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Ian Harris applauds a plea to give values pride of place in our politics, and says let’s start with the upcoming election.
With a bit of luck, the centrepiece of the election this September will be a contest of values — and about time, too! As long as I can remember, elections have been mainly about money and the economy, swelling to prime focus in the past 30 years of neoliberal ascendancy.
Of course the economy matters. But it is not an end in itself, shunting aside all else. The siren mantra of the late 1980s and ’90s, "there is no alternative", holds only if everyone agrees the values of freedom and individual choice reign supreme, untempered by the responsibility that should complement freedom, and the concern for community wellbeing that should sit alongside individual choice.
Other values also matter. A prosperous economy is only a means to the end of enhancing the lives of everyone who calls New Zealand home. Which is precisely where the neoliberal paramountcy has failed most miserably.
In view of that, Max Harris’s emphasis on values in his recent book, The New Zealand Project, lights up a welcome fresh approach for candidates and voters alike in the coming campaign.
Asking what kind of country we want to be, Harris (no relation) laments the hollowing out of principles and values in political debate over recent years, and pleads for "the pulse of our social conscience to start beating harder again".
He identifies three values against which voters might test the party programmes: care, community and creativity. He also proposes an ideal which will no doubt prove a step too far for some: "the politics of love", or policy and political action radiating warmth towards others. Don’t dismiss it out of hand.
Candidates will have convinced themselves the good of the country hangs on the success of their party, but that isn’t necessarily so. Underlying each party’s pitches is a set of values, often undeclared, and every three years voters have the opportunity to weigh them, and then make a difference by opting for the common good. That’s where Harris’s threesome comes in.
Care embraces the wellbeing of others — "it’s about looking out for each other and looking after each other," he says. It carries the flavour of aroha, with overtones of love, kindness and goodwill. It offers support in a manner that contributes to others’ dignity and security in society. And the state has a key role to play in ensuring no-one is left out.
Community recognises that people are connected and interdependent — "we rely on others to live and thrive". Community as a value implies a responsibility to be aware of the impact of policies on others, and also on the natural world. It should move society towards inclusiveness, both in neighbourhoods and nationally.
Creativity brings the imagination into play in the search for innovative solutions to challenges. It has a lightness about it, "and is a useful corrective to the tendency for progressive politics to be overly earnest".
Harris contrasts these "cornerstone" progressive values with the forces behind the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s: the championing of self-interest, an eroding moral framework for determining what politics is for, and an emphasis on a technical approach to government activity rather than one centred on values.
The upshot is a more self-interested society, a diminished sense of everyone in society being linked in a common destiny, and a politics largely drained of any moral or values-based content.
He adds: "An injection of values as a basis for political action could allow New Zealand to regain a sense of direction and imagination and political progress."
It would also revive awareness that the state has a positive role in ensuring that the fruits of prosperity are fairly shared.
Harris’s trio of values is not exhaustive. Some of his practical suggestions are aspirational, rather than readily achievable. But care, community and creativity are broad enough to apply to a range of issues — from growing inequality to health, housing to the environment, child poverty to education, race relations to foreign policy, changing work patterns to crime and prisons. And applied they should be.
Coming from a man in his 20s all this is most encouraging. Younger people have a freedom to dream, and hopefully Harris will help stir them — and prod the rest of us — to a new vision of what is politically possible. Resolute engagement on the basis of care, community and creativity (all core religious values) would reinvigorate our pretty uninspiring political landscape, and make New Zealand’s future, in human terms, infinitely richer.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.