Speech to National party northern region conference, 5 May 2001
My role, as I understand it, is to talk about the big social and political picture, where we are and where we as a country and society might go. What I am about to say, therefore, could be said to a Labour conference without a word changed.
My theme will be that there has not been such an interesting time to talk about the big picture for half a century. Just as 50 years ago, the political language is being rewritten. The prize for the major party that gets that right if any does could be ascendancy during the next 20 years or more of New Zealand politics.
Getting the political language right, however, is a massive challenge, much more difficult now than 50 years ago. That is what keeps me fascinated by my job.
So let me start with the society we now have.
First, it is post-revolutionary. The revolution of the 1980s marked our independence as a society. I don’t mean by that the withdrawal from Anzus. I mean the sudden flowering of writing, films, music and art that marks the emergence of a new society, no longer living out or trading on its colonial heritage. But a newly independent society like ours shows all the insecurities and erratic hormones of an adolescent. There is a lot of growing up and maturing ahead.
Second, our society in the 2000s is bicultural. Inescapably. One culture is hierarchical, traditional and animist. The other is individualist, materialist and judaeo-christian. Two such different cultures cannot be melded. They can at best be accommodated.
The present accommodating mechanism is the Treaty of Waitangi. This was intended as an instrument of unity but is now increasingly an instrument of division. It poses both an opportunity and a threat. It is an opportunity, at one extreme of a range of scenarios I could paint, for this society to lead the world in establishing harmony between an indigenous culture and a dominant later arrival. The threat, at the other extreme of my range of scenarios, is a mini-Palestine.
Third, our society is globalised. That brings with it multiculturalism through immigration: I expect that over the course of this century Asia will come to live here. Globalisation brings a hazardous economic existence, measured against the standards of the very best and very poorest. Globalisation makes us footloose: our young and bright follow the money and, as northern hemisphere societies age over the next 30 years, that will intensify.
Fourth, our society is consumerist. It demands customised service and demands it instantly. As a consequence, we do not save. The consequence of that is that our economy is increasingly owned by others and our standard of living slides relative to others. And the consequence of that will be periodic outbreaks of political populism and opportunism.
Fifth, our society is very open and free. As a result of that excellent quality it is also fragmented, individualistic and very liberal. It lacks “soul”. The glue that holds us together is patchy. So some will look for groupings that give sense to their lives new or old churches, exclusionary or retributive political movements, ethnic solidarities.
And, sixth, our society is peppered with exciting innovators: in the economy, in education and in social services. There is so much that is good here, much of it hidden or only half-visible, that sometimes I cannot imagine this society going off the rails.
This society was unimaginable half a century ago. Then we were a single culture, assimilating the tiny Maori minority. Then we were in stable families. Then we were savers and determined on prosperity. Then we valued security and our liberalism was cautious and measured and our social structures and mores oppressive. Then we were egalitarian. Then we kept out the world, except for mother England and, in smaller doses, Uncle Sam. Then we had many answers and not many questions.
So let’s start our consideration of politics in 1949. That’s the year Sir Sidney Holland beat Peter Fraser and the first National government took office. Over the next 35 years National trounced Labour 29-6. In the 50 years after 1949 the score was 38-12.
Holland and Sir Keith Holyoake who followed him and won four elections on the trot had some help. Economic growth averaged around 4% for their first 15 years. The Labour party was ageing, unimaginative and defensive, at least until Norman Kirk took over in 1965 and it took him and his new-generation front bench five years after that to get traction. And National applied the lessons it learnt from Labour in the 1930s to very good effect: its huge membership wove a web of contacts right through society that kept the leadership in touch and a wide cross-section of voters in the tent.
But there was one other ingredient to Holland’s and Holyoake’s success and to my mind it was crucial. They got the language right for the times. They took over Labour’s welfare state and they loosened it a bit. They added “freedom” to “security”.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that a word is everything. If a party gets the language right, that is not because focus groups have thrown up a keyword or two and in any case focus groups hadn’t been invented in 1949. What I am saying is that Holland and Holyoake got the “tone” right. They got the policy mix about right. It struck a chord deep in the electorate.
