Election questions are for all of us

Before we settle on which political party to support this election, let’s ask a few questions of ourselves, urges Ian Harris.

An election is traditionally an opportunity to ask questions of would-be politicians. More fruitfully, it’s an opportunity to ask questions of ourselves. Questions to candidates will then follow, but the self-examination is actually the more valuable for democratic engagement.

That’s because a healthy democracy involves more than ticking a box on a ballot paper once every three years. It thrives when we give serious thought to what kind of society we want to live in, and what changes we are willing to contemplate to bring it about.

If you think you already live in an earthly paradise, of course, you will want nothing to change at all. That’s unlikely, so here’s a check-list to get you started:

• What values are core for you — so important that they will determine your vote?

• Do those values tilt more towards yourself and your own advantage, or towards society and the common good?

Do you think economic considerations outweigh social issues? Moral issues? Environmental issues?

• Are you content with the New Zealand that 30 years of neo-liberal economics have produced, and therefore want more of the same? Or do you favour a more inclusive economic model?

• Are you open to good ideas, no matter which party offers them?

• Is this invitation to self-reflection a waste of time, because you always vote for the same party regardless?

Only when you have held up the mirror to yourself are you democratically primed to turn your gaze outwards and evaluate the parties, their programmes, and the candidates who aspire to represent you in Parliament.

And there, as often as not, a trade-off begins. No party is perfect, and there will always be unintended consequences from whatever policy is implemented. That’s why the values shaping those programmes should be the crucial test and measure.

A previous column highlighted the values of care, community and creativity. So another question: How important are those values to you? Will you apply them to assess the parties and their platforms?

There are plenty of other questions touching on New Zealand and its place in the world. One bears directly on the kind of country  we’d like to pass on to our children and grandchildren, but it is distinguished by hardly figuring at all: a comprehensive population policy to give stability and direction as we move steadily forward into a globalising world.

For many years the prime focus has been on growing the economy, as though that were sufficient in itself, without worrying too much about the overall effects on people and the land. One result has been a tight lid on wages through ramping up immigration.

That’s totally inadequate. A population policy would settle on a desirable level of immigration, taking into account the diversity and balance of ethnicities, the country’s bicultural foundation, what will be needed in housing, health care, schools, social welfare as the numbers grow, increasing pressures on the natural environment, the impact on productive land as cities sprawl into orchards, market gardens, and farms.

The market-driven emphasis on growth, growth and more growth has a lot to answer for, and one serious effect is its colonisation of head-space, closing out other options. Let’s strike a blow for freedom by unhitching "wealth" from its present connotation of amassing piles of money, and restoring its original meaning of "wellbeing", both individual and social.

That is a prime concern of all major religions, and people of faith should want to see that truer concept of wealth applied across the board.

Politicians won’t usually look to the prophetic poetry of the Bible for guidance, but a distinguished American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, thinks voters can and should.

He says the poetry of the prophets urges people: Don’t let anyone tell you that the dominant ideology is a given. It may suit the moneyed elites of the day to say so, but you can maintain a zone of freedom in your lives that allows you to imagine otherwise — and then act accordingly.

Your vote is an excellent place to start. Child poverty in a land of plenty, housing too expensive for many to contemplate, rivers too polluted to swim in any more, health care unavailable to many who need it, a tepid response to climate change, not requiring a living wage for the lowest-paid — these are not inevitable states of nature. They are the result of political decisions based on economic theories serving those who already have the most.

How different all these would be if care, community and creativity were central! It’s time they were.

- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

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