National reaching for the "values" weapon

Last Wednesday night in Parliament the National party rowdily belaboured all and sundry for wimpishness in the face of a flood of child pornography. No surprises in that — except that it incidentally included the Society for Promotion of Community Standards.

Whatever else one might say of the SPCS, excoriator of nudity and lax morals, it cannot be accused of limp-wristed liberalism.

So what is National on about? “Values”.

The occasion of Wednesday’s surreal debate was a skimpily drafted bill by National’s energetic new Napier list MP, Anne Tolley.

MPs from all sides in fact supported her intent, to ensure child pornography is banned. But (a) child pornography is banned in law already and (b) her bill was drafted in such dragnet fashion as to, in effect, ban nappy ads on TV and constructive educational activities. The SPCS and all except National and New Zealand First MPs thought that was going too far. The bill bombed.

But not before an excited speech from the normally sober Bob Simcock and diatribe from John Carter and others. You would have thought, listening to them, that the government was inviting in the Visigoths.

Put this together with Gerry Brownlee’s ditching of the national certificate of educational achievement developed by his predecessors, Wyatt Creech and Nick Smith, and made more conservative before implementation by Trevor Mallard.

What is going on? Mr Brownlee was on about “standards”, a conservative educational notion. Mr Simcock was on about taking a stand on moral issues. They fit an emerging pattern of assertion of conservative values. Tony Ryall’s get-even-tougher-on-crims campaign is another.

The National party has worked out that, to knock this government over, it has to knock over Helen Clark. Hence the (over?)-excitement about hubby Peter’s stray emails to her office and (independently granted) $750,000 to study hospital outcomes.

National has also figured that values are Ms Clark’s and Labour’s soft underbelly. Hence the insidious “spinster” jibe by Jenny Shipley, ostensibly about Ms Clark’s “spinning” the media but also (and, nudge-wink, primarily) alluding to her atypical childlessness.

ACT first latched on to this approach back in 1996, with its slogan, “Values. Not politics.” Though ACT has never successfully transplanted the slogan into its campaigning, “values” offer the potential advantage of reaching across old-style dividing lines.

The values Labour’s senior MPs bring to politics are predominantly those of concerned liberal academia. Even those who actually hail from the socioeconomic strata clustered around average household earnings which form Labour’s core vote have long since lived lives dislocated from those origins.

Liberal academia shies away from moral judgments: morality is relative. So Social Services Minister Steve Maharey celebrates the diversity of modern “families” and wants society to rally round the pregnant 16-year-old. His National counterpart Simcock says: “My response is that I don’t want her to get pregnant.”

But why push the Tolley bill debate into surreality? Mr Simcock points to the select committee’s suggestion of an inquiry into the impact of information technology on child pornography to highlight what he sees as Labour queasiness at setting moral boundaries.

Mr Simcock also highlights recent social security legislation’s removal of the notion of co-responsibility, of reciprocity for benefits.

National has a point here, as does ACT. A family battling to raise children on the average wage, paying taxes and doing everything right, has a lot less financial leeway than academics and politicians for tolerance of no-work habits among some unemployed.

The challenge for National (and ACT) is to avoid overshooting into punitive fundamentalism. The National-leaning liberal middle class (especially women) doesn’t stand for that. And (talkback loonies apart) battlers are actually remarkably tolerant. They are not into beneficiary bashing as a sport or an ideology.

National did overshoot in the late 1990s over the code of social responsibility and its conduct in the past few weeks evokes that spectre. Nevertheless, some key MPs understand the point better now. Labour would be unwise to assume there is no threat.