Can ‘nation-building’ knit a fragmented society?

Helen Clark is aiming to finesse the tangled arguments over Waitangi Day by dedicating her day to “nation-building”. The logic is that creating a new sense of nationhood might knit together the fragments of a society from which many of the certainties of the 1960s and 1970s have gone.

Not least among those lost certainties is that of European paramountcy. Whether we like it or not – and many do not, hence the appeal of ACT’s treaty stance – we are now a bicultural, not a monocultural, society. This has splintered politics, as it has society, hurling fragments to the periphery.

At the very time when both major parties need to construct a new centre as the basis for long-term tenure of government, there is much that is centrifugal.

The Maori-centred ambitions of Tau Henare, Tuariki Delamere and Co were not confined to a National-Labour scale – Henare, from the left, could work with Jenny Shipley. Some government Maori MPs, notably Tariana Turia, John Tamihere and Willie Jackson, have similarly Maori-centred ambitions, which will make the government’s Maori caucus a group to watch this year.

How Ms Clark handles this separate dimension – and she has made herself personally responsible with her new “gaps” cabinet committee – may decide whether her “nation-building” succeeds or fails.

Another centrifugal force is a widespread public sense of a lack of ownership and control – by individuals of their own livelihood, with job security shattered, and, in those individuals’ eyes, by the government, which once used to secure their nation, society, culture and economic wellbeing.

We can’t even design our own rugby jerseys. Some soccer type in Germany has put the stripes the wrong way and we have to lump it. Sir Peter Blake tries to sell us patriotism with Korean socks. Who owns us? Not us.

This “sovereignty” concern stoked much of the Alliance’s early success and nearly all of New Zealand First’s. The politics of this concern, too, do not fit on a National-Labour scale: when New Zealand First coalesced with National it crumbled to dust.

Nor do the Greens fit wholly on a Labour-National scale, even as an extension from Labour. And aspects of ACT’s pitch don’t either, even as an extension from National.

While the Alliance is now allied with Labour, offering variations on Labour’s much-amended social democracy that are inspired by traditional arguments and old ideologies, the Greens want a new future.

They could agree, when in the Alliance, with many of the Alliance’s preoccupations, notably its opposition to the open economy. But the Greens came from a very different perspective, the building of a new world that is local, small-scale and more nearly self-sufficient.

This is for the sake of the planet and our souls. Greens meant it when in the election campaign they declared in their propaganda, “This is not an election campaign. This is our life’s work.” These thoroughly nice middle-class people live their philosophy in the way they build their houses, in the way they eat, in meeting procedures.

They want a new society and a new politics – a new way, not a “third way”. Tacking bunches of greenery on to social democracy, as Labour is doing, will not suffice. Greens have moved beyond the old, now much attenuated, capitalism versus socialism debate.

So in its most innovative early stages did ACT, or at least it aimed to, evoking a society of free, self-actuating individuals. Recently ACT has slotted mostly back into the old debate, with a dash of off-scale populism on the treaty, crime and welfare.

So constructing a new centre on which to found a long-term government is not a simple matter for Labour and National. Not only must they deal with long flanks pulling them away from any new centre; they must also somehow keep Maori politics, the Greens and ACT purists attached.

And they must do that with a combined vote in the election of 69 per cent, far below the 80 per cent that would signal a relatively straightforward return to stable politics around a new centre.

“Nation-building” might be the answer. But to succeed at that in this fragmented society will require breathtaking inspirational skills. Ms Clark does not lack ambition.