Wednesday, June 20, 2012

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 19.)
THE TROUBLE with New Zealanders, I’ve decided, is that we’re just too darned nice.

We’re decent and anxious to do the right thing. Our sense of fairness, respect for human rights and lack of corruption are recognised worldwide, which explains why New Zealand is often invited to play a bigger role in international affairs than our size justifies.  

But at home, these admirable qualities are a crippling liability. Why? Because whenever anyone proposes a course of action that threatens to disadvantage someone or strip them of some privilege, we wring our hands in anguish and say it can’t possibly be allowed. Someone, or something, might suffer.
This applies regardless of whether we’re talking about welfare reform, public sector cutbacks, changes to teacher-pupil ratios, new roads, oil exploration, hydro-electricity schemes, mining on wilderness land or even reducing the opening hours of public libraries.

The moment someone protests that some initiative might be unfair to someone, or pose a theoretical threat to the environment in a remote valley that no one has ever heard of, we tut-tut and earnestly nod in sympathy with whoever claims to represent the aggrieved party.
We’re suckers for a hard-luck story and ever ready to side with the perceived underdog. This is wonderful for moralistic crusaders and sectional interest groups, which have become adept at exploiting the public desire to do the right thing, and even more skilled at disguising their self-interest as a matter of morality or public wellbeing.

But it’s a sure formula for political and economic stagnation, which is what we have experienced in recent years. And it’s hugely exacerbated by MMP, a system we were persuaded to embrace because it seemed to be fair (always a winning argument in New Zealand, even when it’s fallacious), but which holds the major parties hostage to the demands of political rats and mice, thus snookering all chance of decisive reform.
Effective government means making hard decisions that are bound to upset and even disadvantage some people, but this is altogether too brutal for fair-minded New Zealanders to countenance. So nothing happens, except that we continue to lose 40,000 people a year to Australia.

* * *
IT HAS LONG been apparent that this government has no compelling philosophical vision. Now it’s becoming obvious that they are poor strategists and political managers too.

Of all the issues on which the government could have taken on the teachers’ unions, it chose one on which it should have realised the teachers would have little trouble winning public support. By not adequately explaining what it was trying to achieve, National surrendered the high ground to its opponents.
There is a pattern emerging here. Similarly, National has got itself into all sorts of bother with the partial selloff of state assets, a relatively modest initiative, because it has failed to convince New Zealanders of its merits.

In the meantime, John Key maintains his characteristic sunny demeanour. Could his apparent insouciance be due to the fact that he’s not a career politician and may not plan on sticking around?
After all, he has made it clear he’s interested in politics only as long as he can remain prime minister and once that job is removed from him, either by the voters or his party, he’ll move on. He’s still relatively young, after all, and not exactly short of a bob.  

* * *

IF ANY lesson has emerged from the Leveson inquiry into the British press, it’s that media proprietors and politicians should have nothing to do with each other.
It shouldn’t take an inquiry to establish this. Nothing good can come from press barons thinking they are entitled to exercise political power; and equally, nothing good can come from sycophantic politicians sucking up to media magnates.

But it’s rich that British politicians are trying to pin all the blame for this wretched state of affairs on Murdoch. They sucked up to him for years, which makes the present orgy of score-settling only slightly less nauseating than prime minister David Cameron’s lovey-dovey text messages with the ghastly Rebekah Brooks.
The Leveson inquiry reminds us that unhealthy relationships between politicians and press proprietors are one British tradition we are fortunate not to have inherited in New Zealand.

* * *

IN A RECENT column I mentioned the writer Gordon McLauchlan and said he was 75. That information, which came from my New Zealand Who’s Who, turns out to have been incorrect. McLauchlan is a youthful-looking 81.
What’s more, he tells me he enjoys occasional convivial gatherings with several other Auckland notables born in 1931: former governor-general Dame Cath Tizard, journalist and educationist Gordon Dryden and former privacy commissioner Sir Bruce Slane. Author Maurice Gee is also 81 but lives too far away (Wellington) to join them.

They are all fit and active. Clearly, 80 is the new 60.

No comments: