A big election challenge: making a cohesive society

The Greens’ billboards make two pitches: “Vote for me, the planet” and “Vote for me/us, the future of humanity”. Which message is relevant to the election?

The planet’s future is assured: life will go on, even if humans make their habitat uninhabitable. The planet needs no votes.

The future of the human species is not assured. That is the message of the Greens’ billboards featuring children.

It is the human dimension that is relevant to voters. Talking about the “planet” or, as Helen Clark does, about “sustainability” resonates with few voters. “Sustainability” is a cloudy concept, not a catchy call to arms. The planet is impersonal.

Politics for most voters is personal. The personal is day-to-day and local, not eternal and global. It is about having enough of life’s necessaries and a fair share of the desirables.

So, except for a few, the environment is essentially a social issue: an ingredient in a cohesive, healthy and prosperous society. But it is seen more often as a cost than a benefit — and as something removed from everyday life. More proximate matters dominate social issues politics.

One is law and order: personal safety.

Overall crime figures have fallen this decade but — in part because of reporting changes and a tighter focus on domestic violence, which police say accounts for all of the past year’s rise — violent crime figures have risen.

So there is a widespread sense that murder, rape and brutality are rampant and that that is in part driven by a drug culture which is also out of control. It doesn’t soothe public opinion that a store owner attacked by young thugs was himself charged by police for taking action most would join Rodney Hide in applauding.

The result: after nine years of the most repressive government in decades, which has filled prisons to overflowing, it is common to hear voters stating crime as the principal reason for switching from Labour to National. It is therefore no surprise that National’s actually rather liberal Simon Power has put far more effort into his law and order role than into his commerce role.

Next, health care: National’s Tony Ryall has made much hay out of the persistence of hospital shortcomings despite Labour-led governments’ truckloads of money. New minister David Cunliffe has injected a more strategic dimension into health policy but too late to counter effectively Ryall’s hyped charge that a self-bloating bureaucracy is depriving the ill of frontline treatment.

Next: who poured money into trades training after neglect in the 1990s? Clark’s governments. Nevertheless, there is a widespread sense that kids aren’t getting the basics and employers aren’t getting the trained staffs they need. Education is a big issue with parents and grandparents: Labour’s attentiveness to students’ finances had trans-generational appeal in 2005.

Next: Treaty of Waitangi settlements and Maori wellbeing. Michael Cullen has rung up deals on claims like an ice-cream vendor on a hot day and dumped barrels of money into benefits and other assistance. Yet the Maori party claims Labour is anti-Maori and flirts with National and Chris Finlayson, one of National’s sharpest minds, insists he will “speed up” settlements if minister. Really?

Next: migration. Labour has tightened the rules, focused more tightly on jobs and put a bill into Parliament making it harder to claim refugee status. But Winston Peters can still rev up oldies with the spectre of a flood of immigrants snatching jobs and skewing our society.

Next: poverty. Michael Cullen told Agenda on Sunday his greatest achievement was to reduce the numbers of the poor: “I have no trouble with people being wealthy. I have trouble with people being poor,” he said — classic Labour. He has poured money into offsetting disadvantage and into Working for Families tax credits. Yet anti-poverty campaigners routinely assail the government. And Labour gets little recognition for refocusing beneficiaries on work.

Next: social engineering. Helen Clark has pushed up to the limits of majoritarian liberalism. She mishandled the politics of the Greens’ Sue Bradford’s bill removing the reasonable force defence for adults who whack children.

Labour’s raison d’etre is social policy. But at the end of its third term it is struggling on its own turf. Dun and Bradstreet’s John Scott last week pinpointed the issue: the tightening economy has “hit the family budgets of certain demographics more than others.”

Karia Porou, Kaiti school board of trustees chair, unfazed by John Key’s populist promise of schooling “standards” last week, said she “would like him to see the reality of what we have to deal with. It’s social problems we have here. It’s a lot bigger than reading and writing.”

It’s a matter of belonging and feeling you or your children can make good. Too many now don’t. That is at the heart of this election.

* Next week: Wild swings in world finance and in oil and commodity prices: our economic challenge and opportunity.