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With the election behind us and democracy in good heart, let’s move on to a new guiding story, urges Ian Harris.
Abraham Lincoln famously affirmed democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people". Winston Churchill considered it "the worst form of government except for all the others". And said the best argument against democracy is "a five-minute conversation with the average voter".
Somewhere in the middle of all that sits the state of democracy in this country — and, thinking not so much of the voting score-cards but the way the latest campaign was waged, it came through pretty well.
There was a genuine contest of values, ideas and courses for the country to follow in the years ahead. Tribal branding words such as "socialist" and "conservative" slipped into the background. Even "left" and "right" nuanced into "progressive" and "stable" — though these can mean all things to all people. Who would not want steady gains in human wellbeing? Who in their right mind would favour turmoil over stability?
One of the roles of political leaders is to embody and convey the values their party stands for, even their vision if they have one, and when we look around the world, New Zealanders can be thankful for our party leaders. All but one showed they were registering a palpable mood for change and ready to move on, some cautiously, some resolutely, from a blinkered neoliberal paradigm.
National’s Bill English has found a way to respond by changing the language of "welfare" to one of "social investment". This clothes a humane impulse in the garb of financial prudence, which presumably has greater appeal to his constituency — and if that’s what it takes, so be it. Politicians of the left work the other way round, responding first to human need and then setting out to find the wherewithal.
The parties forming the new government now have the chance to show that their prescription delivers for all New Zealanders. That means getting serious about climate change, truly lifting people out of poverty, helping them into warm dry houses, assuring them of healthcare, and giving them the confidence to contribute to and feel fully part of their communities. If they fall short, other parties have other remedies ready to hand.
Elections are never seasons of sweetness and light, but the latest one lacked much of the visceral hostility to "the other lot" (or lots) that sometimes mars campaigns. Of course there were disappointing aspects. National resorted to fake news, "Trumpeting" a fictional $11.7billion hole in Labour’s budget, falsely advertising that Labour was bent on taxing a glass of water, overtly quarrying voter self-interest and fear. Labour undermined its sunny positivity by lack of attention to economic detail where it mattered.
But a major plus of MMP is that it incentivises the larger parties to show at least some courtesy towards the smaller players, knowing they might need them one day as partners in government. Hence former prime minister Jim Bolger’s advice to his successors to show respect to Winston Peters and work with the Greens.
Another positive for democracy in New Zealand is that an MMP parliament is more broadly representative of voters than its first-past-the-post predecessors. Until 1996, elections usually swung on a relatively small group of voters in a handful of electorates. And then the result delivered, in effect, a blank cheque to a cabinet chosen from the winner, valid for three years.
True, proportional representation does not necessarily mean proportionality of power, and NZ First’s pivotal role in forming a government is out of all proportion to the seven seats it won. However, any coalition partner can expect to have a tempering effect on whichever party it blesses (or curses) with its presence. It will be tempered in turn. Negotiation and compromise become virtuous necessities.
Looking ahead, the times demand new horizons. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote last month that the planetary environmental crisis makes the "stories" that drove politics in the 20th century — Keynesian social democracy, then individualistic neoliberalism — inadequate for the 21st. A new guiding story is needed to capture the imagination of the populace, springing from what he calls "the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid".
Whenever there is a disaster, those qualities immediately kick in. Building community through "a politics of belonging" — Monbiot’s new story — would make our altruism and mutual aid the norm in political, economic and social life. Signs are that such a story is stirring here.
Transformation and renewal lie at the heart of a Christian approach to life, meaning and purpose. Will churches see they have a part to play?
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.