The third quarter of the twentieth century was the triumph of a sort of liberalism that promoted modest extensions of freedom and by today’s standards National’s reforms were extremely modest underpinned by policies that assured almost everyone in society a place in it. This was encapsulated in Sir John then just plain Jack Marshall’s maiden speech in 1947: social security combined with property-owning personal freedom. Few in Holland’s or Holyoake’s cabinets (including the Prime Ministers themselves) gave a fig for Marshall’s book learning or for political philosophy in general and they certainly did not own up to abstract thoughts of their own. Nevertheless, Marshall’s speech accurately typecast the government National became through the quarter-century after 1949. Holyoake’s rallying cry at elections and National party gatherings was “fellow freedom fighters”.
It didn’t last. The economy faltered: our export-earning power dropped by a third between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. And National got on the wrong side of two revolutions. The first was what the Americans call the “values” revolution of the 1960s, in which a new generation reared in security demanded vastly more freedom than a Ralph Hanan or a Tom Shand could even dream of. Then in the 1980s National was on the wrong side of an economic revolution coupled with a revolution of independence which that new generation imposed.
In response to the desperate drop in terms of trade National turned to a security-obsessed “ordinary bloke” populist, Sir Robert Muldoon. Thus, at the very time when the balance in political discourse was tilting heavily from “security” to “freedom”, National marooned itself as the “security” party. Liberals deserted in droves, the party fell into serious disrepair.
Then in response to the 1980s revolution, National swung to the other extreme the free-market radicalism of Ruth Richardson. That also damaged the party.
In fact, even though National won five of the seven elections after 1975, three were shams and another a near-sham: a smaller vote than Labour in 1978 and 1981, saved narrowly in 1993 only by Labour’s disintegration and in 1996 only because Winston Peters betrayed voters who thought he intended to tip National out. Even the win in 1990 owed a lot to the fact that Labour had blasted “security” in the white heat of “freedom” and in the process blasted its core vote. That in effect left a vacuum on the centre-left through the 1990s. National was a government of default rather than a government of active choice.
That’s the problem with revolutions. A revolution is not an act of representative democracy. It does great damage to pre-revolutionary loyalties and structures. If you doubt that, ask how we got MMP and what that has done to parties and politics. Ask about Maori politics: people who once would have been called “radical activists” now sit in Parliament and even in the ministry. Ask why the leader and deputy leader of National’s coalition partner for 2002, ACT, are former Labour cabinet ministers and two more ACT MPs, Stephen Franks and Rodney Hide, come originally from the left. Ask where Winston Peters and Michael Laws and Bruce Cliffe and John Robertson went in the 1990s. Ask how a liberal-conservative party like National could give a true-believing radical like Ruth Richardson her head and then shack up with Alamein Kopu. Ask why the National governments in the 1990s in a decade of stronger economic growth than either of the two preceding decades were so fissiparous and insecure. Whatever happened to Jack Marshall’s liberal-conservatism?
But the revolution is now well and truly over. The turmoil that follows in the immediate aftermath of a revolution is ending. There is now the opportunity for some politics of consolidation. The prize for a major party might be dominance of the next 20 years, as Holland and Holyoake dominated the 20 years after 1949.
And Labour has a head start. In 1999 Labour beat National hollow by promising to add “security” to “freedom”. This has a beautiful symmetry with National’s manoeuvre exactly 50 years earlier which brought it such electoral riches.
Of course, Labour did not in 1999 put it the way I just have. In the election Labour talked not of freedom but of opportunity and fairness (in addition to security). But neither did Holland in 1949 talk much about security. That was taken as a given. In the same way freedom was taken as a given in 1999 after 15 years of government policies dedicated to that notion. So in very loose terms you can interpret Labour’s election pitch in 1999 as adding “security” to “freedom” the neat opposite of Holland’s addition of “freedom” to “security”.
And the electorate by and large so far likes the recipe.
