Navigating Political Territory

Keith Rankin, 11 December 1998


There is much in John Roughan's Friday columns in the NZ Herald that I disagree with. And I have expressed my concern when he has made sweeping statements that serve to perpetuate myths about our past (see "Tax Myths and Welfare Misrepresentation").

But he also makes some important points that I agree with, and with more sober language than some other columnists of the political right. For example, on 21 August, Roughan ("Just how bad was our first coalition in reality?") recognised that the National and New Zealand First coalition was by no means a disaster, and it did represent an effective blend of the two parties' policies, shorn of the worst excesses of both parties. Roughan was able to give some praise to New Zealand First for its political contribution, while making it clear that he disagreed with the economic policies they did push through.

In today's column ("When it comes to MMP we've seen nothing yet"), I prepared myself to face a routine slagging off of MMP. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Roughan continues to support our new electoral system, and for sound democratic reasons. Thus he is critical of those political partisans who saw MMP as no more than a means to helping their party achieve power.

Under MMP, every vote counts for something, and every MP and party is required to play a constructive role. "That is the beauty of MMP", Roughan says. Echoing the editorial of 8 December ("Labour - but not yet"), he notes that we may be moving back to two-party politics because the minor parties are seen as standing for negativity, as arising from a huge ongoing constituency for protest voting. It might be noted that the ructions in the right-wing Act Party (see "Leaked memo claims tensions within Act", NZ Herald p.A3, 11 December), seem to reflect the same thing. Under Richard Prebble's leadership, that party has been engaging in old-fashioned politicking rather than in presenting its vision to the people.

Roughan concludes: "Viable new parties under MMP will have to be built on interests or values that Labour or National cannot express, and be capable of working with either." I agree wholeheartedly.

I am concerned that many people on the left only supported MMP because they saw the new electoral system as a means to achieve power for the left. Such people can be called fair-weather friends of democracy; they only support democratic processes that facilitate political power for them.

Over the long term, under MMP the left will play a much greater role in governing New Zealand than it ever did in the last 50 years of our history. From 1949 to 1999 the left (in the form of Labour) will have been in power for just 12 years. Labour was only able to get re-elected once, and only then by following the strategy of becoming a right-wing party.

New Zealand may well return to two-party politics while waiting for the electorate to accept new parties with forward-looking alternative visions. Fortunately two-party parliaments work more effectively under MMP than under the former FPP electoral system; at least the duopoly is contestable. There can never be the huge changes in personnel of the two dominant parties that were characterised by the magnified swings of the FPP electoral lottery. Popular MPs are returned in the face of party swings (and if 1996 showed us anything it is that we like to re-elect sitting MPs regardless of party support; we don't hate our politicians as much as we think we do). MPs in marginal electorates are able to become much more than lobby fodder for the seniors holed up in hitherto safe seats. More good people should be willing to seek places on the major parties' electoral lists, once they see that their future in Parliament is determined by their own contribution and not by the support for their respective party leaders. (A fixed term electoral period would further facilitate good candidates making themselves available.)

On National Radio this morning (interviewer, Eva Radich), Bishop Vercoe (a Maori Anglican bishop) called for a new parliamentary system with separate Maori and Pakeha parliaments. In his vision, consensus would have to take place across both parliaments. He said that such a system would force all politicians "to work hard" to achieve "some kind of consensus" as to the best policy directions for the country.

With MMP we already have a system that makes MPs work hard to achieve some kind of consensus. By giving Maori a significant voice for the first time since the Coates years of the 1920s and 1930s, and by creating a parliament that fully reflects the diversity of views within as well as between Maori and Pakeha politics, our politicians are working very hard. The problem is that New Zealand voters just happen to find rather undignifying the processes of politicians working hard and groping for consensus. We want our politicians we be seen but not heard, but the process of politics is not like that.

MMP is working because it is changing our political culture. The negative elements are coming to be seen as anachronisms. The wails of political factions unable to get their own way are coming to be seen as an adult version of the two-year-olds' tantrums. While we shouldn't underestimate the sheer cunning of power-driven politicians (nor that of two-year-olds), the MMP environment is containing them and will contain them in future, whether we have just two parties in Parliament or ten.

An interesting metaphor for good politics - navigation - came from a recent sporting contest, the week long "Grand Traverse" of Fiordland, in New Zealand's South Island. Being physically fit and strong wasn't enough to win. When a team lost its way and travelled in the wrong direction, being fast was counterproductive. (So was any delay in making the required U-turn. Staunch athletes and politicians detest U-turns.) MMP is like a political compass. It has enabled fractures to open up, creating a diverse "rag-tag" group of politicians; a group who can succeed in the kinds of political territory where focussed, driven and impetuous groups fail most of the time.

By way of contrast, the metaphor for bad politics is that of contesting armies. Political parties of the old school - like armies - are subject to discipline from above. Foot-soldiers don't question their generals' navigation skills. Party leaders form expedient alliances with the ultimate objective of monopolising political power.

Good government is about navigation through environments of people with conflicting interests, of problems that are not always what they seem, and of inchoate solutions to perceived problems. It is not about military-style leaders who are certain they know what all the problems are and that they have all the answers. Good navigation requires that everyone has a voice, and that Parliament, whether it is made up of a small or large number of parties, has many voices.


© 1998

Rankin File | 1998 titles