Wednesday, 21 March 2018


One could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing new in politics, that it is all about the redevelopment of old ideas, or the modernisation of old situations, and that the challenge is more one of how these situations are addressed for a new generation of voters.

Writing over half a century ago, the American political scientist, E.E. Schattschneider observed that organisation was "the mobilisation of bias" and that the key to political success lay with those able to organise their causes most effectively. Nearly sixty years later, nothing much has changed, and we are seeing that game being played out here at present by groups like nurses and teachers, who had felt hard done by during the years of the National-led Government, setting high expectations of the Labour-led Government for their forthcoming contract negotiations, with threats of industrial action if their demands are not met. How the Government, which says it cannot afford everything being sought, deals with this without setting off a winter of discontent will be an interesting spectacle to watch over the next few months, especially since it will be discontented nurses and teachers turning up each month to push their case at Labour Electorate Committee meetings, and lobbying backbench lobby-fodder Labour MPs assiduously on Saturday mornings.

The 1984 Lange Government made its mark with a series of well stage-managed Summits at Parliament - most notably the Economic Summit which was televised live from the Parliamentary Chamber - all to create the impression of a new, listening and consultative government, committed to consensus based decision-making as a stark contrast to the dictatorial Muldoon years that preceded it. Also, and arguably more importantly, the Summits' purpose was to provide cover for many of the Government's subsequent decisions, because the people had been consulted, even if their views were subsequently largely ignored.

The present Government does not have quite the same panache, but has already established a breathtaking number of reviews and consultations - 39 in all in just under 5 months in office - to show that it too is a warm and caring Government that listens, then acts. Yet, the outcome of most of the reviews is pretty predictable, even before the reviews have started, so they are simply the modern version of giving the Government the leeway to act in the way that it always intended.

The post 1996 National-led Coalition Government was brought to its knees by a tacky combination of silk boxer shorts, Dirty Dog sunglasses, and some Ministers treating the taxpayers' funding as almost a personal gift. Today, we have the row over one Minister treating Defence Force aircraft as a personal taxi fleet, while another is threatening to fire the entire board of Air New Zealand. Corrosive coalition politics led to the fall of the Prime Minister in 1997, and the defeat altogether of the Government at the next election. The current Prime Minister has already had to rebuke the Minister who attacked Air New Zealand. Now, while the next chapter of the current story has yet to be written, there is already a sense of uneasy inevitability about what will happen next.

It is that fear of the future that has led the Greens to take their unusual stand on Parliamentary Questions. While no-one cares about the niceties, it is a way of showing they are different - and separate - from their two partners, and are not afraid to break out of the coalition straightjacket if they perceive the need. Of course, whether it will work is an entirely different question, but it does highlight the Greens' determination not to become weak collateral damage, if the Government unravels.

Given that all of these situations are reprises to some extent or other of what has happened before, I am reminded of the advice of a long-serving former Labour MP at the time that I was first elected: "Make sure you get yourself a good speech, and stick to it. Then all you have to do is change the audience from time to time."    
 
  



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