Alex Penk

By Alex Penk - 22/09/2017

Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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Dodging the lolly-scramble for power

As a kid, there was one word that always got your heart racing and your legs pumping at a community picnic: “lolly-scramble!” Now that I’m a parent, I wince when that shout goes up.

I’m not enthusiastic about the lolly-scramble approach to politics either. Unfortunately, this is the part of the election campaign where it can take over, especially in a tight race.

Encouraging kids to pile in and grab as many lollies as they can, bumping smaller and weaker members of the crowd out of the way, is pretty unedifying.

Robust competition can be a good thing, but the sort of contest that a lolly-scramble encourages is just unattractive and selfish.

Sure, there are bright spots, kids who share their stash with those less fortunate, but they always seem to be the exception not the rule.

Watching politicians flinging handfuls of promises around in the hope that voters will scramble towards their party is also pretty unedifying. Think Labour, the party of “generational change,” pledging that Super will still kick in at 65. Or think National pumping an extra $10,000 into the first home buyers grant.

Of course, politicians of all stripes do it because they know we voters will respond. It’s all too easy for both parties, politicians and voters, to focus on what we can get for ourselves and to act like selfish consumers. The lolly-scramble approach is often targeted towards identity groups, so it also encourages us to think about what “people like me” will get, and fuels tribal, oppositional politics where some people are happy to win at other people’s expense.

This kind of politics is profoundly disillusioning. In fact, if that’s what politics is about, you may wonder why you should bother voting.

The good news is that there’s a much better way to understand elections, and this election we can put that approach at the heart of the way we vote.

Voting reminds us that we’re a small part of an interconnected society. We’re linked to the people standing next to us in line at the supermarket because we share the same neighbourhoods and communities. We’re linked to people we’ve never met who live at the other end of the country; we obey the same laws and feel the same pride when New Zealand does well on the international stage.

We can approach voting by imagining ourselves in those peoples’ shoes, and considering their hopes, fears, and dreams as well as our own.

We can start by asking: what might be good for everyone?

While there’s lots of room to disagree about that, it’s a completely different posture to asking “what’s in it for me?”

This approach to voting makes democracy possible, because it allows us to disagree vigorously but asks us to recognise the things we have in common so that we hold together. This combination of diversity and unity, along with a fair and equal chance to vote, creates a system where political power can be allocated peacefully and the government that wins will be accepted even by people who didn’t choose them.

It’s almost incredible that we have a system that allows us to do this, when history is littered with countless wars and bloody struggles for the kind of power that our government exercises; like the power to tax, to maintain law enforcement, to deploy the SAS, and to frame the curriculum in our schools.

We should cherish this democracy and this peaceful way of granting power. That starts with recognising that we’re not consumers, but citizens who are part of something bigger than each of us. Don’t be sucked in by the lolly-scramble, and don’t be put off by it either. At its best, walking into the polling booth can be a symbol of our commitment to our neighbours, whether we agree or disagree, and to our shared future. Get out and vote.

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Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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