An election to mark the end of the great liberal wave?

Don Brash’s quaint, or disingenuous, comment on being courteous towards a belligerent Helen Clark was not just gender politics. It took us into a branch of one of the deep contexts of this election, our very liberal society.

The branch Brash touched on is civility. In our sorts of societies the rules by which we rub along have frayed, or seem to have. Deference, respect and courtesy seem to have vanished into “me”-centred consumerism.

Of course, there always have been louts and rowdies. In the 1969 election Vietnam protesters shouted down the Prime Minister, so what’s different when TVNZ’s hoonish “debate” audience abuses the Prime Minister now? Television is, after all, primarily entertainment, the shrine of consumerism.

Alternatively, the modern left-liberal argues, civility is a mask for repression. Free expression is more honest than fixed rules, even if less comfortable. Repression hides other social sins and ills. What seems uncivil to some is to others openness and liberation.

Put that way, the decline of manners is an element of the great civil and moral liberalisation of the past 40 years. There has been a revolution of values.

This was a very tightly corseted society in the 1960s. Now nearly anything goes, thanks to the very generation who shouted down Sir Keith Holyoake in 1969 and then revolutionised the economy and value system in the 1980s.

One driver has been individualistic self-indulgence, a demand to be free of constraints in “private” life — more libertarian than liberal. (Some argue for similarly minimal constraints on economic life.)

Another driver has been social democrats’ traditional desire to even up life-chances. The early Labour party aimed to do that for wage-workers by putting the state’s power at their elbow. From the 1970s the Labour party has applied that principle to other “disempowered” groups: women, ethnic minorities, Maori, homosexuals. The Civil Union Act is the most recent example of such removal of discrimination.

What remains on the agenda of this two-pincer movement? Right-to-die, transgender and cannabis laws? Less censorship? The word from the Labour party is that a limit has been reached , at least for this coming term of Parliament. In 2003 Michael Cullen admonished the Labour conference not to get too far ahead of its core voters’ understanding and tolerance.

He had a point. Wage-workers, once Labour’s core vote, are no longer locked in. A much higher proportion of “blue collars” now vote National than 30 years ago when Sir Robert Muldoon first attracted the conservatives among them.

The shorthand in this election for this disconnect is “political correctness” — a sense that policy is being written for small or unrepresentative groups.

So, while polls suggest there have been majorities for each of the recent civil and moral liberalisations, including the Civil Union Act, overall there appears to be a growing unease at the resultant cumulative moral and civil change.

One result is a small but growing political movement for a return to civil and moral conservatism, evident in the Christian wing of United Future, the now-wounded Christian Heritage and more recently Destiny, the Destiny Church’s offshoot party. At the centre of this is a search for a way back to a society based on what is believed to be the traditional family, often an idealised version of the 1950s nuclear family.

This has an ethnic dimension. Destiny may well peel some Maori off Labour. The Maori party has taken some conservative moral positions. National candidates Indian Ravi Masuku and Samoan Fepulea�i Ulua�ipou-O-Malo Aiono say Labour is out of step with their communities’ civil/moral conservative preferences.

Those candidates illustrate what looks like the beginnings of a shift within the National party. Note its MPs’ constant attacks on “political correctness”. Note liberal Don Brash’s hasty shift on the Civil Union Bill mid-passage and liberal John Key’s vote against. Note Brash’s adoption of John Howard’s line on immigrants and refugees: they must fit in with “our” values.

Howard’s governing Liberal party consciously pitches (dog-whistles) to moral conservatives with keywords of the religious right, which now has one Senate seat. The Liberals also reflect an attenuated version of some of the right’s policy preferences.

Might civil/moral conservatives here in time come to operate a similar long lever through the National party? No one knows. But it is at least possible that this election is on the cusp of a general reversal from liberalisation to a conservative track, that this is one of the election’s deep undercurrents.

If so, what is that undercurrent’s wellspring? Cultural security: “What’s happening to my country?” We are used to examining elections in terms of economic, social and physical security. Cultural security is now firmly part of the mix.

And that takes us, in next week’s column, to Maori rights and development, the election’s deepest undercurrent.