Comment

Dunne: Government by worthy sentiment

We have moved into a political era where talk of empathy and compassion rates more highly than taking action, and the extent to which Jacinda Ardern can continue to rewrite the narrative this way will determine the outcome of the next election, writes Peter Dunne. 

The first two opinion polls of the year have been released, and have occasioned a great deal of excited comment, on all sides of the political spectrum, most of it vapid and superficial, and very little of it of any relevance as a guide to the outcome of the next election.

At best, opinion polls are a snapshot in time, often contaminated by extraneous events around them. Their worth is never in the result of an individual poll, but in any consistent trend over time that they might show. On that basis, current polls are a continuity of a volatile trend that began to emerge before the last election with the ascent of Jacinda Ardern to the leadership of the Labour Party.

Although it is generally accepted that New Zealand has an ageing population, Statistics New Zealand data shows that the current median age of our population, while rising, is still just under 38 years of age. 

It has already been acknowledged that most New Zealand voters have known only the MMP electoral system we have had for the last eight general elections. The median age figure means that a significant chunk of New Zealanders will have become eligible to vote for the first time at the 1999 election and subsequent elections.

Between 1999 and 2017, there was a considerable overlap and consensus between the economic and social policies of the Clark/Cullen Labour-led and the Key/English National-led Governments, contributing, by and large, to nearly two decades of broad national stability, despite the impacts of 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquakes.

It was New Zealand’s version of Butskellism, if one likes. (Butskellism was the term coined in Britain in the 1950s to describe the continuity in the economic policies of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Conservative R.A.B. Butler, and his Labour predecessor Hugh Gaitskell.)

For the older voters, the broad consensus from 1999 to 2017 was a welcome relief to the upheavals of the 1980s and early 1990s that had led them to opt for MMP in 1993, to place a greater restraint on governments. But for 1999 first time voters, most of whom would have been too young to recall directly the experiences and hardships of the restructurings of the 1980s and early 1990s, the same broad consensus was actually a straightjacket. 

No matter the complexion of the government, the policy outcomes had still been broadly the same. While the country was being transformed, quietly and significantly, in those years, to those voters nothing much was actually seeming to change. 

So it really did not matter to them which of the major parties was in power – they were all broadly the same anyway, and the succession of leaders each major party put up while in Opposition tended to confirm that.

What these voters were yearning for, and did not see in contemporary political leaders, were “people like them” becoming more prominent in politics. People who would speak their language, and share their concerns and frustrations.

The fortuitous arrival of Jacinda Ardern as leader of the Labour Party in quite dramatic circumstances weeks before the 2017 election was the tonic many of them were seeking to vote for, in the expectation of a real break from the status quo they had known all their voting lives. She was, after all, one of them, fitting their demographic near perfectly, and completely untainted by ever having held any previous significant or substantial political office. So, for her, no problem was insoluble, no challenge insurmountable, and no existing solution sufficient. 

Her appeal was (and remains) that she is a break from the past in so many ways. 

That of itself provides those voters with a confidence that she understands their plight, because she is living it too. Forget the fact that she has changed very few of the policies that Labour took to the 2011 and 2014 elections where they were trashed; or that those they have tried to implement now (like Kiwibuild) are becoming embarrassing failures. 

Forget too that her Government now admits that it does not even know how to measure whether or not its policies are working, and the deteriorating relationship with our major trading partner. 

It just seems not to matter because the sustaining feature of this Government is not anything it has done or stands for, but rather the effervescent personality of the Prime Minister, that fits the current mood of the group of voters around the median population age. Indeed, it is highly doubtful whether many of them could articulate beyond the vaguest of platitudes what she actually stands for. 

The Prime Minister’s challenge is to entrench empathy and compassion as the basis of contemporary government, before evidence and achievement reassert themselves.

But, as National is too slowly discovering, that matters little. We are now in an almost post 'politics as usual' phase, where the previous emphasis on policy and delivery has given way to feeling and identifying with the issues of the day, although it is far from clear to where that is leading, or what the new norms will be.

Last week, the Economist magazine noted the emergence of what it described as millennial socialism, as a reaction to the prevailing liberal democratic orthodoxy. 

Millennial socialism, the Economist argues, is not socialism in the traditional sense, but a looser set of views around reducing inequality, reducing the power of vested interests, and greater emphasis on environmental issues like climate change that is capturing the interest of younger voters. 

Whether their prescriptions for reform are attainable seems to run secondary to the fact that their issues are being raised in the first place. 

Indeed, their essentially general nature as worthy sentiments makes it likely they will have crossover appeal in the wider community. However, as the rise and fall in the public standing of French President Emanuel Macron has shown, the bubble of optimism the millennials’ issues are at last on the political agenda bursts quickly when it comes to taking action. 

It could well be the same in New Zealand too – although our national temperament makes it unlikely we will see our own version of the Gilet Jaunes (yellow vest) protest movement. 

The emerging reality is that, despite some of the rhetoric, we are moving into an era where commitment to aspiration (prioritising empathy and compassion) rates more highly than action (prioritising evidence and achievement). 

The Prime Minister’s challenge is to entrench empathy and compassion as the basis of contemporary government, before evidence and achievement reassert themselves.

The extent to which she can rewrite the political narrative this way, and paint National as cold and heartless in the process, and therefore part of the past, rather than anything her Government manages to do, let alone what the opinion polls may say, will determine the outcome of the 2020 election. 

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