Making the most of a negative consensus

“We’re drinking their beer here”. Sic transit Steinlager. Along with other icons of our boozy past and present. We can’t even hold on to our liquor these days.

Lion Nathan’s move to Sydney is in impressive company. Fletcher Challenge is being broken up and sold to foreigners, Carter Holt Harvey is contemplating moving west and Telecom may follow in time.

Does it matter?

Politically, I mean. This is not the place to rehearse the economic and business arguments about our transformation into a branch economy, except to add Finland’s Nokia to Rod Oram’s Nestlé example on Saturday of a huge company headquartered in a small country.

What are the politics of this flight of the icons? Through much of the 1990s such events were the stuff of angry populism. Now instead voters seem to have settled into a mixture of resignation and realism – a negative consensus, you might say.

In 1990 the open economy, of which the emigration of head offices is part, was upheld by a consensus of the political and business elites. It had little support among ordinary folk.

But, as is the way with revolutions that succeed, the elites do and ordinary folk eventually make do. During the 1990s they got used to flashy new rich in their midst, insecurity in their jobs and a plenitude of cheap imports in the shops. They know this new world is here to stay.

So when Lion workers are asked on TV about their prospects as branch employees of an Australian company, none express anger or fear or even resentment. It’s business as usual.

But that does not mean simple quiescence. The change of government in November demonstrates this.

Ordinary folks’ pact with this government is: “We will accept the open economy and its relentless wrenching. But in return the political elite must take some protective action that makes our lives a little less insecure, a little easier.”

This is lightyears away from the pact of the third quarter of last century. Then the political elite and ordinary folk shared a positive consensus that desired prosperity and regulation, security and taxes.

A positive consensus is robust and durable and the politics stable.

A negative consensus is fragile and volatile and the politics slippery and fickle. A negative consensus is acceptance of the status quo not as an eminently desirable state of affairs but as an inescapable reality.

Nevertheless, to deny that reality is to deny – and thus diminish and devalue – the difficult adjustment ordinary folk have made.

So there is thus not much space in the political spectrum these days for opponents of the open economy or proponents of mid-1980s social democracy: such programmes are a denial of reality. Jim Anderton has essentially acknowledged this in his conduct within the coalition.

The relative modesty of Ms Clark’s ambitions is in tune with the negative quality of the consensus. She will this year make policy adjustments that smooth some of the jagged edges of reality, then settle into conservative management of a centre-left policy line. Radicalism – in social policy, feminism or the Treaty of Waitangi – would risk rupture, as the populist ex-Labour Richard Prebble has intuitively divined.

But Mr Prebble is tied to a party whose economic and social radicalism romantically wishes the 1990 consensus of the elites into a community-wide positive consensus. (We should dignify with silence Jenny Shipley’s contradiction in terms, “radical conservatism”, as a signal incomprehension of the imperatives of the negative consensus.)

Weigh the notion of an Anzac currency on this precarious balance.

In one sense it might be thought joining currencies is one more facet of the new reality which turns an iconic brewer of our beer into an Australian and is integrating our consumer societies and labour markets along with our rugby league. No big deal.

But in another sense it is another big surrender of sovereignty, one more electorally hazardous nerve-jangling radicalism.

Michael Cullen tossed the idea out, with some tough intellectual counter-argument. The more subtle Ms Clark gave full recognition to the sovereignty “problem” but did not rule it out in the long term.

That was consummate negative consensus politics.