Comment

Rod Oram: Ditch the dog-whistle, save democracy

Cynical traditional politicians only know how to communicate through soundbites and dog whistles, but Jacinda Ardern's speech last weekend and the accompanying blueprint holds some hope we can achieve the fundamental, comprehensive and long-term change needed to retain a strong democracy, says Rod Oram.

Short-term, unprincipled politics have got the world into one hell of a mess. Economies are faltering, politics are polarising, societies are shattering, and ecosystems are decaying.

As a result, people’s confidence in society in general and politics in particular is plunging. Last year, half the countries in the world lost ground in the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. For every three countries falling, only one was rising.

The US, demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016, continued its decline. The EIU ranked it 21st equal with Italy in its latest index

The US’s democratic decline began in 1960, the EIU argues. Its political process and culture are being destroyed by factors such as gerrymandering of electorates, lobbyists’ unlimited money and the near-complete disregard of truth in political discourse.

Americans can’t even agree on a simple set of facts about what ails their nation and how they might restore it. Black is white, wrong is right and stupidity is genius. Trump, who set a new record of 125 false or misleading statements in 120 minutes of public speaking on September 7, is only the best of a growing legion of exploiters of America’s malaise.

Full democracy is a rare and fragile thing. Only 4.4 percent of the world’s population enjoy it. They are citizens of 19 countries. Ours is one, ranking 4th after Norway, Iceland and Sweden.

But we’re far too complacent. Too many people reckon we’re so small we can just jog along escaping the ills of the world.

We won’t achieve such transformations, though, if we rely on incremental, piecemeal and short-term improvements in existing politics and policies. We need fundamental, comprehensive and long-term change.

Not so. We’re intrinsically part of global systems - economic, social, political and environmental. We depend on them. If we don’t adapt to them and make sure we can deliver a good living for everyone economically and physically, our society, culture and politics will shatter as destructively as they are in the US, UK and an increasing number of other countries.

The changes we need are enormous, as this column frequently explores. One of the best guides to this transformation is the work of Kate Raworth, a British economist. She completely integrates the ecosystem, economic and social drivers of our well-being to describe new approaches, as this column described.

Don’t be deterred by the title of her latest book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st Century Economist. It is immensely readable and insightful. For a taste, watch her recent video presentation from the UK to the Environmental Defence Society’s annual conference in Auckland.

We won’t achieve such transformations, though, if we rely on incremental, piecemeal and short-term improvements in existing politics and policies. We need fundamental, comprehensive and long-term change.

That in turn requires a new type of political leadership – one that can articulate complex and challenging solutions in accessible and encouraging ways; emphasise the need for action now and over many decades; and demonstrate genuine personal commitment.

Many old politicians say it can’t be done. Weary from defending the past, they only know how to communicate through soundbites, dog whistles, one-liners and other cynical devices. They don’t believe many voters know, want or expect better.

Some young politicians say it has to be done if we want to avoid the disasters and dysfunctions besetting some other countries. Enlivened by making the future, they can describe a nation many people want and the steps we have to take to build it.

This is the context in which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s speech last Sunday should be read. She described a comprehensive and progressive blueprint for her Labour-led coalition Government that will enable New Zealand to prosper economically and sustainably, while strengthening society and politics.

“It looks beyond the three-year electoral cycle and plans for the next 30 years and longer. It will, I hope, prove to be the kind of agenda that outlasts any of us as individual parties and politicians. Because that’s the kind of approach some of the big challenges we face, actually need,” she said.

Once in a rare while, a few countries have achieved such long-term agreement on their future, while leaving plenty of room for political competition over how to deliver it. One example is Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s, which was a period of great economic and social progress for it.

Ardern’s speech is clearly and concisely structured around three themes: “building a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy; improving the wellbeing of New Zealanders and their families; ensuring new leadership by government.” Each in turn has four priorities, each detailing a number of goals and policy priorities.

The speech is worth reading, as is the more detailed online explanation of the blueprint.

At first glance Our Plan, as it’s called, might seem simplistic or mechanistic. But it rightly describes the interdependence of the economic, environmental, social and political factors determining our future in this unprecedented age and outlines policies and strategies for making the most of them.

We have to learn how to work effectively with that complexity, in politics and society, if we are to thrive. Such skills, inspired by our culture, will be our strength. As a small country, we can build the necessary relationships. Notably, eight of the top 10 countries in the Democracy Index have a population of less than 10 million.

While there are a number of weak links in the coalition Government, two are Winston Peters and Shane Jones. So far, they are behaving like tired old politicians relying on bad one-liners and bad temper ...

Is there public support for such an ambitious approach to our future?

Many people in business are up for the challenge. By late 2016 or so, more of them were realising National’s incremental approach during its nine years in office wasn’t working. Its myriad small, often poorly co-ordinated steps weren’t delivering the big systemic changes urgently required for productivity, exports, infrastructure, housing, the environment and other foundations of the economy and society. That quick and deep shift in sentiment was captured by the NZ Herald’s pre-election “Mood of the Boardroom” survey.

Likewise, a good proportion of the public seem eager judging, for example, by the “Mood of the Nation” question UMR Research has long asked in its polling: “Generally speaking are things in New Zealand heading in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?”  In mid-July 2017, 50 per cent of respondents said “yes, right direction”. This February, 69 percent said yes.

The subsequent slippage, though, to 62 percent last month is one sign the current Government has lots of work to do to persuade more voters it knows what it wants to do and how it’s going to do it. Our Plan is only a start. By year end, the government will have to be very clear what new policies it aims to deliver by early 2020, and to convince the public it has the political support and the governmental skills to do so.

While there are a number of weak links in the coalition Government, two are Winston Peters and Shane Jones. So far, they are behaving like tired old politicians relying on bad one-liners and bad temper to stir up their supporters rather than playing constructive roles in the coalition.

Thus, one of the many great challenges for the Prime Minister is to persuade Peters and Jones that they and their inherently conservative followers can contribute to and benefit from the ambitions for the country described by Labour and the Greens.

The same’s true for other conservatives, regardless of their party. There’s no point in pining for the past. Building the future is a task for all of us.

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