Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Comfort zone

In my Helen Clark biography (coming soon* to a bookshop
near you) I touch on the fundamental similarity between
the Labour and National parties. Irked by the much-
vaunted notion that Clark is ‘tribal Labour’ and hard-wired
to oppose everything National stands for, I try to show how
alike the two parties really are. Maybe there was a time,
I write,

when the parties were more distinct, but for the past
20 years both have signed up to the Rogernomical
paradigm; in terms of economic policy the only
notable difference is that National is more business-
friendly and pro private enterprise, Labour more
sympathetic to state intervention and the public
service. Where it really matters—the structure of the
New Zealand economy—they share common ground.
They are also increasingly hard to tell apart in the
areas of foreign affairs, defence, trade, environment,
energy, science, technology, education, immigration,
Maori issues, justice, commerce, investment,
agriculture, tourism and export industries generally…

Given the truism in Western democracies that you can
only win power by occupying the centre ground, and
given the historic conservatism of the New Zealand
electorate, it shouldn’t be surprising that our two
major parties are so similar. One shouldn’t even have
to point it out—except that the parties themselves
make such a big deal out of being substantively different,
and vigorously condemn each other for being the Devil

Only the advent of MMP has prevented the pair of them
from visiting even more scorn on lesser parties, on whom
(to their teeth-gnashing frustration) they now depend for
the formation of governments. Nothing tells you more
about the cosy National-Labour-your-turn-next club than
the fact that both Clark and her successor, John Key, prefer
the old first-past-the-post electoral system, which has an
exemplary tendency to produce nothing but one-party
Labour or National governments...

I mention this because I’ve been pondering why and how it
is that the current National-led government has seemed,
on the whole, to have enjoyed a far less rough ride than
Clark's government did, after a similar time in office. That
might change, of course, but for now, it’s noticeable how
much more easily this government has merged, as it were,
with the country’s wallpaper, striking fewer jarring notes,
and indeed, this should not be entirely surprising, given the
resemblance of many of its members to items of furniture,
often with the same wooden veneer.

Alas, the government's continuing popularity has little to
do with its political savvy or enlightened policies. Two
likelier reasons suggest themselves for the relative
in office of John Key and his colleagues:
one historical, the other strategic. The first is the
entrenched preference of business leaders and
organizations for a National government: nine months
into its first term, nine years ago, Clark’s government
was struggling into the headwinds of something called
the ‘winter of discontent’—a fictional construct devised
by its opponents to force it to become more business-
friendly. Which it duly did. No such worries for National.
And it shows in the media too: that almost constant
murmur of anti-government grumbling just doesn't
surface so conspicuously in the media when National's in
power. So yes, being business-friendly is a definite, and
highly advantageous, point of difference for National over
Labour, not least because the media are generally
business-friendly too.

The other main reason is the government’s co-option of the
Maori Party. Probably Clark’s biggest failure was to lose
most of the Maori vote, indeed, had it not been for her
capitulation to racist redneckery in the wake of Don Brash’s
infamous Orewa speech in 2004, there would be no Maori
Party today. It was unquestionably a masterstroke of Key's
to get the Maori Party onside, though whether it's been
such a masterstroke from the Maori Party's point of view
remains to be seen. For the moment it has freed National
from a great deal of potential political bother, such as
Labour brought upon itself once it fiddled with the
foreshore and sank thigh-deep in the treacherous seabed.

*from 31 July on

1 comment:

Mary McCallum said...

good news about your book coming out soon Denis - is there a launch?