MMP equals more mongrel parties

The election was marked by a binge auction, heavily negative campaigning and racial divisiveness. That is an uncomfortable legacy.

The primary governmental need now after the nastiest election in decade is to find a basis for reunification. There is no consensus, such as underpinned the 1950s-60s prosperity and long period of settled rule by National.

Sir Robert Muldoon and Sir Roger Douglas ripped up that consensus, Muldoon by ruthlessly attacking opponents and even mild dissidents, Douglas by ripping up the protected economy which sheltered hundreds of thousands of jobs and livelihoods.

Two large forces added to the divisions.

One was the changing world economy, which would at some point have forced us at least a fair distance down Douglas’s path. That divided generation from generation. The other was the rise of Maori, their claims to redress and a place in the power structure and the largely sympathetic policy responses to those claims. That divided Maori from non-Maori.

To which might be added the enhancement of minority groups’ rights by the Clark governments. In the 1970s and 1980s the Labour party was colonised by groups — most prominently Maori, women and homosexuals — hoping Labour would do the same for them as it once had for the working class: even up their life chances.

Labour responded, thinking it was thereby uniting society. But others saw it as “political correctness”. So the initiatives may actually have sharpened divisions between the newly de-stigmatised groups and many among those who see themselves as the majority. That leaves this and future governments and Parliaments the delicate task of finding a new durable balance.

The economic division has now largely healed, in part thanks to a buoyant economy (itself in part due to the Douglas reforms) and in part due to the Clark governments’ modifications of economic policy settings.

But the division of Maori from non-Maori will pose a daunting challenge — perhaps, if mishandled, for a number of terms hence.

Clark’s challenge over the past six years was to contain the Maori push for control over government-funded social services to Maori, a larger place in the power structure and special status as indigenous people while at the same time building Maori capacity to use tribal structures to improve management of assets and deliver social services.

In essence she failed in near-impossible conditions. After the Appeal Court decision on the foreshore and seabed, Don Brash’s Orewa I speech in January 2004 drove a wedge between a puzzled or angry white majority and the Maori minority continuing the rights push.

This “race” issue was Brash’s most effective weapon in the election campaign. It restored party membership, morale and money in 2004 and sharply boosted poll ratings after he returned to the theme on 29 August. He claimed to be fighting against “racial separatism” by insisting on “one law for all”. But the result was to heighten tensions and, if anything, to drive people into corners. That included moderate Maori.

In almost any other country this wouldn’t matter too much. But in New Zealand the relationship between the majority and the indigenous people does matter.

Maori are a large and relentlessly growing proportion of the workforce and increasing numbers of Maori do feel Maori, even if they are only one-eighth. If mechanisms are not found to improve their educational and economic performance and their social outcomes, the whole nation’s social cohesion and economic performance will be suboptimal. This would not be good for profits.

An important ingredient in doing well is to have high aspirations and self-confidence. People in corners don’t often exhibit those characteristics.

How did we get to this pass? An important element of the propaganda for MMP was that it would be a more inclusive system. Instead, the campaign turned feral early on.

This was not just between Labour and National, sparked by National’s attack billboards. National turned the blowtorch on Winston Peters in Tauranga; ACT went for Richard Worth in Epsom; a pamphleteer who chose National-blue for his trademark spread a pack of lies about the Greens; Labour scarified Maori voters leaning towards the Maori party with an improbable line that a vote for that party would bring about a Brash government; the Greens and United Future went at it hammer and tongs.

The lesson from the election is that MMP has not made politics nicer. It has just produced more parties to attack each other and made them more mongrel. The challenge for the new Parliament is to undo that damage.