Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What we need is a Lange - or even a Muldoon

(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.


Anonymous said...

I'm not that old, but I seem to recall party leaders use to have big public meetings, which were well attended. Muldoon enjoyed the odd heckler, then got back to his graphs and charts, going by the film footage. Now it's just a matter of cruising around shopping malls, and ensuring there is a photo op for the evening news. No real substance anymore?

The probligo said...


The very big problem with the "minor parties" is that the Greens are the only one to have out-grown the "identity/one man" stage.

There is no question that ACT has a major rebuild with the departure of their "identity" in Hide.

Harawira might have a show at representing his family for the next term, after that...? The classic has to be Dunne.

Will the Maori Party survive the departure of Sharples and Turea? I have my doubts; mebbe one more term.

Even Winnie the Pooh gets his own personal ressurrection every three years. After this election? I don't think he will make it but that will not stop him trying again in 2014.

No, there is no argument here to return to FPP; for that matter change from MMP to anything else. The "parties" that break promises and blame their coalition partners best look back to what happened to the Nats post Winnie the Pooh.

Karl, your scepticism is well placed. It seems to be in the nature of man that if there are rules (whether moral, sport, or political) the first objective is to explore all of the means of getting around them.

Does the perfect political system exist? Or is it even possible? I doubt it very much.

I repeat - there is nothing happening now that in any way detracts from my support for MMP. It works as it is supposed to... to the extent that the blind following of ideology has been made as difficult as possible for those in power.

Once again, my mind returns to a Spectrum programme on RNZ in the late 70's. A classic piece of writing. It is the story of the invention of a machine to translate politicians' speeches. It was found to also be capable of translating conversations between a UFO and its mother ship. Along the way, one of those reports covered "elections... where the population of intelligent beings select the 150 most unpopular people in the country and lock them in a beehive. Those people then spend their time passing repressive laws against those who sent them there".

Artist said...

Hi there Karl,
Love reading your stuff by the way!
I'm digging up information on De Bres, I've read what's on your blog and 'other'.... and would greatly appreciate any opinions or other information you have...?

Nichola (Nikki) Romney (

I wrote a small voices piece relating to Maori Wards in The Nelson Mail (below) just presently looking into the background of such - along with the HRC and De Bres....

ps.. De Bres is up for re-appointment next year, no doubt you know.