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.