The electorate also likes Helen Clark’s strong and decisive leadership. There is nothing quite like strong leadership to underpin a “security” pitch. National should know: Sir Robert Muldoon successfully combined the two in his early years. Holland’s tough treatment of watersiders in 1951 gave National breathing space to bed in its new political tone. Helen Clark’s style of leadership has likewise given Labour a window of opportunity to set the tone for the 2000s and potentially even claim the political language of the next 20 or 25 years.
This is something I didn’t anticipate in 1999. I understood Helen Clark’s inner strength, reinforced by the rough time she had in her first three years as leader of the Opposition. But I did not foresee that inner strength developing into the dominant prime ministership we now have.
I did think then that Jenny Shipley and Bill English in their different ways were closer to the average New Zealander’s value-set than their blue-stocking opponent whose politics were learnt in the university, not on the street. And that seemed to be borne out last year when Helen Clark let Treaty of Waitangi issues get her offside with her own core vote and put Labour briefly behind National in the polls.
The treaty schemozzle was compounded last year by a combination of economic slowdown in the first six months and business outrage at the Employment Relations Bill in its original form. Labour seemed by September to be coming badly adrift from its core constituency. And a party that loses its core constituency loses elections: remember Sir John Marshall’s 1972 and Sir Robert Muldoon’s 1984. And recall 1990 for a lesson on the Labour side.
Last year’s opinion poll dip indicates that Labour can easily lose the plot, that there is plenty for National to play for over the next 18 months and the decade beyond.
But the government’s opinion poll rise since then demonstrates also that Labour learns. Or, rather, that Helen Clark does. An important ingredient in the strength of her prime ministership is her adaptability. She has considerably repaired relations with business, to the point where at the very least a repeat of last year’s outrage is highly unlikely and there is a real prospect of productive cooperation. She reversed out of “closing the gaps” at high speed. She is quick to scotch developments, both within her government and outside, that are potentially damaging to the government’s standing: her surgical treatment of ministers who get into difficulties is a case in point; her decisiveness in ending the standoff with Dover Samuels is another. Helen Clark is clinical, coolly efficient, with no room for sentiment when votes are at stake. There has been no one like her since Peter Fraser.
To say this is not to be a quisling, as one prankish National MP is wont to assert, doing himself and his party no credit. It is to record accurately the evolution of a highly intelligent and very forceful Prime Minister one who is determined to get three terms in government to establish as the political norm a distinctively Labour sort of policy environment. If National is to mount a real contest for command of the decade ahead, it needs to get over its paddy at being beaten by someone it underestimated.
Of course, it is possible Helen Clark will trip herself up. First, she tries to control too much. Second, there is a fine line between strength and bullying which she has overstepped several times this year and Sir Robert Muldoon’s bullying did for him in the end. Third, cynical policy reversals have a limited ration before hackles start to rise. Fourth, she will find it very difficult to deliver on public expectations, especially in a second term (if she gets one) and especially in health care. Fifth, the community service card fiasco shows that the Labour and Alliance leaderships do not have at the top of their minds the low-to-average-income working families who are their core vote. Sixth, the low 39% Labour got in 1999 illustrates the weakness of the glue between it and that core vote.
Moreover, any party, whether Labour or National or some other emergent force, which aims to emulate the Holland/Holyoake political ascendancy must do that against the background of a far more turbulent and fragmented society and a more precarious economy. These are conditions that will periodically fuel populist surges that do not fit the cosy two-sided scenario that has emerged over the past three years. And there is a fair probability that at some point this decade or next the Maori electorates, if they are left in existence, will fall to a nationalist movement that is also outside that cosy duality and, if so, it will almost certainly hold the balance of power, since the Maori electorates will grow to eight sometime this decade or early next.
Yet predictability and stability are exactly what a large portion of the electorate, discombobulated by revolution at home and globalisation abroad, now yearns for. It was this that led me before the last election to expect that the 2000s would be a race between a sort of moderately reforming right conservatism which Bill English was enunciating best on your side and a left conservatism into which I expected a Clark-led government to settle.
