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English an example of civility to the end

By Alex Penk March 06, 2018

Check out Alex’s latest column on stuff.co.nz, originally printed in The Press.

When Bill English resigned from Parliament, he prompted outbursts of civility. After he delivered his valedictory speech, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was one of the first across the floor of the debating chamber to congratulate him. Long-time political opponents, like Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson, and Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, were also among those in a packed chamber showing respect to English. They weren’t merely being polite. They, and he, were demonstrating one of the virtues that makes politics possible.

According to Jeremy Waldron, an ex-pat New Zealand professor recognised as one of the world’s leading political theorists, civility means seeing your “political opponent” not as an enemy, but “as a fellow citizen, committed like you to the common good.” It’s tempting to think that anyone who disagrees with us is not only wrong, but bad—self-interested, power hungry, or looking out for a section of society at the expense of the rest of us. Civility means checking this starting point and recognising that our opponents may have good intent and deserve our respect—even if we disagree deeply and passionately about the things that matter most to us. 

Why does this matter so much? Politics inevitably involves a contest about the most important issues confronting society. The stakes are high, and feelings can be too. After all, why should you be civil or give any quarter if you genuinely believe your opponents’ plan will make people’s lives miserable, or increase the risk of catastrophic climatic events, or redefine social institutions like the family? Why not use any means necessary to win? Because the alternative is to fracture and to live in a bitter, polarised country. In fact, as Waldron says, civility makes it possible for the losers of these contests to accept the winners’ victory, and to move forward together peacefully despite our differences.

To truly understand why civility matters, Waldron tells us to look at what can happen when it’s absent. Political violence is the worst-case scenario, as when an anti-Trump activist opened fire on Republican lawmakers preparing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in 2017, critically injuring some of them before himself being shot and killed by police. This, says Waldron, is obviously an extreme occurrence but one that arguably progresses from a general atmosphere of seething hostility and resentment, an atmosphere that Trump himself contributed to by inciting violence at his campaign rallies, and one in which columnists at leading newspapers describe him as a “an abomination and a cancer on the country.”

So we should celebrate civility where we find it, and the near-universal expressions of respect for English are worthy examples. Some will argue that it’s easy to be civil at a farewell, just as it’s easy to eulogise the dead. But civility has also characterised English’s long political career. For example, the leaders’ debates between him and Ardern last year were both civil and passionate, each believing that they were the right person to lead the country and that the other party’s policies would do more harm than good.

English’s valedictory speech was also a great example of civility. To the last line, he was full of deep conviction. He spoke, for example, of his belief that “government can do harm, particularly to the most vulnerable” and went on to say, “the idea that government has to run everything to make it work is simply wrong.” But he was always respectful, never personal, expressing his “gratitude … for the many people I’ve served with.” There was also plenty of wry and self-deprecating humour, for example when he spoke of his preparation for the 2002 Fight for Life. His trainer, an older man, was nonetheless keen to spar, so English asked him, “Why are you so keen to get in the ring?” The trainer replied, “Mate, it’s because you’re a Tory and I want to hit you.”

Some will point out that there are times when English may not have been civil, maybe pointing to his repetition of the dubious claim that Labour had an $11 billion hole in their 2017 election promises. It’s true that no-one is perfectly civil all the time, and during English’s 27 years of public service there will no doubt have been times when he fell short of this mark, as we all will at some point.

Others will criticise his policy record. English leaves Parliament with a stellar record as Finance Minister during incredibly difficult times, and as an architect of innovative policy reform in the shape of the social investment agenda. There are also critics who accuse him of failing to solve the housing crisis. But criticism and civility are not mutually exclusive. In fact, civility is what makes functional disagreement and functional democracy possible, and we saw this kind of civility in action when his successor as Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, tweeted: “While I have disagreed with Bill a fair bit over the years I admire his lifetime of public service. A huge contribution.”

As English farewells Parliament, we should farewell this chapter of his life by paying tribute to the civility shown on all sides, and the man who embodied the virtue so well.

Professor Jeremy Waldron spoke about the importance of civility when he delivered Maxim Institute’s Sir John Graham Lecture in 2017, “Polls Apart: Reclaiming respect in a time of polarised politics”. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the New Zealand Law Foundation for Professor Waldron’s visit.

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