Election Fever

There is a conversation going on in New Zealand right now about the future of the country – it’s a fairly regular conversation, held every three years. As I’m on the other side of the world, I’m not as fully immersed as I would usually be, but fragments and incidents do make it to the Northern Hemisphere, and I don’t quite understand the general gist of the conversation this time around. Cards on the table here: I’ve voted Greens in every election I could so far, and I’m likely to do so this time too. What’s puzzling me is the discussion around the performance of our existing government, rather than the merits per se of the opposition.

I’m not very happy with the way the last 5/6 years have panned out, but the general mood I’m picking up seems to be “meh, could be worse”. I’m not hearing or seeing that much that seems to be grappling with the big issues that I have had with this government. Why are people so ambivalent or apathetic?

In some ways, it seems like the battle is being fought issue by issue, without much of a big-picture overview. Many of the little battles are, I admit, somewhat contestable. For example, we could look at the handling of the school amalgamations and closures in Christchurch. Those changes attracted a fair amount of controversy, and there were certainly some poor decisions in the mix – but the general tenor of the conversation also implied to me that there was a component of straightforward knee-jerk opposition that wasn’t grounded in what might be factually or logically the best outcome. So, for example, a lot of the schools that were closed were Intermediate Schools (i.e. for year 11 & 12 year olds only). It’s always seemed like a weird transitional model of education to me – a block of 5-10 year olds, a block of 11 & 12 year olds, and a block of 13-18… why the break? What’s the advantage?

The problem with taking this kind of line, and contesting issue-by-issue, is that you might win this or that battle without addressing the strategic objective of the ruling party. I guess I don’t have a strong view on any particular school, or even the structure of our schools in general terms – I’m an English scholar and an Engineer, not even slightly an educator and not a parent either. Instead, I see the changes and the way they were implemented as merely symptomatic of a broad authoritarian streak running through the National party this time out: we have a supposedly “Centre-Right” government that wants to execute its agenda with a zeal that we’d usually associate more with a “Right-Right” party that wishes to act with authoritarian impunity. I can’t quite see how you’d see it any other way, but obviously there must be some reasonable National supporters who do.

I think we are supposed to trust National to do the right thing in its authoritarian mode. I am not sure that we should do so. After the Canterbury Earthquakes, they passed some extraordinary laws to give themselves carte blanche in order to speed the recovery; in close parallel they suspended locally elected officials to install their own agents for the region’s environmental oversight. Has there been any benefit to Cantabrians at all from this extraordinary activity? If so, it’s hard for me to pinpoint what it is. Personally, given unlimited power to suspend planning laws and award build contracts, I’m sure I’d have gone crazy and simply executed my best guess. That’s why single people aren’t given such authority, except for very limited and specific purposes.

When last I was in Christchurch, now some years after the earthquakes, I saw no substantial reconstruction of the large buildings in the CBD. Can we blame a government minister for this? Not at all – even in the best of circumstances, a mid-rise to high-rise building takes a couple of years of work all-up. But again, as with the reconfiguration of Canterbury schools, picking a fight about the details of implementation ignores the larger question of an absolutely gob-smacking power play.

The same kind of centralising instinct seemed to rear its head when National suggested that the RMA should be administered centrally, rather than devolved down to local authorities as presently. This was because they or major interests were baulked in a few places. The argument was that allowing this kind of local obstruction was anti-business, and hence harmful; but that was the express intent of the RMA. Of course the RMA has allowed some poor decisions – such as limiting the extent of Wind Farming at Makara. But that’s the way democracy rolls sometimes – electing National was a terrible decision, but I’m not proposing that we should abolish voting. Centralising the RMA process would either create a huge bureaucracy to engender the same outcomes, or it would destroy the intent of the legislation. Now, if National wants to come out and say that they don’t care about the will of the people – fine. But they’re trying to make it sound like it’s a logical and administrative change, when it’s categorically not.

I’ve already posted elsewhere about my thoughts on the systemic problems that have been similarly created in the structure of the GCSB oversight. Essentially you have the Prime Minister appoint someone, who does what the PM orders, and is refereed by… the Prime Minister. This is worrying enough as a bland systemic statement, but in the person of our PM, we have someone who is worryingly vague about what they knew and what they decided as a result. Are we getting any benefit from this arrangement? Once again – it’s certainly not clear to me that we are. I guess if we’re supposed to simply trust that our PM is going to make good decisions on our behalf, I just don’t. Clearly other people do – he is still polling well as preferred PM. What we deserved and needed was a robust system instead of blandishments – I saw very little incisive comment on the GCSB bill, and little of that looked at the holistic picture that this behaviour entailed.

The myopia of responding to these symptoms led to Labour’s disastrous campaign last election, where their only platform was to oppose the asset sales. As laudable as that is, it represented this in almost moral terms, with Labour effectively positioning themselves as being in the moral right and National simply able to claim it was simply pragmatism. “Pragmatism” trumps vague idealism every time. I saw very few commentators point out the glaring logical problems with the sequence of National’s fiscal decisions. It’s hard to comprehend the sequence of events leading up to their most recent budget from a few weeks ago, where they proudly announced that they were going to have a surplus – but they started off with a surplus after Labour was voted out. So aren’t they basically back to where they started? What I can’t quite understand is their concept of revenue. They raised GST… and cut income tax. Then, pleading financial distress, sold half of 5 major state assets, to end up in a position where their bank balance looks okay which allows them to cut taxes again next term. How will they pay for the next round of tax cuts?

I suppose I’m not getting much of a hard-sell in favour of National from everyone. Most people who’re inclined that way seem more opposed to some kind of catastrophe that they expect if Labour+Greens get elected. A catastrophe like selling off assets, eroding freedoms, whitewashing ministerial misconduct, contemplating mining in national parks, and that kind of thing? I’m not saying that Labour would have done astonishingly better over the last 3 years, but I like to think they wouldn’t have been worse. It’s always easy to be an armchair Quarterback: all care and no responsibility. I don’t want to make out that there’s malefic intention in play here. But I wonder why we can’t all take a step back, look at the holistic picture, and ask ourselves why we’re scrapping about details when the big picture of overall decision-making seems to be markedly imperfect.

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