In its attempt to re-establish social democracy in a globalised world, the government’s Labour leadership has turned to the notion of partnership. If it succeeds, it could transform the political landscape in its favour – but that is in the distant future.
Partnership replaces old left collectivist notions, which, translated into government action, amounted to bureaucratic fiat. The government told you what to do and not do – in the name of the people as a collective.
Try to do that now and you would be quickly marginalised in politics. The Alliance’s shrinking vote demonstrates that. Society has radically changed.
Partnership is also intended to be contrasted with contract, which has been at the heart of the ruling ideology over the past 15 years. Advocates of partnership see contract as putting people at arm’s length and dessicating relationships. Partnership, they say, connotes community and cooperation.
So ministers are out to find partners.
First, with business. Fat chance, you might think, after the ACC renationalisation and the Employment Relations Act. But the government is persisting.
One angle is facilitative assistance for regional development, export and research. This is a case of the government stumping up money and other help to encourage entrepreneurs to do things they would – or might – otherwise not do.
The other angle is to encourage such groups as the Business Council for Sustainable Development and the Business for Social Responsibility Group and thereby enlist ground-up support for its environmental and social objectives.
The government’s second proposal for partnership is with local councils. This got derailed in June by a disorganised and petulant minister and an amateurish top leadership of the councils’ umbrella group. But there is, nonetheless, real interest in the government, especially on the ninth floor, in trying to get a better working relationship.
The government is proposing local councils have a power of general competence which will include the capacity to run social assistance programmes and instruct local authority trading enterprises (LATEs) to pursue social and environmental objectives.
Third, Steve Maharey has a big project on to develop a new “framework” for working with voluntary agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across a wide range of portfolio areas but especially in social assistance.
And fourth, Maori and Pacific island groups are to be courted. This is to empower them, to get more ideas of how best to help Maori and Pacific islanders and to deliver assistance more effectively.
Other potential partners crop up from time to time. The arts community is one, as a means of nation-building. Unions and businesses should see themselves as partners, the government thinks. Universities and research institutes, likewise.
Common to all is the idea that, as Helen Clark has bluntly put it, the government cannot have all the answers. Its role in a globalised age is to work alongside people who do have ideas. Central to the thinking is a drive to develop “strong communities” that can flourish in an age when national governments’ reach is limited by international economic constraints.
It is also an acknowledgement, through social democratic eyes, of the “subsidiarity” principle that decisions should be taken at the level closest to the people affected.
So, local councils are expected to come up with ideas in employment generation, local economic development, community safety and security, tourism, sustainable environmental development, culture and arts development, sport fitness and leisure, health promotion and service advocacy and coordination of public transport services.
And “social entrepreneurs” are invited to generate bright new ways of developing a cohesive society.
There is a potential powerful political spinoff from this pairing off. If the government has dozens or hundreds of partners locked into joint programmes it might build the sort of myriad linkages into society that the National party achieved through its huge membership and wide patronage in the 1950s and 1960s.
But is the government planning partnership or cooption?
Real partners are equal. But it is very doubtful a national government can ever form an equal arrangement. The government has ultimate power – and, more than anything else, a government is concerned with re-election. A partner who gets in the way of that will quickly find itself divorced.
There is another dimension: what is it all for?
The government is turning its attention to spelling out a “vision”, having spent this year on its “credit card” pledges. And what is that? The “knowledge society”. Take your partners.