Alex Penk

By Alex Penk - 04/02/2020

Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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Political “race to the middle” bereft of vision

Who is the real “party of infrastructure”? Is it Labour, who just announced that they’ll spend billions on roads and rail, or is it National, who claim that Labour is just implementing their old policies? It’s one example of how hard it is to separate our two major political parties, which was also shown by the Prime Minister’s election date announcement. Invoking “stability,” a “strong economy,” and spending on health and education, she sounded exactly like her predecessor, Sir Bill English, when he announced the 2017 election.

This kind of ideological convergence makes it less likely that we’ll get a real contest of ideas at the election, the kind that helps us clarify who we are and who we want to become as a nation, and more likely that we’ll be treated to a contest of personalities to be fought out in the pages of Woman’s Weekly.

Grounded in a political ideology of pragmatic managerialism

Some might argue this represents the best of democratic compromise. Instead, I think it represents a narrowing of vision, with the leadership of both parties hewing to more or less the same view of the government’s role, grounded in a political ideology of pragmatic managerialism.

There are many reasons for this, but the role of MMP is particularly interesting. MMP can encourage lowest-common denominator politics, where post-election negotiations to form a government produce a selection of policies that the governing parties can live with rather than a policy programme that anyone believes in strongly. Witness the fate of Labour’s policy to repeal the three strikes law and its desire to implement a capital gains tax, both shot down by coalition partner NZ First. Under MMP there is also a tendency for new ideas to be forced out to the margins of minor parties’ manifestos, leaving National and Labour hugging the same middle ground and competing for the same support.

“a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

With this kind of convergence, it’s no wonder that elections are becoming increasingly presidential—focused on the personalities of the party leaders and dependent on their personal brands as portrayed in ‘soft’ media—as there’s less and less of substance to distinguish the major parties’ philosophy of government.

Politicians fighting elections can offer us something more substantial. Take George HW Bush’s famous Presidential campaign speech in 1988. He spoke of “a nation of community,” one where government has a role to play alongside a plethora of organisations and entities, big and small, making up “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”

The major parties have shown us little evidence of such a vision, and instead we seem to be trapped in a dull managerial echo chamber, listening to repeats of the political consensus of the early 2000s. We should encourage our political leaders to offer us more substance and to develop a wider range of visions for the future. That combination of depth and debate will give us the best chance to meet the challenges and opportunities of the decades ahead, and to weave a stronger social fabric.

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Alex Penk

By Alex Penk -

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