Quality of life: a challenge to National's policymakers

The economy — so far — is refusing to lie down to order for a National win in 2008.

Of course, there are plenty of economic numbers to give Don Brash, Bill English and John Key reason to think that households will start to hurt later this year and thus that the polls will shift their way and build a lead too long for Helen Clark, Michael Cullen and Phil Goff to claw back.

But, with Australia motoring, the United States chugging along, China overheated and Japan and parts of Europe looking up, there are also economic numbers which suggest households might just slide through the slowdown without enough pain to turn voters off the government.

So National could do with other reasons for people to vote for it.

In any case there are lessons from the 2005 election to apply, as delegate Cam Calder noted to the party’s northern regional conference on Saturday: women and young people as groups were “lukewarm” about National.

To appeal to them Calder promoted a remit for “the creation of a genuine progress indicator to measure the true wealth of our society”.

“GDP is useful but flawed as a measure of society’s wellbeing,” he argued.

Echoing long-ago National MP Marilyn Waring, now an international authority on the topic, he noted that “the more car crashes, patients receiving Prozac, trees cut down, fish caught there are, the faster the economy grows as measured by GDP.

“Counting the unsustainable depletion of our wealth as a positive is simply bad accounting.”

Instead of this indiscriminate equality of positives and negatives, he wanted such phenomena as security, equity, free time, voluntary work, educational attainment and the environment counted in as indicators of wellbeing.

I had to pinch myself to check that this was the National party and not the Labour party’s conference across town.

Actually, I had to pinch myself at Labour’s show too because it was politely debating remits backing reasonable smacking and conservative amendments to the Civil Union Act.

Those remits were lost by substantial majorities. But not so long ago the proponents would have been howled down as well as voted down. The conservatives, who included Pacific islanders and Indians, were treated respectfully.

This also suggests that at conference delegate level Labour, now well settled in government, may be becoming comfortable with, and in turn attracting, a broader slice of society. When I joked to the person next to me that one young woman speaking to a remit sounded “like a Dio” (Diocesan) girl, I was informed she was in fact just that.

There have always been strays from the gentry in Labour ranks. But it does appear the party may be broadening a little after 15 years of political correctness. (A joke remit was passed calling for the eradication of National’s political correctness eradicator, Wayne Mapp. Mapp, meanwhile, back at the other show, delivered his best-argued case yet for his job.)

Calder’s remit was lost too, about two to one on the voices. But not long ago I doubt he would have had half so polite a hearing.

He was not the only surprise. Party stalwart Toni Millar, speaking on a name suppression remit, revealed the (profoundly disturbing) nub of the suppressed evidence from the Louise Nicholas case. Then justice spokesman Richard Worth, while not endorsing Millar’s action, said the case had given “cause for serious concern”. And a number of delegates bustled up to congratulate Millar in the tea room later.

Was this the rule-of-law party I was at?

Calder’s opening salvo for his remit was that National needs to demonstrate to the electorate that it is “the party of strategic visionaries”.

That was a step too far. But Calder did have another point, especially when he talked of sustainable development of the environment, as he put it.

Just as a true broad-church centre-left party cannot be state-first-and-last, a true broad-church centre-right party cannot be growth-first-and-last. Chinese levels of pollution are not many Nationalists’ ambition.

Instead, space is needed for “quality of life” somewhere in the bundle of policies a major party takes to voters.

The Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) is arguing exactly this to parties. And it may have a point, if the economy doesn’t plunge, race continues to ease as an issue and social services are not highly contentious despite lapses.

Most voters would say GDP-type growth is a vital (the main?) ingredient of quality of life. But surveys for the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board and recently for the BCSD indicate there are additional dimensions to voters’ assessment of their wellbeing and of parties’ proposals to enhance wellbeing.

“Socialism by stealth,” one of Calder’s opponents called his remit. But if quality of life is what voters signal, who is the National party to gainsay them?

Now there is a conundrum for John Key to tackle in one of his future speeches. Asia, his guide in Saturday’s speech, is not much help (yet) on this stuff.