I still think that. But it doesn’t tell us much about the two options. And National and Labour are not helping us much to divine the options.
Labour came to office with little forward vision. Its 1999 campaign was essentially to undo parts of the 1990s, coupled with environmentalism. If Labour is to repeat the Holland-Holyoake feat, it is going to have to delve deeper into the political lexicon. Steve Maharey earnestly read the new social democratic texts, the “third way” tracts, but few of his colleagues have. They are not a theoretical lot, even the boss herself with her political scientist’s training. So if Labour is to command the language of politics through this decade and next it must do so in office not easy to do if the deep preparatory thinking has not been done in opposition.
National is in opposition so it can indulge in the luxury of deep preparatory thinking if it is of a mind to do so. There were glimmerings of a way forward in the “barber shop quartet” the English/Smith/Sowry/Ryall show in 1999 but that fizzled out. I have yet to see evidence of that sort of forward thinking now.
I don’t propose to try to second-guess what, if any, commanding political language National or Labour might come up with. But I will note two gleaming possibilities that either could run with.
One is devolution, the cooption of or cooperation with people and organisations outside the government to devise policy ideas and deliver social services and, when applied to the private sector, to develop the economy.
This is neither a “left” nor a “right” idea. It is a response to the constraints of globalisation on national governments and to the fragmentation of society in a consumerist age that requires customisation of government services just as much as of private sector goods and services. Logically, Labour should find this harder than National, simply because Labourites (at least those over 40) are instinctive centralisers. And, true to that form, Steve Maharey, in setting out to develop a framework for government dealings with the “voluntary sector”, initially tried to get a national agreement which has proved impracticable and actually is an oxymoron. But National, when it had the opportunity to write the rules for devolution, got lost in the intricacies of contracting, which sucked the life out of what should be rich and productive relationships.
The second gleaming possibility is what is loosely called “partnership”. This is a misleading notion when applied to government because a central government can never be a true equal with any lesser agency. But a government which develops working relationships with a wide range of private sector, non-government and local voluntary groups and individuals over a period of a couple or three terms might gain an unbeatable advantage over its opposition. That would be the modern parallel to National’s extensive web of the 1950s and 1960s.
In both of these areas, Labour is ahead of National. This is partly simply because it is in office and is starting to take the opportunities for example, with business that are open to it. It is also because it has done more thinking on these possibilities than National.
And Labour has another advantage. It has the Greens. One of the tricks of the National governments of 40 and 50 years ago was to marry “liberal” to “conservative”: that is, it pointed to the future. New Zealand’s Greens are of the dark green variety, to the left of the Alliance. But their championship of environmental issues and associated issues such as food safety are forward-looking: centimetre by centimetre governments, even of a National stripe, have edged down that environmental route and now global warming is making environmentalism respectable, including even in economic policy. Labour’s own natural greenness and its association with the Greens give it the sort of advantage Ralph Hanan and Tom Shand, as reforming liberals, gave Holyoake’s National party.
Moreover, Holland and Holyoake showed dominance can be achieved on relatively narrow electoral margins. MMP, if anything, might well accentuate that, if voters get used to electing parties which they know will fit into a particular part of the governing or opposition spectrum and thus voting for incremental change to the colour-mix of Parliament as distinct from voting a government in or out. A party which establishes primacy now might be able to survive in government through quite long periods and even some electoral turbulence and perhaps better than under the old FPP system. If MMP evolves as have the northern European systems on which it is modelled, it will dampen, not accentuate, swings.
Labour also has an advantage right now in the electoral arithmetic. It has stronger supporting partners. The average difference between Labour’s lead over National and the left parties’ lead over the right parties’ during the past 18 months has been 4%-plus. That might well be a determining factor on its own in getting Labour a second term.
If I have to guess right now, the party more likely among the big two to get into a pole position is Labour. “Freedom” added to “security” in 1949; “security” added to “freedom” in 1999. But then the National party might be about to prove me wrong. Who knows? I don’t.