Fairness is a good word, is it not? A core value of this egalitarian society of ours? Maybe not.
The Labour party claims a political monopoly on fairness. That is what the party was set up to bring about, what it created the welfare state and passed workplace laws to deliver.
More recently Labour has added “opportunity” to get “fairness and opportunity”. How’s that for a mouthful?
Not very convincing, actually. It may sound worthy in a Labour party seminar but it’s mush in the real world.
And that is important. Language is one of the most important weapons of politics. A party which owns the right words and phrases also wins ownership of the votes.
This is especially important for large parties which aim to lead governments and need 40 per cent-plus of the votes. They need their catchphrases to be the ones most citizens subconsciously associate with the way they think about life and living.
The National party has fluffed that challenge over the past decade. That is part of the reason for its electoral weakness and its difficulty now getting traction.
Meantime Labour is adopting words and phrases which used to be National’s or are close substitutes: “family”, “balance”, “work” for beneficiaries, “the ownership society” (National had the “property-owning democracy”), a “diverse” (“national”) party not subservient to any one sector.
This is no accident. Labour has done much work on “values”. Its latest credit card features four: “fair and inclusive”; “creative and innovative”; “competent government”; “proud of Kiwis”. Expect Labour’s campaign to pump these themes in the election.
Labour claims its four values are “Kiwi values”. But are they?
Let’s start with that soggy phrase, “fairness and opportunity”. Compress those two ideas and you get “fair go”.
That is much closer to a core value than “fairness”.
A core value is one which the great majority of the population hold instinctively, without having to think about it. It is part of the fundamental glue in the society.
“Fair go” has long been such a watchword in this society.
“Fair go” is not the fairness collectivists such as Labour MPs crave: everybody “equal” or at least “equalisable” with state help.
“Fair go” is foremost an individualist notion: I should have as good a chance as possible to get on in life and do the things I want to do. Other people, including bureaucrats, should not get in the way.
It is in that sense that this society is egalitarian: there are supposed to be no arbitrary barriers, as, for example, class is in Britain. Everyone gets a fair go. And each individual’s expectation that others get a fair go, too, is an integral part of the individual’s own fair go. Fair’s fair.
And hence the welfare state: you can’t get a fair go without a decent education and decent health care — and help when you can’t help yourself. Labour has a soft phrase for that: social justice. New Zealanders see it much more pragmatically — and they resent those who don’t try hard enough or settle for a life on benefits.
Which brings us to National.
The reach of “fair go” is such that both Labour and National could own it if either had a mind to. That is what you would expect of a core value.
If you can easily get from “fairness and opportunity” to “fair go”, you can also easily get there by adding “freedom” to fairness”. In demanding a fair go, individuals are demanding freedom as much as they are demanding fairness.
That should be — and once was –made to order for National, which has generally favoured (though not always practised) lower and flatter taxes and less onerous regulation than Labour.
National’s scepticism of “political correctness” is also in tune with the tenor of “fair go” — though less than National sometimes thinks, given the poll majorities for prostitution reform and civil unions. Minorities, too, it seems, should have a “fair go” in modern, liberal New Zealand, provided they are not too way out.
Are burka-wearing muslim women too way-out a minority? Probably, not least because they run foul of what has become another core value: equality for women. Our practice of that equality falls short of our preaching but over the past 40 years it has probably become an integral part of the national “fair go”.
So, will we see on billboards this September “A fair go for all”? Probably not. It’s too down-to-earth for today’s snazzy political marketers.