(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, November 8.)
THE ELECTION campaign reminds me of a catchphrase made famous by British television comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. “What do you think of it so far?” Morecambe would ask halfway through their show. And the answer was always the same: “Rubbish!”
One of the consequences of MMP is that the major parties have become more risk-averse and more centrist. The defining ideological differences that once separated National and Labour have narrowed to the point where they are reduced to fighting over a shrinking patch of centre ground.
What this means is that election campaigns are matters of tone and nuance rather than the great contests of ideas that they should be. It’s all about “branding”.
There’s no fire, no galvanising vision. At a Business New Zealand pre-election conference addressed by the party leaders last week, it was the minor parties that presented the bold ideas (and Pita Sharples the wit).
In difficult times like this, an election campaign provides an opportunity for the nation to debate whether to tear the house down and start again. But John Key and Phil Goff are like a married couple squabbling over which shade of off-white to paint the kitchen.
Both are decent, well-meaning men, but this campaign could do with the fiery idealism of a Norman Kirk or the biting wit and charisma of a David Lange.
In fact it’s almost enough to make you yearn for the days of Robert David Muldoon. He may have been a nasty little bully, and a socialist to boot (despite leading a supposedly conservative party), but at least he stirred people up.
* * *
NONETHELESS, election campaigns have a way of bringing certain things out into the open.
Asked on TV3 News which major party the Maori Party would support, co-leader Tariana Turia replied: “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Here, in stark relief, is one of the fatal shortcomings of MMP. We have no control over what happens after we cast our votes. We don’t know who will get into bed together, what compromises will be made and what policies will be traded off.
The politicians, having gone through the three-yearly ritual of prostrating themselves at our feet in order to win our support, will be back in the driver’s seat and the voter will be merely an impotent onlooker.
Opponents of FPP say that things were no better under that system; that once in power, governments were free to do whatever they liked regardless of any promises made beforehand. But the difference is that under MMP, post-election horse-trading behind closed doors is more than just a risk; it’s an integral feature of the system.
Under FPP, governments that broke promises or introduced policies without consulting the electorate knew they risked being punished at the next election. Now parties can justify almost any breach of faith with their supporters by saying it’s the price we pay for a system that depends on compromise and negotiation.
I won’t be voting for a return to FPP, which was a demonstrably unfair system, but neither will I vote to retain MMP. We have replaced one seriously flawed setup with another.
* * *
MR SHARPLES illustrated another unattractive aspect of the new political environment when he attacked the rival Mana Party on the basis that it has Pakeha candidates, namely John Minto and Sue Bradford.
How can people with white skin, Mr Sharples asked, pretend to represent Maori?
This was a naked appeal to identity politics, whereby people define themselves according to whatever minority group they belong to – be it Maori, gay, fundamentalist Christian, disabled or whatever – and frame their political goals accordingly.
Identity politics runs counter to the idea of communities acting in concert for the common good. It also promotes the divisive idea that to represent someone with brown skin, a politician must be of the same colour.
Mr Sharples’ party depends heavily on identity politics for its appeal. So does Hone Harawira’s Mana Party, though it seeks to mop up disaffected ragtag Pakeha as well as Maori.
In a useful report on the forthcoming voting referendum, the centre-right Maxim Institute highlights the choice voters will be given between systems that elect MPs to represent the community as a whole and ones that emphasise representation for narrow interest groups.
The report describes identity politics as “murky ground” but also acknowledges the unfairness of electoral systems that don’t give minority parties any chance at all.
Maxim doesn’t come out in favour of any one system, but on the basis of its analysis STV and SM, while far from perfect, look to be the best compromises between the two unpalatable extremes.
Call me sceptical, but I suspect that whatever electoral system we come up with, the politicians will find a way to turn it to their own advantage.