised voters. Similar claims are made in respect of the recent Australian election where it is argued that misleading texts from Labor sources about the future of Medicare under the Turnbull Government swung many voters in marginal seats. The Trump campaign in the United States offers similar examples as well – from the wall to keep Mexicans out, to the ban on Muslim immigration. The point is that, on any rational assessment, none of these things are either true or achievable, but in the “post truth” environment that is an almost immaterial consideration.

New Zealand politicians are learning the lesson, sadly it seems, if the current housing debate is anything to go by. A complex and difficult social problem with many levels to it is being reduced to inane, empty slogans (just build 100,000 “more bloody houses” to quote the elegant language of the rather crude Leader of the Opposition) without any regard to how all that might be achieved. To one political party, the housing problem is all the fault of the Auckland Council and the Resource Management Act, which resonates with its developer audience; to another, it is all because of immigration, which plays well with its xenophobic audience; and to another, the blame lies with property speculators, as that suits its style of envy politics. The common point is that not one more young family is being housed as a result of these positions. But, the political spin-masters would argue that is a secondary consideration to getting the parties’ respective brands across.

Oh really? The starting point surely has to be that there is a housing problem at present. We know about the Auckland situation, as that is the most obvious manifestation, but right across New Zealand young families are finding it difficult to finance themselves into a first home because of restrictive bank lending policies. There is also a shortage of available rental accommodation, and social agencies are reporting more and more genuinely homeless people.

These are difficult times for liberal, centrist parties like UnitedFuture because the “post truth” approach to politics shows little tolerance for reasoned and well-considered responses. Yet, in the interests of future generations, there are practical steps we should be taking to make progress on the housing front. We need a more inclusive approach through a Housing Summit, bringing together central and local government, the building industry, the Reserve Bank and the trading banks, and social housing providers to develop a comprehensive, integrated plan which all sectors can buy into and implement in a properly co-ordinated way. It is all very well, for example, to propose building more affordable homes if the banks are not prepared to lend to young families to buy them, as is the case at present. (In that regard, UnitedFuture has proposed allowing families to capitalise their Working for Families payments on an annual basis to help bridge the deposit gap or assist with mortgage repayments.)

Politicians of all stripes ought to be accountable for their actions. “Post truth” politics and the focus on slogans ahead of policy simply removes meaningful accountability. “Post truth” politicians are not leaders – they are mere charlatans strutting every stage and saying things they hope are popular and newsworthy, without any regard to practicality.

Simple solutions, bold ideas, call them what you like, rarely work, as history shows. Often, shattered societies are left to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, the way the major parties are playing the housing debate shows every sign New Zealand is heading down that path. It is not something future generations will thank us for.  








Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Thirty years ago this week, by 49 votes to 44, Parliament passed the Homosexual Law Reform Bill into law. I was proud then and now to have been one of those MPs who voted for the Bill throughout its passage through Parliament, and was therefore delighted to join former colleagues and supporters of the Bill once more at Parliament this week to celebrate the occasion.

It is hard to imagine now how vile the debate had been over the preceding few months that the Bill was before Parliament. While it is inevitable that important issues like this will occasion strong feelings in the minds of supporters and opponents alike, the debate around this Bill was so vehement and extreme that it comes to mind as though it were yesterday. Certainly, some of the things said during those debates and the actions undertaken in the main by opponents of the Bill would not be tolerated in today’s society. The debate we had a few years ago about marriage equality was no less intense, and views no less divided, but its tone and content were more courteous and substantial in the main than 30 years ago. So, arguably at least, our society has come a long way since then. That is definitely true in terms of the ills forecast for society by those who opposed the bill, as none of them have come to pass.

However, I am less certain we can be entirely confident our capacity to handle with sensitivity controversial social issues has fundamentally improved. A couple of weeks ago I wrote in this column how disappointed I was that the Government’s review of the refugee quota had produced such a parsimonious outcome. I have been amazed subsequently at the vehemence of the small minority of negative responses I have received. While I respect absolutely people’s right to hold and promote a different opinion, the level of personal abuse and vitriol has been a genuine surprise, even for a politician who has seen it all in the last 32 years. Similarly, and on a somewhat lesser scale, the response on my social media pages last week after I rather foolishly posted a hoax message that had been sent to me in apparent good faith was positively feral and utterly disgraceful. Now, I do not mind for myself – I simply block anybody who sends me a personally abusive or insulting message – and, contrary to my critics’ assertions, I am generally pretty thick-skinned. But I am concerned that nastiness and rudeness in social intercourse are becoming far more common and accepted by default. Yet when we see them expressed in other countries – the insults that have been reportedly directed at migrants in Britain since the Brexit vote, for example – we recoil, genuinely aghast.

Perhaps all this is symptomatic of a wider social malaise. We often hear reports of bullying in schools, or the harassment of various social groups, although we have thus far been spared the extremes of religious intolerance that have seen Muslims prevented from wearing their traditional garb in allegedly civilised European societies. However, I have no doubt that such a call would find its share of supporters and political expression in certain quarters of New Zealand. Societies have always been vulnerable to the anger of the marginalised poor; today, it seems to be a more a case of those feeling socially marginalised or left behind by change causing discontent.

All these swirling currents place a huge pressure on the liberal centre of politics today. For so long seen as the bastion of reason and tolerance, those of us in the liberal centre now risk being isolated and vilified as na├»ve and out of touch. Yet, events like the 30th anniversary of homosexual law reform make it very clear that the liberal centre’s greatest challenges now are to be the new bulwark against the intolerance that is emerging, however and wherever it is presented, and to provide a rallying point for those of similar views, feeling uneasy or intimidated by what they see developing around them. I supported the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in 1986 in the full knowledge of the potential political backlash. That never happened, and is a salient inspiration now that standing up for tolerance and against bigotry and oppression is, in the long term, still the right thing to do.